Folk art of Norway finds place in LeDuc House artists' show

  • Article by: LIZ ROLFSMEIER , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 2, 2012 - 6:10 PM

The LeDuc House's annual art sale features a variety of media.

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Al Todnem (left) and Mel Agen, both of Hastings, worked on Norwegian “tine” boxes in Agen’s studio.

Photo: Liz Rolfsmeier, Special to the Star Tribune

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Swedish Dala horses and other pieces of Scandinavian folk art cover the walls of Mel Agen's Hastings home. On a floor loom in the living room, he's working on a Flessberg weaving project. He just learned how to weave in January, and already, the former engineer with a penchant for mathematical precision seems to have mastered the intricate patterns.

Down in Agen's basement studio, he and longtime friend and fellow woodworker Al Todnem, also of Hastings, have been recently working on a new Scandinavian folk art endeavor: Norwegian tine (pronounced "teen-ah") boxes.

The traditional oval Nordic boxes -- in Swedish, they are known as svepasks -- are constructed with bent wood and have unique wood posts on each end that help snap and hold the lid in place so they can be carried with a handle. The boxes, which date back to 840 A.D. and have been found on Viking ships, were used to hold foodstuffs or valuables.

"I think they were really quite the handy thing," Agen said.

The two artisans, whose work is being featured at the artists' show at the LeDuc Historic Estate in Hastings this week, have long been folk art enthusiasts. They both carve figurines and toys using the Scandinavian style of flat-plane carving, and Agen does acanthus carving, a detailed traditional woodcarving that was used to decorate portals around doorways of ancient stave churches in Norway.

Agen, who is of Norwegian and Swedish descent, and Todnem, who calls himself "100 percent Norwegian" -- his parents were both from Norway -- taught themselves the art of making bentwood boxes mostly through Internet research and by studying those on display at the Vesterheim, a Norwegian-American museum in Decorah, Iowa.

In Agen's studio, a segment of a rain gutter over a burner provides the means of soaking strips of wood until the resin softens. "They become like a rubber band," Agen said. "Then you throw them over a mold and clamp them down." Instead of the traditional birch root, they lace up the sides with caning material and fit the bottom on the box with tiny wood pegs.

At the LeDuc sale, Agen will display boxes made from basswood, aspen, birch and poplar, some accented with cherry handles or mahogany bottoms. He has been working on two sizes -- smaller ones with decorative carved lids, and larger ones, about 10 inches long -- designed to hold Swedish flatbread. He will also sell hand-carved figurines.

Todnem plans to sell his flat-plane-carved nativity scene figures.

The two, who have taught carving to kids at the LeDuc estate, demonstrating with paring knives on yams, generally only sell their work once a year, at this show.

"We usually get enough to pay for our wood," Todnem said.

"We don't do it for money," said Agen of his craft. "Just for the fun of it."

Agen said he likes to carve, a canvas on his lap to catch the shavings, in front of the television. "You can't watch too close, though, because of the knife," he said.

Todnem, a retired biology teacher who has been carving since the mid-'80s, said he has a sign in his shop that reads, "I don't make mistakes. I make alterations."

"This is just a relaxing wintertime hobby," he said. "I like to get all hunkered down in my shop when it's real cold out."

The LeDuc Artists' Show will also feature pottery, oil painting, photography, watercolor, felting and fiber arts. The free event opened Saturday and runs through next Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day at the LeDuc Historic Estate in Hastings.

For more information, see www.dakotahistory.org or call 651-437-7055.

Liz Rolfsmeier is a Twin Cities freelance writer.

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