Folk school course highlights craft and community
It could be a scene from several hundred years ago: students sit carving wooden spoons beneath a high ceiling made of hand-hewn timbers.
Yet these students are part of St. Olaf College’s folk school Interim course, which was made possible by a grant from the Ella and Kaare Nygaard Foundation.
The course, designed by Technical Supervisor of Art Christie Hawkins, aims to introduce students to the concepts of folk schools, which originated in 19th-century Denmark and quickly spread throughout the Nordic countries.
Students in the course, which is held in the reconstructed Flaten Art Barn, are learning skills such as Scandinavian-style spoon carving, blacksmithing, wool spinning, bread baking, and brick oven construction.
Hawkins set out to design a course to teach students to work with their hands and develop practical skills. At the same time, she feels it honors the spirit of Arnold Flaten ’22, the founder of the St. Olaf Art Department who built the original art barn.
“I love Flaten’s work and the initiative he took to create a beautiful building,” says Hawkins, who was involved in constructing the new Flaten Art Barn at the North House Folk School and assembling it on campus. “This new building is an excellent place for creativity and handwork, as was the original one.”
Learning as a community
The class has taken a holistic, yet focused, approach to learning traditional skills. As students grapple with learning new techniques for hours at a time, their experience is supplemented by instruction from guest artists who are experts in that particular craft.
A highlight for many students has been meeting some of the Midwest’s most accomplished traditional artisans. On a weekend field trip, the class visited the studio of metalsmiths Tom and Kitty Latane, in Pepin, Wisconsin, before continuing to Decorah, Iowa, where they enjoyed lectures, demonstrations, and workshops with Luther College Professor Emeritus Harley Refsal, an internationally renowned woodcarver, and his wife, Norma, an accomplished jeweler and metalsmith. The group also learned Scandinavian-style spoon carving from Twin Cities woodworker Jim Sannerud and received hands-on blacksmithing instruction from Myron Hanson of Eagan and Herb Fick of Northfield.
Students also get to play the part of a visiting instructor, preparing demonstrations and presentations on skills that they have picked up themselves or that have been passed down in their families, from cheese-making to needle felting.
The opportunity to learn from experts and each other highlights the community aspect of the course, which Hawkins had hoped for from the very beginning. “It’s a lot about community, and learning from each other,” she says.
The exchange of skills and ideas, as well as the course’s remote location in the Art Barn — on the western edge of campus, bordering the college’s natural lands — has enhanced the feeling of community for the students as well.
“The ambience is so different,” says Kate Dwyer ’14, who decided to take the class because it sounded unlike anything else offered at St. Olaf. “We have this immersive experience and it really feels like we’re in an off-campus course. Everyone is totally new to what we’re learning, so we’re all coming at it from the same page. This is a unique time where community is really lived out and is so intentional.”
Complementing and connecting
Many of the students agree that the immersive nature of the course allows them to explore styles of learning as a complement to their education at St. Olaf thus far.
Mark Emmons ’14 says that many of the students decided to enroll in the class for similar reasons. “We wanted to do something with our hands, we wanted to be developing our repertoire of skills,” he says. “A lot of people feel like they don’t have skill, and this is a remedy to that.”
Other students, like Stuart Yurczyk ’17, saw the class as a way to connect to their roots, whether they were Scandinavian or craft-based.
“My family was a blacksmithing family, and I didn’t know anything about it,” he says. “My parents don’t blacksmith, but my mom is an artist and my dad is a machinist, so they have all these crafts they can do. It’s cool to learn various crafts of my own that I can share with them now.”
Hawkins is pleased with how the course has developed and with the enthusiasm of her students. “I’m grateful to the Nygaard Foundation and impressed by the interest the course has generated on campus and in the community,” she says.
While the folk school Interim course was a one-time offering made possible by the grant, Hawkins hopes the idea will grow into something more permanent.
“A folk school at St. Olaf could be a great addition to campus life. The potential is exciting,” she says.