In a millennium or two, someone may stumble across a Viking helmet half buried in decaying oak leaves on the grounds of St. John's Abbey at Collegeville, Minn.
Then perhaps they will spy another helmet marked with a Celtic knot, a Roman nose plate or a dragon tail. And they may wonder how such warriors arrived at so remote a place. Why did they come? How did they live and die?
If they dig deeper into the helmets' history, they will discover that the artifacts are actually faux relics created for a 21st-century installation.
Over the past month, Twin Cities artist Nancy Randall, 86, has installed fragmentary wooden boats and about 50 bronze and ceramic pieces in a lakeside glade on the grounds of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, a study and meditation center at St. John's, about 75 miles northwest of Minneapolis. An accompanying retrospective of Randall's work, spanning more than 30 years, is on view at nearby St. John's University through Nov. 16.
Randall calls the installation "Eschaton: Sanctuary for the End of Time." In religious lingo, "eschaton" refers to death and whatever might come after it — judgment, resurrection, immortality, silence. Though St. John's Abbey is a Benedictine monastery, the art is Randall's personal statement, not an expression of Benedictine faith traditions.
"I don't want to talk about death and dying because it's much bigger than that," Randall said recently. "It's the ongoing struggle between light and dark that I see in this installation. We meet crisis after crisis in life, but we move through and it's an ongoing process. There is no time, only change."
The fragmentary boats, evocative of Viking longboats, will decay and disappear within a decade. Stoneware helmets, shields and other fragments, however, will endure for centuries under the sediments that will eventually bury them. Though stoneware is a ceramic medium that is easily broken, it is not porous and does not dissolve or erode in water.
"These helmets are fired to 2,400 degrees Fahrenheit, so they will last 10,000 to 15,000 years even in our freeze-thaw cycle," said potter Richard Bresnahan, founder of St. John's Pottery, where Randall designed and produced the ceramics in 2006 and '07.
"The goal is that after years of accumulation, the site is going to take on a certain identity and things will disappear, be covered up, return to the earth," Bresnahan continued. "It's like an orchestra where some sounds come and go, but the deep tonalities stay. She's making a visual orchestra where things will fade in and out over time. That's when a spiritual garden comes to life."
Dreams of Viking legends
Randall had never worked with clay before the "Eschaton" project. Trained as an abstract painter, she is best known for delicate drawings that have been featured in solo shows at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., Walker Art Center, the Weisman Art Museum and elsewhere.
Typically the drawings feature wolves, bears, deer, buffalo and other creatures in ambiguous landscapes where long grasses meet ocean waves. Inspired by the writings of psychologist Carl Jung and mythologist Joseph Campbell, she associates the animals with such archetypal qualities as strength, cunning, endurance and so on.
After she visited her ancestral farm in Norway in the late 1990s, she added longboats. With them came playful Viking warriors who joust with Greco-Roman gods and goddesses in phantasmagorical cloudscapes while the usual human tribulations — war, plunder, civilizations in decay — unfold on the plains below.
It was about then that the artist started referring to herself as an "an old Viking," in a nod to her heritage and as a challenge to arts foundations that pride themselves on their sensitivity to race, gender and ethnicity but rarely give money to elderly artists. In 2009 the Pollock-Krasner Foundation responded with a special three-year award that enabled completion of "Eschaton."
Randall dreamed of embodying, somehow, her notions about Viking legends, decay, regeneration, eschaton. Too complex for pencil and paper, the vision demanded a bigger canvas. After seeing a show of ceramic sculpture at St. John's University, she pitched the project to Bresnahan.
"When a brilliant artist comes to you and says, 'I need you to help me fulfill a dream,' well, you have to open your studio and help them do it," Bresnahan said. "She's such a genius. It's really a wonderful story of someone who went against all the odds to create something of great beauty."
For the moment, the ever-restless artist is content.
"The installation made me cry," she said recently. "It's just magic. The thing I've envisioned all this time is there. The odd thing is that I expected it would make me think, 'Well. You're done. You're finished.' But the opposite has happened. I'm rejuvenated. This piece is more than I can say. Words aren't necessary any more. Now I'm just going to draw."