Woodwork & Carvers

Decorative woodwork is the most important and widespread example of Nordic American folk art found in church settings. Although many churches ordered church furnishings from catalog companies—such as Hallson Icelandic Church’s altar surround from August Klagstad’s company in Minneapolis–a significant number of congregations either commissioned work or used volunteer labor from a fellow church member.

Carvers often came from the immigrant generation. Most males in the rural areas of Nordic Europe learned to make utilitarian wooden objects. Others attended the folk and manual training schools, as well as special carving schools, that proliferated in the region during the nineteenth century. Still others would have apprenticed with carvers in the family or community. Upon emigrating to America, they tended to work in isolation, and, with the exception of a few carvers in the Norwegian acanthus style, their work did not reflect a local or regional folk tradition in their home countries or in America (Henning et al 1978).

Relief Carving: Pulpits, Altars, and Arches

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.

Swedish immigrant William Carlson (born circa 1855) was the primary carpenter-builder for Center City, Minnesota during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He constructed many of the buildings in what is now the Center City National Register Historic District, including his home church of Chisago Lake Lutheran. Carlson applied his considerable woodworking skill to the church interior, including the altar (see photo in the Folk Arts introductory section) and the elaborate elevated pulpit with hood. He crafted a less detailed pulpit for another National Register-listed church—Augustana Lutheran in Claremont, South Dakota—a congregation founded by Swedes who had come to Dakota Territory from Center City and the Chisago Lake church. Carlson hand carved Augustana’s pulpit in Center City and transported it in pieces a distance of 300 miles for final assembly.

Acanthus-Style Carving

The most distinctively Norwegian style of altar carving comes from the acanthus tradition, a type of folk carving, adapted from the Baroque acanthus, that has its roots in the region of Gudbrandsdalen but gradually spread throughout the country (Henning et al. 1978, 13). The work of Knut Lie/Lee (1831-1900) is among the earliest documented examples of acanthus-style carving with direct links to Gudbrandsdalen. During 1866, his first summer in America, he carved an acanthus-style altar for the old Coon Valley Church in Coon Valley, Wisconsin. The surviving side panels are modeled after the eighteenth-century altar in his home church in Øyer, Norway, located in the heart of the Gudbrandsdalen region (Nelson 1995, 90-91). His surviving masterwork was carved for Aal Lutheran Church after the family relocated to Hillsboro, North Dakota. Created in 1883-84, Lee’s altar frame for Aal is a rare example of “the more traditional Norwegian treatment of bold decorative wood graining in deep colors” (Henning et al. 1978, 10). The carved motifs are an interesting mix of old world and new: acanthus with its characteristic high relief, cutting, and open work combined with grape clusters and an eagle, the latter more common in American design.

Stave Church-Style Carving

Stave church reproductions are modern replicas of the most famous type of Nordic folk architecture. Although medieval stave churches (named for their open frame architecture featuring vertical posts [staves]) were once widespread throughout Nordic Europe, more surviving examples are found in Norway. These sculptural wooden buildings, many with layers of peaked roofs, are the region’s most recognizable form of folk architecture, built by skilled artisans using traditional techniques. The so-called stave church or dragon style of carving, which revived and reinterpreted centuries-old motifs, became an influential expression of Norwegian nationalism at the turn of the last century, as Norway sought independence from Sweden. In the United States, stave church replicas express and revive Norwegian American identity (DuBois, 2018, 23).

Carved ship, Immanuel Lutheran Church, Kimballton, Iowa, maker unknown (possibly Jens Rasmussen who handcrafted the pulpit, altar, and communion railing). Photo by Laurie K. Sommers.
Carved ship, Immanuel Lutheran Church, Kimballton, Iowa, maker unknown (possibly Jens Rasmussen who handcrafted the pulpit, altar, and communion railing). Photo by Laurie K. Sommers.

Danish Model Ships

Any overview of Nordic American religious wood carving must include the carved wooden ships found in many Danish Lutheran churches. Originally associated with Catholic churches in Europe, the tradition was adopted by the Danes after the Reformation, where, as a sea-faring nation, ships had special significance. The custom continued among Danish immigrants to America. Ship models hanging from the center aisle ceiling of the nave (the ship-like main part of the sanctuary) have become one of the character-defining features of Danish American Lutheran churches. Many are modeled on eighteenth- or nineteenth-century sailing ships. These models have varied symbolism: commemoration of a loved one lost at sea, safe return home, safe journey across the ocean to America, navigating the storms of life with God’s help, and the transition from this world to the next (Museum of Danish American n.d.; Nielson 2016).

Written by Laurie K. Sommers
Preserving Nordic American Churches Project Manager, 2017-2019

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