Sloyd class emphasizes handwork skills and resourcefulness
During the first week of a summer course at St. Olaf College, seven students headed to the outskirts of campus with a simple woodworking knife. The task: to find a piece of brush and carve chopsticks out of the fresh wood. In this straightforward yet meticulous task, students became familiar working with tools that they used for the rest of the summer in Christie Hawkins’ studio art course that focuses on the Scandinavian concept of sloyd.
Sloyd is the time-honored Scandinavian practice of handcraft, using traditional tools to create objects for everyday use in and around the home. In this course, students explore the intersection of handwork, woodwork, and creativity using simple tools: knives, hand saws, axes, and froes, to create objects such as spoons, butter spreaders, bread boards, coat hooks, and benches. Much of their work is being made using green wood; freshly cut and then carved or shaped while still wet.
“We are making functional, usable products. These everyday objects — chopsticks, spoons, butter spreaders, benches, boxes — introduce an element of utility that is not present in many art courses,” says art major Kali Breska ’19. “Most of my artistic experimentation over the past few months has focused on 2D media, and I knew this sloyd course would force me outside of my comfort zone.”
The fulfillment of creating
Aside from object making, an essential part of sloyd is the artist’s development of individual character and intellectual capacity that creating something with your hands can spur.
“Learning and making go hand in hand,” Hawkins says. “I hope the students will take away a new knowledge of hand skills and green woodworking, but more importantly an understanding of how sloyd was used in daily life back in the day, and how they can use it to simplify and enrich their own lives.”
“I hope the students will take away a new knowledge of hand skills and green woodworking, but more importantly an understanding of how sloyd was used in daily life back in the day, and how they can use it to simplify and enrich their own lives.” — Christie Hawkins
In the five-week course, students will study the works of influential sloyd artists, both their styles as well as the philosophies behind their work. In his book, Slöjd in Wood, Swedish artist and woodworker Jögge Sunqvist speaks to the importance of crafting things with your hands. “People from all walks of life benefit from the interaction between the mind and hand,” he writes. “Slöjd affects us by satisfying the body and in turn, the soul. There is a kind of practical contemplation where there is time for thought — a certain focused calm, which is an antidote to today’s media-centered society.”
Expanding handwork at St. Olaf
This course, titled Summer Sloyd, is a significant step in expanding the community of makers at St. Olaf — a community that Hawkins has dedicated much time and energy to. In 2014 Hawkins taught a similar class focusing on the folk school movement and sloyd themes over Interim. She is also the advisor for a student-run Sloyd Club that meets weekly to work with their hands.
“There’s a ‘folk school’ and ‘maker space’ explosion in our country right now. People want to make things; it’s in our nature as human beings to make things, and I believe it’s tied to our wellness, to our thought process, and to sustainability,” Hawkins says. “Plus, it’s really soothing and stress-relieving to just sit down with wood and make something.”
Hawkins has also been talking with the St. Olaf Library staff about St. Olaf’s new maker space, the Cave, and how folk school programming might dovetail with their mission as a space where students can process ideas, try things out, and relieve stress through the act of making.
Hawkins’ passion for sloyd goes far beyond teaching St. Olaf students. Four years ago, she implemented a folk school at St. Olaf that brings to campus artists who work with traditional techniques to lead workshops for community members. Part of that includes a residential youth camp on the Hill that focuses on traditional skills. This year, it was green woodworking and sloyd.
This spring, Hawkins will lead another course that will focus on the history of sloyd and its importance to Scandinavian history.
“When I attended Oslo International Summer School in 2016, I had the opportunity to see Norwegian folk art firsthand — but mostly in museums and galleries,” Breska says. “Classes like sloyd teach a greater appreciation for this art form while also making it more accessible. In a sense, I have gained the skills and knowledge to carry on a tradition. Now, when I see a carved spoon in a museum, I am able to say ‘I could make that!'”