By Heidi Goldberg
My mother taught me how to knit when I was 11. I think that is where my love of fibers was born. I immediately was rewarded with the sense of satisfaction in watching something form from my own mind and hands, not unlike drawing, which I have always loved. Bringing something from creative vision to artistic reality became my passion. My dream of teaching in the creative field of art guided me to Concordia College in Moorhead, MN where for these last eighteen years I have been teaching various art media to inspiring students. Every day, I have the rich reward of witnessing students as they bask in the glow one gets after the rush of discovering when concept and technique unite and the fruits of labor are held in one’s hands. Even as I teach, I too, still learn and rediscover the thrills of achieving success with new techniques. Well over a decade ago, I began working with Dawn Tommerdahl, my close friend and colleague who formerly taught in the Scandinavian Studies department at Concordia College, to envision a class in which our liberal arts students would be exposed to traditional Nordic arts. The influence, assistance, encouragement and camaraderie of Dawn and another dear friend, Charlie Hovde, have been critical in the process, nudging the development of the class along. The three of us have enjoyed numerous road trips to the mid-western Norsk mecca of Decorah, IA to take classes together at Vesterheim over the years. All of these experiences evolved into the creation of my class, Nordic Arts, which was given formal approval in the curriculum just this last year as a direct response for the call on campus for interdisciplinary connections and involvement in global issues. The global aspect of this course is at the heart of it. We examine questions such as:
- How are northern cultures and artists around the world connected through art and the making of unique objects?
- How does our geography and climate affect who we are and how we live in relationship to the objects we make and live with?
Examining objects from Nordic cultures give us insights into ourselves and how we are connected to others through common experiences. Nordic Arts is an introduction to the technical and aesthetic depth, beauty, variety and uses of works in various media from Nordic countries. Students learn about influences of: history, fundamental connection to nature and geography, aesthetic, style, and function as well as technical processes of traditional arts of woodcarving, rosemaling, and fiber. There is no other course like this one offered at Concordia College. It is studio based but unlike any other studio classes in its subject matter and technical focus. The course supports and extends experiences of students in other courses of Art, Scandinavian Studies, and History through the practice of observing, making, and critiquing works of art. It also works as a conduit in the study of culture and language as the material we cover brings is to use new terminology and study background reflecting technique, object, and culture. Nordic Arts students also learn from the historical investigations and presentations of Scandinavian Studies/History: Scandinavian Immigration and Settlement in America students. Working through the projects of this course increases self-confidence in students in the ability to design and make useful and beautiful objects with their own hands. Some of these objects are functional and practical objects; some are art objects that are more decorative in nature. We examine the meanings and blurred lines in the questions surrounding these ideas:
- What constitutes various levels of craft vs. art in a culture where the meaning of the word ‘craft’ is often diminished to a ‘YouTube do-it-yourself’ demonstration showing how to quickly throw together components resulting in a formula project?
- Why is the word craft so often used in a disparaging way in the world of fine art?
- What happened to the ‘craftmanship’ in craft?
- What is behind all the artificial hierarchy of media in the art world?
As an artist trained in printmaking, I greatly value and am a lover of process/technique through often time-consuming processes, it is important to me that students gain appreciation of process through witnessing and experiencing it, as well as a sense of satisfaction in getting through it with good results demonstrating a developing technique. The combination of discipline and skills students learn in this class reaches across fields and cultures, and are life-long skills that are supportive of, and requiring, creative thought processes and mind-body connection through critical thinking and fine motor skills as well as eye-hand coordination. These are skills, often discovered through earlier exposure to making things, that can be honed over decades of practice. There are many students who have never worked on projects requiring facile hand skills unless it involved a computer keyboard. Studio art classes can be foreign and intimidating to some. In these classes, students overcome insecurities about designing and making objects step by step. Through required dedication of time and effort they attain foundational skills and new abilities in techniques that are varied, challenging and exciting. This understanding of technique naturally leads to the creative exploration of concept and more advanced methods.
Materials inform and create dialog about how we choose to live. The issue of sustainability arises in this context because virtually all of the materials we use for the class come from nature, encouraging an affinity to nature. This ethical consideration is very much on the minds of many students who are conscious about the future of the earth and how our decisions impact it. We consider notions of lifestyle choices, such as living more simply with less, and how those choices impact/affect others. We consider as a class, choosing fewer, more special, objects that are in harmony with the environment, both in the place of residence and the out in the greater eco-environment, rather than multitudes of mass-produced/standardized things to fill the insatiable desires in which our mass consumerist society is so entrenched. Within the fiber unit, students quickly learn a multitude of skills such as how to spin wool, knit, draft patterns and knit two-color pieces with double pointed needles, felt, and weave. In terms of weaving techniques we have explored band weaving using cards, the rigid heddle loom, and the inkle loom, working with various weaves on table looms (including sampling plain weave, twill, as well as more culture specific weave structure including tavlebragd, krogbragd, and telemarksvev). We’ve had the honor of having dedicated expert weavers Marian Quanbeck Dahlberg and Sharon Marquardt work with us as well. Marian introduced us to working with linen, often used in Scandinavian textiles, instructing students in making lovely shimmering small towels in a waffle-weave variation, and Sharon worked with students on back-strap looms designed by Sharon using PVC pipe on which students were able to weave various Norwegian techniques one would make using a warp-weighted loom. Students were able to leave the course with these little portable looms in hand. I am so grateful for the generosity and wisdom these women have shared with my students and myself.
The techniques we practice and the objects we make are deeply connected to past cultures and the work of our ancestors and heritages. We are learning from, and gaining respect for, the developed wisdom that is passed down generations. Students are able to understand the cultural and historical contexts that gave rise to the development of the work, and explain the nature of the work. Given this new and deeper insight, students with Nordic heritage are encouraged to re-connect to the histories of their families and launch new traditions and practices for investment into their future. Those who come to the class without Nordic heritage discover the beauty of Nordic culture and its unique relationship to nature and aesthetics. Amidst all this, students discover complexity and experience frustrations while overcoming the technical demands of making this work. Inherent in this student experience comes the replenishing and development of identity, self and spirit in discovering their creative capabilities. Students add dimension to their identities through this learning and practice, putting in place a vehicle to develop balance and well-being personally and spiritually. I thank my mother for opening the door to a world into which I had no idea I was stepping. It has become my calling to pass on to others, mainly the young women and men in my classes who are looking for islands of calm and wonder in our culture of high-speed instant gratification and time-demanding technology based communication.
Bonus! See a slide show of photos from the Nordic Arts class, including photos of guest lecturers and students’ accomplishments.
Heidi Goldberg is a professor at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota.
goldberg (at) cord.edu