FinnFest 2023 in Duluth

We’re back from a whirlwind of a trip to Duluth, Minnesota, to celebrate the first in-person FinnFest since 2019. And it was a doozy. Nearly 3,000 people came to the shores of Lake Superior to celebrate Nordic and Nordic American culture and the intersections of immigration and Indigeneity in the region. Artists, scholars, politicians, and community members from around the country came together to learn about and experience Nordic, Sámi, and Native American culture in the Upper Midwest and beyond.

Folklorist Nathan Gibson interviews woodcarver Pekka Olson on stage at FinnFest 2023
Folklorist Nathan Gibson interviews woodcarver Pekka Olson on stage at FinnFest 2023. Photo courtesy of Marcus Cederström.

The Sustaining Scandinavian Folk Arts in the Upper Midwest project was proud to partner with FinnFest to bring 10 artists to Duluth. Alana Maijala, from northern Minnesota, demonstrated the Finnish art of himmeli making and spoke with Dr. Jason Schroeder on stage about her work. Pekka Olson, a retired forester from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, exhibited a wide range of work, including a variety of carvings and woven baskets and even told a couple of Eino and Toivo jokes on stage. Artist, musician, and writer Matthew Durocher  drove from the Upper Peninsula and spoke about jouhikko making, his woodcarving apprenticeship with Pekka Olson, and his new science fiction novel. An in-demand musician, Durocher also performed at an evening dance and joined dozens of other musicians at the FinnFest 2023 jam session.

Folklorist Hilary Virtanen interviews ragrug weaver Lisa Wiitala on stage at FinnFest 2023
Folklorist Hilary Virtanen interviews ragrug weaver Lisa Wiitala on stage at FinnFest 2023. Photo courtesy of Jason Schroeder.

Also from the Upper Peninsula, Lisa Wiitala brought a loom and set-up in the Tori to demonstrate the art of ragrug weaving. She brought with her numerous examples and told the audience about how weaving connects her with her grandmother. LynnAnne Vesper, from northern Minnesota, brought several kantele examples and spoke about the process of building the traditional Finnish instrument while also creating her own style. The wide range of Finnish and Finnish American art forms on display is indicative of the rich traditions that continue to be practiced throughout the region, as they develop and change and are passed along from generation to generation from friend to friend.

Tara Austin sits at her booth in front of her rosemaling at FinnFest 2023
Tara Austin at her booth where she demonstrated the art of rosemaling at FinnFest 2023. Photo courtesy of Jason Schroeder.

FinnFest is more than just Finnish and Finnish American culture though. Honoring the culture, language, and history of all the peoples of the Nordic region, we were excited to host several artists from in and around Duluth. Karen Keenan is a talented artist and teacher who makes Swedish hair jewelry and spoke of her own connections to the traditional art form in Våmhus, Dalarna, Sweden. Talking with attendees, showing pictures, and demonstrating the intricacies of hair jewelry, Keenan showed what makes the art so special. Long-time friend of the project, Tara Austin is a rosemaler who continues to learn, teach, and innovate in a variety of ways. Austin spoke of finding inspiration in the environment that makes northern Minnesota so special and demonstrated the various brush strokes that make rosemaling so special.

While most of the artists spent their time indoors at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center, boat builders John Finkle and Justin Anderson set up camp outside. On a grassy lawn facing Lake Superior, they continued work on a dug-out as part of the Duluth Faering Project, inviting children and adults alike to have a hand in the creation of their next boat.

Finally, Duane Lahti of the Oulu Cultural and Heritage Center helped to organize a tour of northern Wisconsin, specifically Douglas and Bayfield counties, with 45 attendees being introduced to the Finnish American culture of the region. Special thanks also to Jim Pellman for his work on the tour.

Alana Maijala stands in front of the Traveling Traditions exhibition
Alana Maijala stands in front of the Traveling Traditions exhibition. Photo courtesy of Marcus Cederström.

Along with our on-stage interviews, in-person demonstrations, and on-site tours, we were excited to show off our Traveling Traditions exhibition, which features six different artists—three from Wisconsin and three from Minnesota interviewed during by our summer fieldworkers—including Alana Maijala. The traveling tour was originally interrupted by the pandemic, so we are excited to once again be touring this wonderful exhibition (and let us know if you’re interested in hosting!).

It was a weekend full of art, music, culture, and old and new friends alike. Events like these are an important part of our project as we support and amplify the work of Nordic and Nordic American folk artists in the region. In doing so, we hope to improve understanding about our past and our present through immigration, art, and traditional knowledge that is still such an important part of our everyday lives.

Be sure to check out some of the local news coverage featuring several of the artists!

You can also see a couple of our on-stage interviews on the FinnFest Facebook page (but note that the sound, unfortunately, doesn’t kick in for quite a while).

Thanks, as always, to everyone who made this happen, including Marcus Cederström, Tom DuBois, Jim Leary, Jason Schroeder, and Hilary Virtanen. Anna Rue and Erin Teksten were unable to join us in Duluth, but were integral to making this a success.

Folklorists Jason Schroeder and Marcus Cederstrom smile while taking a selfie at FinnFest
Folklorists Jason Schroeder and Marcus Cederström having too much fun at work at FinnFest2023. Photo courtesy of Marcus Cederström.