Sarah Nour: Reflection on Scandinavian Exhibits at the Spirit Room

Local artist and self-proclaimed Viking Karen Aakre spoke at the reception for the Scandinavian exhibition at the Spirit Room last Friday. Gallery I displayed her collection, entitled “Skinfell,” while Gallery II displayed the work of Bert Burbeck, a Fargo native with Finnish Sami ancestry.

These exhibits are in collaboration with the Hjemkomst Scandinavian Festival and were sponsored in part by the North Dakota Council on the Arts. Since the reception, several of Aakre’s pieces have been transferred to the Hjemkomst Center.

Skinfeller is a method of preserving animal hides and sewing them together to make blankets and other essential items for long Scandinavian winters. Aakre first learned the craft on a 2011 trip to Norway, funded by grants from the Minnesota State Board and the Sons of Norway. She has worked as an art teacher for fifteen years and now raises sheep, goats, and llamas for their wool.

In addition to her handmade pieces, the collection included Aakre’s handmade family heirlooms. The centerpiece was a large quilt with flaps on the side, which Aakre opened to reveal words inked into the fabric.

“This one here is what we call a wedding quilt, or wedding skin, because it has the family history,” she explained. “This has my family history going back five generations, and so it’s like the family Bible on sheepskin.”

Wedding Quilt. Photo by Sarah Nour.

Though they are now presented as works of art, such quilts were originally made and used for practical reasons.

“A family of two or three or five or whatever would crawl into bed without a stitch on,” Aakre said. “No heat in the house, but they’d be warm as toast till morning… If a farmer that’s halfway home from town can’t make it, gets stuck in a drift, he throws one of these on the snow, wraps one around himself and stays warm till morning. Or the sailors—they would wrap these around themselves to repel the water and to keep them safe from the elements, because that’s the only way they survived.”

Also on display was several smaller pieces, like scarfs and mittens, along with the rock-weighted loom used to make them.

Rock weighted loom. Photo by Sarah Nour.

There was even a colorful hand-spun piece made on a triangle loom and dyed with five packages of Kool-Aid.

Fabric dyed with packages of Kool-Aid. Photo by Sarah Nour.

In Gallery II, Burbeck’s decorative wooden bowls currently hang from the wall, displaying the stylized flower ornamentation and geometric patterns characteristic of rosemaling, a decorative folk art hailing from the lowlands of eastern Norway.

Burbeck’s elegant patterns could also be seen on wooden boxes and traditional instruments, all showing meticulous attention to detail. Having been trained by both American and Norwegian artists, Burbeck now teaches rosemaling classes herself.

Traditionally, rosemaling was practiced by poor city dwellers who would travel to different countries, painting homes or churches to earn money or for room and board. Over time these designs were transferred to smaller wooden objects, such as trunks, plates, boxes, and drinking vessels.

Rosemaling by Bert Burbeck. Photo by Sarah Nour.

Thanks to these travelling artists, rosemaling migrated westward all the way to America. Though the art faded to obscurity in the 1860s, it experienced a revival in the early 20th century. Today, rosemaling associations sponsor classes and even competitions nationwide.

The Scandinavian exhibits are on display at the Spirit Room until August 5. Hours are 1 -5 p.m. Monday – Saturday.

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