FOLK AND DECORATIVE ARTS IN HISTORIC NORDIC AMERICAN CHURCHES
Laurie K. Sommers, Project Manager, Preserve Nordic Heritage Churches Project, 2017-2019
Imagine a pioneer church on the prairie, its steeple a beacon for miles around. Or a church serving workers in the iron and copper mining regions of the Upper Midwest. The exterior is likely clad in wood, or perhaps sheathed with local brick or stone, all crafted by stone masons, carpenters, or brick masons who, as church members, volunteer their time and skill. The bell summons congregants to services that bind them with ties of faith, ethnicity, and community. The building is a place for worship and socializing, but it is also something more. Churches are places where communities invested precious resources in decorative arts that express local aesthetics and heritage through textiles, painting, glass, woodcarving, and metalwork. Some of these decorative arts were purchased from catalogs or commissioned from professional artists and artisans who often were from their same religious and ethnic background. Others were produced by traditional artists and craftspeople whose work more directly expressed community identity and values.
Traditional or folk arts are typically
- Learned through oral tradition, apprenticeship, or example
- Deeply rooted in community life
- Both functional and decorative
- Shared by a group with a common background (such as ethnicity and religion)
- Old or new, but in this project more often the product of immigrant-generation artisans
The traditional artists and artisans who built and decorated these sacred places included church women who lovingly embroidered an altar cloth or pieced a fundraising quilt. They were carpenters who installed wainscoting, built bellcotes, and crafted altars, pulpits, and pews. They were metalsmiths–perhaps blacksmiths by day–who designed weathervanes and the occasional light fixture. They were church members who painted the altar paintings that held places of honor at the front of the sanctuary. These men and women produced work that felt familiar to their friends, neighbors, and fellow worshippers, because they were creating arts and crafts that reflected the community’s culture, identity, and values (as opposed to individual artistic creations intended to be new or unique).
This section of our website includes information on artistry in wood, textiles, and paint found in Nordic American churches surveyed from 2017-2019 by Partners for Sacred Places during the Preserve Nordic Heritage Churches Project. Our work focused on churches of Danish, Finnish, Icelandic, Swedish, and Norwegian heritage located in the Dakotas, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Upper Michigan.