Saturday, May 24, 2014

A Visit to the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum

In early May, Steve and I made our second visit to the Vesterheim Museum located in Decorah Iowa, approximately 350 miles and a day’s drive from Ontonagon, MI.  The Museum specializes in all things Norwegian-American and has outstanding collections of Norwegian woodworking, knifemaking, rosemaling, jewelry and fiber arts including tapestries, rugs, coverlets, lace, fabric and costumes.  Folk art classes are taught year-round at the museum with information provided at the official website

Decorah, Iowa is a beautiful town of about six thousand people with excellent restaurants, a yarn and a quilt shop, food coop, several motels and a beautiful riverside campground, Pulpit Rock, where we stayed both trips.  The campground is an easy walk or bike ride to downtown via a bike trail system between the town, neighborhoods and Luther College.  Luther College was the original owner of most of the museum’s collection of over 24,000 artifacts which it bequeathed to the non-profit Vesterheim Museum Association.  The nationally known Seed Saver’s Exchange is located about 10 miles from town.

During our first visit to Decorah last summer, I picked up a copy of Handweaving in the Norwegian Tradition by Laurann Gilbertson and Carol Colburn which provides an excellent overview of the “cultural, aesthetic and functional purpose” of Norwegian handweaving as portrayed in selected pieces from the Vesterheim’s extensive textile collection.  Due to the fragility of textiles, the Vesterheim has very few on display at any one time at the museum, but I learned that, with an appointment, the museum welcomes artisans, researchers and scholars to come in and view items of interest from their collection.

Laurann Gilbertson, the Vesterheim’s Collections Curator and textile expert, set up a day for me to spend drawing and photographing some of the tapestries from the museum’s archives.  Laurann pulled out several magazines and books from the museum library pertaining to Norwegian Tapestries for me to peruse (some in English, some in Norwegian, but many photos).
I worked in the Vesterheim’s weaving classroom.  On the wall they have a very nice sampler of several Norwegian weaves:
Sampler of Norwegian weaves

They also have a beautiful 60” Cranbrook loom for sale for $400, as it is too big for their studio and they want to get it out in the community and used.

I was particularly interested in viewing tapestries designed by Gerhard Munthe, an artist and illustrator, in the early 1900’s when tapestries were predominantly woven and sold through large tapestry studios in Oslo and Trondheim.  Munthe’s tapestries depict Norwegian folk tales and sagas.  The tapestries are woven in what he described as the “special Norwegian colors” of crimson, red-violet, indigo blue, blue-green, and brass gold.  (all info was provided by Laurann Gilberson’s book or provided by her, although I am responsible for any mistakes).
I drew from two of Munthe’s tapestries, first Little Kjsrsti (1899), the tale of a maiden seduced by the Elf King and taken to the underworld where she was given a potion to forget Norway and make her believe the underworld was her home.  This tale came from the medieval ballad of Lite Kjersti.

Little Kjsrsti (1899)

And check out the purse with the keys for the dungeon (unseen off to the left on the above tapestry section).
Verterheim Little Kjsrsti keys
I also viewed Hjorungavaag, designed by Munthe (1908), from an epic battle at that location in 986
AD between Norwegian forces and Vikings from the Baltic Sea.
The Norwegians called upon the Gods for assistance and the top shows Thor as he is classically depicted with his hammer and riding his chariot drawn by two billy goats.

I also viewed three tapestries by three different weavers, copies of the Baldishol Tapestry, the oldest known tapestry from Norway (12th or early 13th century), which was found under the floorboards of a church. The tapestry depicts April and May scenes as written in the weaving of what is believed to be a series of weavings depicting a full calendar year.
Verterheim Baldishol
It was interesting to note the different weaving styles in the different tapestries.  Although all the tapestries were woven with wool weft on what appeared to be a gold colored seine twine warp, two of the weavers used a linen or similar yarn for the white or off-white portions of the picture.  The difference in material made a nice highlight in surface texture.
Verterheim Baldishol Tapestry detail

The Vesterheim hosts an annual Folk Art Exhibit where artisans are invited to enter art work produced in the Norwegian tradition.  I have one tapestry, “Dreaming Arrows and Lightning” of my princely cat, Bert, which was woven using Norwegian arrows and lightning weaves.  I entered this tapestry for the Folk Art show which will be on display from June 10—July 26 of this year.  I encourage everyone to go down and visit!
Leslie Toombs
Thanks Leslie for contributing to our Blog page for the Buellwood Weavers and fiber Guild in Hancock MI.

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