A Studio Visit: Grete Bodøgaard

By Robbie LaFleur

Creative energy flows through Grete Bodøgaard and into her tapestries, her teaching, and her life.

It flows from the farm fields and towns of South Dakota, as she travels to teach weaving to children, correctional facility inmates, and others through the South Dakota Humanities Commission.

It flows from her home and studio in the former bank and library of Volin, South Dakota, a tiny town tucked in the farm fields of southeastern South Dakota.

It flows from her childhood home above the Arctic Circle in Bodø, Norway, a mere 4,033 miles away.

It flows from her looms.

One of Grete’s first comments during my interview visit to her studio was unsurprising. “I have restless feet,” she said, commenting on the fact that she is rarely at home, especially in the summer.  Her car was packed for travel to Moon Rain, north of Ottowa, Canada, to lead a two-day workshop on natural plant dyeing.

Grete lives and works in a converted bank in Volin, South Dakota. At every turn you see an artifact or art work, or a wall of visitors’ signatures, a myriad of cookbooks, or antique furniture and textiles from Norway.

IMG_1093

(Photo: Robbie LaFleur)

Oh, and weaving!  This tapestry was woven from a poem by her (second) husband, the filmmaker and poet Charles Nauman, who wrote it when they were living on a buffalo ranch in the Black Hills.  They hiked the prairie often and found a ring of teepee stones in which the opening faced east. Grete reminisced,  “For one year, 1999, while we lived on the ranch, Chuck wrote a poem each day and I wove a small tapestry each day. It was a very creative and productive year.”

IMG_1145

Tapestry sitting on a chair from Norway (Photo: Robbie LaFleur)

A more recent tapestry also touches on a South Dakota story. In this photo taken at a Sioux Falls gallery, the story of “Her Nest (A very small bird / has made her home / in a buffalo skull / a very small bird) is woven with digital symbols.”

IMG_5690

(Photo: Robbie LaFleur)

The corner location of this tapestry, appropriately in their bedroom, precluded a better photo.

IMG_1144

(Photo: Robbie LaFleur)

The bank building also used to house the town library in a long, narrow room along the front.  It is now Grete’s studio, and the bookshelves hold yards of books and yarn.

IMG_1113

(Photo: Robbie LaFleur)

The shelves face a space packed tight with looms. Look up to the high ceilings and you see spinning wheels, hauled from Norway as airplane carry-ons by her parents, and a treasured wool “beach bag” that her grandmother made and lined with plastic.

IMG_1118

(Photo: Robbie LaFleur)

Bodøgaard’s path from Bodø to South Dakota included stops to study weaving in Norway and Denmark, and an apprenticeship in weaving and dyeing in London.  While studying historical archaeological textiles in Denmark, Grete traveled to Hamburg. She viewed Bronze Age textiles; that was planned.  She had a love-at-first-sight experience with a professor from South Dakota; that was unexpected.

When Sam Heikes showed up in Denmark six months later with a marriage proposal, she accepted his hand, and a life adventure.  She was a modern-day immigrant to the Midwest, following generations of Scandinavians.  Her mother-in-law and her husband’s grandmother still spoke Norwegian.

Grete moved to South Dakota along with her eight-harness Glimåkra loom. Her mother insisted she needed it so she wouldn’t forget what she was supposed to be doing.

Together with the wife of an art professor at the University of South Dakota, Grete developed and taught a class in textiles. When she became pregnant in 1970, an administrator informed her they “can’t have people who show,” and the class came to an end.  As a progressive Norwegian, Grete thought, “Where am I?”

She was happy to raise children and sheep, along with her weaving, in the next few years. Her first commission, appropriately enough, was from the North Central Wool Marketing Association.  Her tapestry weaving career was given a jump start when the Minneapolis Tribune published a photo essay about her work in their Picture supplement in 1976.  (You can read “A Weaver: From Norway to the Prairie; included with permission, best copy available.) As a result of the attention, her commissions increased and she took on apprentices from the U.S. and abroad.

IMG_1122Her work in tapestry over the years has been influenced by what she looks at and what she reads, and what she remembers. When immersed in a project, she can work eight to ten hours a day.  “I’m a fanatic.  I get so much energy from my work,” she said. One of her large commissions was a tapestry of a painting, “Indian Christ,” by the noted American Indian artist Oscar Howe.  It is seven feet by ten feet, six inches, and hangs above the altar in the chapel of Our Lady of the Sioux Chapel at St. Joseph’s Indian School in Chamberlain, South Dakota.

indian Christ: O.Howe

Newspaper photo supplied by the artist

Another news article shows the glorious scale of three commissioned weavings.

Dakota Seasons, 1980 G. Bodogaard, text 1At one point, South Dakota almost lost this talented weaver. “When Bush was elected, we moved back to Norway.” She and her second husband moved into the house where she grew up, in a group of buildings mostly constructed in the late 15th century for Danish government officials, and also including a church built in 1275.  The area was settled even earlier.  A spindle stone made of soapstone from Viking times was discovered under the house, and is now in Grete’s studio.  Their house looked out over a creek; the ocean was a five minute walk away.  What could trump this lovely situation?  Her daughter announced she was pregnant.

IMG_1120

Grete Bodogaard holds a drop spindle made with Viking era soapstone (Photo: Robbie LaFleur

Though Grete moved back to South Dakota, her trips to Norway are frequent and her ties to Norway are strong.  An upcoming exhibit in Bodø will include works from Grete and from another transplanted Norwegian artist working in Seattle, printmaker Eva Isaksen. The exhibit, “Light and Dark in the North,” is a result of the need for the two artists from Bodø to “go home,” both in their works and physically.

Details for weavers

Grete Bodøgaard weaves primarily on a two-meter wide Glimåkra tapestry loom. “It’s solid to work on,” Grete said.  She prefers an upright loom for tapestry because it is difficult to get perspective when looking down at a floor loom. A second old tapestry loom was found by chance.  Grete’s sister-in-law purchased a house owned by two tapestry weavers, who left their looms. She uses primarily Norwegian yarns, and stocks up each time she visits Norway. In the U.S. she buys through Norsk Fjord Fiber.

Grete studied with Maria Brekke Koppen for one year in Oslo.  Koppen was an exacting teacher, but one who encouraged personal exploration.  On the one hand you should follow directions, Koppen emphasized, but you have to figure out your own way of doing.  Generations of tapestry weavers have studied from her textbook, Norwegian Tapestry Weaving, and Grete’s studio copy is well-worn.  You’ll find many of the Norwegian joining techniques described in the book in Grete’s tapestries. She explained succinctly, “I don’t like to sew things up.”

Grete has been inspired by many Norwegian artists, including the contemporary artist and tapestry designer Jan Groth.  “There are so many wonderful weavers in Norway,” Grete said, “There are no rules.”

Of Synnove Anker Aurdal she noted, “It was a total enlightenment to hear her talk.  I loved her creativity. She was very elegant.” (Though there is not much online on Aurdal in English, see wonderful images at this Facebook site and the Absolute Tapestry site.)

The first time she saw a weaving by Frida Hansen was at a museum in Hamburg.  Although Hansen was a prominent European artist in the early part of the 20th century, at the time Grete was studying, Hansen wasn’t studied or accepted in her home country of Norway.

Grete was influenced early on by Hannah Ryggen’s tapestries, which she saw as a child.  Ryggen lived not far from Grete’s grandmother.  Ryggen never learned to draw, Grete commented, yet the power of her images was strong.

More background on Grete Bodøgaard:

Robbie LaFleur weaves in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and is the editor of the Norwegian Textile Letter.

lafleur1801 (at) me.com

One thought on “A Studio Visit: Grete Bodøgaard

  1. Pingback: We mourn the loss of a great South Dakota artist – Grete Bodogaard Heikes | Archives and Special Collections Blog

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *