Folk Art & Tradition

Folk and Decorative Arts in Historic Nordic American Churches

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).

Explore Nordic Folk Art

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. Our work focused on churches of Danish, Finnish, Icelandic, Swedish, and Norwegian heritage located in the Dakotas, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Upper Michigan.

Woodwork & Carvers

Most Nordic American wood carvers employed relief carving, either with a flat surface or molded like sculpture. In their new homeland, these artisans had to work in different types of wood—primarily oak and walnut—and were introduced to new ideas and motifs.

Painting & Painters

Nordic American churches often feature altar paintings as the sanctuary’s focal point. Most altar and decorative painting in historic Nordic American churches was based on well-known works by formally trained Western European painters, or on popular European decorative painting styles.

Food, Festival, & Recipes

The Preserve Nordic Heritage Churches Project focuses primarily on architecture and decorative arts. But we also paid attention to food events and associated ethnic celebrations listed on church websites, Facebook pages, and other publications.

Traditional Textiles

While woodcarving was a male art form, traditional textiles were often crafted by women. In general, textiles were produced for practical use, with decorative handwork reserved for special occasions.

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