From functional furniture to ornate detailing, woodworking encompasses a wide range of traditions. Many styles are regionally distinctive–though not exclusive–as carvers migrated and continued practicing their craft. Norwegian woodcarving in particular has a long history with many styles, spanning acanthus carving, stave churches, kubbestols, ale bowls, and more. This range of styles is practiced by a shrinking number of practitioners in Norway. But a growing group of artists are preserving, teaching, learning, and reviving these techniques in Minnesota and across the Upper Midwest. The Minnesota area was already home to Indigenous groups, such as the Dakota Sioux and Ojibwe, before settlers from the Nordic countries immigrated in the 1800s and 1900s. Today, some are choosing to connect to their own heritage or engage with the region’s cultural history by learning and practicing different styles of woodcarving. While many carvers choose to specialize, Lowell Torkelson of Willmar, Minnesota, has committed to learning a variety of carving styles.
Lowell was born on a farm north of Kerkhoven, Minnesota, and his Norwegian heritage was at the center of his childhood and upbringing. His parents spoke Norwegian when visiting his aunts and uncles and Lowell picked up bits of the language himself. He traveled to Norway with his family in 2005 and again in 2008 to visit his great-grandparents’ home region and was enamored with some of the artwork he saw there. He had some previous experience with woodcarving, but when he received a book about flat-plane carving as a gift, it sat on a shelf for years. He didn’t pick it up again until after retiring, at which point he decided carving might be worth pursuing.
He began with an introductory course in acanthus carving with Else Bigton and Phillip Odden of Norsk Wood Works in Barronett, Wisconsin, “So that I wouldn’t pick up any bad habits,” he says. Shortly after his first class he took another in Scandinavian flat-plane carving at the Milan Village Arts School in Minnesota and later studied at Vesterheim in Decorah, Iowa. Lowell’s repertoire now has a range of Nordic styles like carving kubbestols, and non-Nordic styles such as relief carving and wood burning.
The carving club Lowell regularly participates in offers another avenue for expanding and refining his skillset, in addition to a space to meet with friends and compare projects. As Lowell says, “Probably more people that come to woodcarving club are sort of trying to learn and see different things.”
The club sometimes hosts other artists to teach classes, which is often less expensive than traveling to attend a class at a folk school or other center.
That way it’s a lot cheaper, you don’t have to pay for housing. And usually they don’t charge very much when they come to the local club. It’s a fun hobby, it costs a little bit of money, but it’s probably a lot cheaper than fishing where you got to buy a $20,000 boat.
NORDIC TRADITIONAL STYLES
While some carvers immerse themselves in one style, others like Lowell prefer to broaden their repertoires in different styles and techniques. Since that first class in the acanthus style, he has taken classes in many Nordic carving styles such as kolrosing, flat-plane carving, and kroting (among others).
TOOLS OF THE TRADE
Each of these techniques requires specific tools, and Lowell didn’t have any before attending his first class. He purchased eight gauges to get through his first acanthus carving course and has slowly added more gauges and knives to his toolset since.
Mastering these varied techniques requires patience, persistence, and a lot of practice.When asked about his expansive repertoire of styles, Lowell comments that, “Well, it’s fun to learn something different.” This curiosity has motivated him to continue taking classes and refresher courses.
While he has experience in a range of styles, much of Lowell’s work has been in acanthus and flat-plane carving. The two are very different techniques, though both have a long tradition of practice in Norway. Lowell says that he hasn’t adapted his technique too much, though will occasionally use a gouge when carving flat-plane– even though it is usually done with a knife.
This choice of tool is one example of how each carver develops their own style over time. An individual style comes with practice. After gaining experience, carvers might even find revisiting their early work a bit entertaining.
LT: .. I could point out some mistakes, but a carver should never point out your mistakes.
JW: Hah, yeah, don’t betray any of your trade secrets there.
LT: The more carving you do, the more you realize how your older pieces probably didn’t look so good. It’s sort of a joke in carving class, ‘this is a five-footer.’ It looks good at five feet, probably not so good at one foot.
Lowell says that carving is a fun hobby that passes the time. There isn’t much you can finish right away and some larger pieces take up to a hundred hours to complete. Some works of acanthus carving in particular can take many hours of concentration. Lowell often uses patterns made by others so that the steps are more straightforward–especially when carving acanthus.
Acanthus carving, I glue the pattern onto the wood. And then follow the lines, and carve the wood away that doesn’t belong to the carving.
Lowell comments that acanthus is probably his favorite style of carving. It has a history stretching back to the 1600s and Lowell describes it as the rosemaling of carving; each piece consists of a series of ornate C- and S-patterns.
Acanthus carving is pretty much like rosemaling, except it’s in the wood. You got the C-style pattern, C and S. If you look at an acanthus, you can see C’s and S’s in there. And supposedly in the 1600s there was either a vase or something sitting on the ground and this acanthus plant grew up around it. And the architects at the time thought that looked nice, so they started using that in architecture.
These tools and techniques are quite different from those used when carving flat-plane. Alternating between the two can offer a nice change of pace during a long carving session.
Sometimes I alternate between doing the acanthus and flat-plane carving. Pretty much stand for carving acanthus. And I sit when I'm carving flat-plane. That way you stand a couple hours then sit a couple hours. Between coffee breaks.Lowell Torkelson
When Lowell does flat-plane carving he often follows others’ patterns, but sometimes carves a figure based on an image or photograph. He explains, “It’s called flat-plane carving because it’s a series of flat planes that give it the illusion of being round.”
To start a project he takes a square piece of wood, roughly 2.5 inches square by 5 inches. He then cuts two sides out on the bandsaw and carves it in the round.
Lowell gives much of his work away and has gifted close to fifty flat-plane carvings to family members. He also enters competitions and notably won a ribbon in the Vesterheim National Norwegian-American Folk Art Exhibition for his acanthus clock. For Lowell, woodcarving has become a fun hobby that passes the time. He spends much of the winter carving but hardly ever carves in the summertime because as Lowell says, “I like to be outside, monkey around when it’s nice outside.”
The number of classes Lowell has taken, the time he has invested in his work, and the range of styles he works in is an impressive demonstration of his dedication and skill. His work underscores the many avenues of expression within woodcarving, but it also shows how woodcarving can be used as a means of connection. For Lowell, what started as a means to connect to his Norwegian heritage became a way to connect with friends at a local carving club. By practicing his craft and newfound hobby, Lowell is connecting to his heritage, to others, and to a wider Upper Midwestern movement sustaining Scandinavian traditional arts.
By Mirva Johnson
Interview and Photography by Johanna Weissing
Meet the Traveling Traditions Artists
"Well, as I’m getting old especially, anything that I share with other people, a sort of little bit of me lives on. If I’m not able to do it anymore, they’ll continue doing it and expanding on it, and add their originality to it. But I can get people started on things and so on."
"Almost everything is a show and tell sort of process. Mom would show us, then she'd watch us, and then she would let us. So it was kind of one of those things where, 'Ok, I'm watching to see that you're doing that right, and then I'll let you do it.'"