There's a surprising amount of dead people's hair at the American Swedish Institute. It took artist Tara Sweeney some time to get used to that.

"I had to work a lot just to stomach it, because it was kind of gross to me," she said. "I used to make jokes like 'Oh, it's kind of creepy,' but when I started painting it, [I got really into] the challenge of painting the scale of texture on the hair."

From last July through January, Sweeney set up her easel in the mansion's salon, painting objects from ASI's permanent collection. One was a hair bracelet — part of the Victorian tradition of preserving a loved one's DNA by turning it into something wearable; the Swedish Institute has about 100 hair objects in its collection.

One afternoon, an elderly gentleman came up to Sweeney and told her he still had the braids of his wife, who died three years ago.

"I was like: Thank God I stopped making jokes about this," she said.

Sweeney's watercolor paintings — combined with ink illustrations added by her son, Nate Christopherson — make up a new Swedish alphabet book, as well as an exhibit marking ASI's 90th anniversary.

"Extra/Ordinary: The American Swedish Institute. At Play" pairs their work with artifacts from the museum's permanent collection, such as a butter tub and original wood carvings, arranged in scavenger-hunt-like fashion throughout the institute's original home, the Turnblad Mansion.

"Some of the objects are more ornate than others," said Erin Stromgren, ASI's exhibitions manager. "For the most part, you could say the objects are ordinary, [but] once you get the story behind an object it becomes extraordinary."

Further intergenerational collaboration is encouraged in the kid-friendly Osher Gallery, where visitors can draw on the walls using small and giant-sized purple crayons.

Christopherson has drawn quirky characters on the walls, like a life-size troll with a bulbous nose and gigantic beard, to welcome this play.

From A to Zåäö

Four years ago, Sweeney was teaching a watercolor workshop at ASI, helping students paint objects from the institute's collection. She wondered how to bring these objects into a public space, and if there was a project she could do with her son.

"We are both fascinated with objects and their relationship to people," said Christopherson. "The ASI collection is super-organized but it is very personal and quiet."

In 2017, Sweeney won a $10,000 State Arts Board grant for the two of them to create a series of watercolor and ink drawings, and to work on-site, during museum hours, as a way of connecting with people during the artmaking process.

The mom-and-son team discovered oddities in the collection, like the Civil War medals of Count Ernst von Vegesack, a Swedish nobleman who fought with the Union Army in the U.S. Civil War and received the Congressional Medal of Honor. On a second-floor room of the Turnblad Mansion, their artwork about him is displayed with the actual medals and portraits of him, as if it were a room in his home.

Those Civil War medals are part of the duo's new alphabet book — on the "R" page, paired with the word "räkna," which means "count" in Swedish.

Unlike a typical kids' picture book that pairs objects and letters (i.e. "A is for Apple"), "A to Zåäö: Playing With History at the American Swedish Institute" picks objects that correspond to verbs and action.

The book is a finalist for the 2020 Minnesota Book Awards in children's literature, but it wouldn't have come to light without ASI President Bruce Karstadt, who made the connection with the University of Minnesota Press.

Karstadt's own anniversary

At 68, Karstadt is a soft-spoken man with a gentle demeanor.

"I'm not Swedish, but maybe I should be," he mused, eyeing a miniature, orange, carved wooden dala horse in the mansion's solarium, where it's so sunny that visitors could probably get a tan.

He's practically Swedish, though. Karstadt grew up in Lindsborg, Kan., a small town founded by Swedish immigrants in 1869. His Swedish-born great-grandmother immigrated there in the late 1800s.

"Growing up in that community, there was an appreciation for all things Swedish," he said. "It stimulated my curiosity about Sweden of today."

An attorney by trade, he worked in private practice for a couple of years before switching to higher education and administration. New Sweden '88, a festival that celebrated the 350th anniversary of Swedes landing in America, brought him to Minneapolis. Not long after, the institute was looking for a new boss, and a friend suggested Karstadt. He started in 1990.

At the time, ASI was housed entirely in the Park Avenue mansion built in 1904-08 by Swedish-born magnate Swan Turnblad, whose Svenska Amerikanska Posten was the nation's leading Swedish-language newspaper. Turnblad founded the institute after his wife's death in 1929, turning his home into a museum as a way of preserving Swedish culture.

Karstadt's intention was to transform ASI into a place that wasn't just for die-hard Swedes and their relatives. From 2010-2012, he oversaw the institute's $21.5 million addition of the sleek, modern Nelson Cultural Center and the Nordic-inspired Fika café, which offers a fresh take on Swedish classics like smorgas (open sandwich). ASI also launched its signature event Cocktails at the Castle, a contemporary take on the Swedish tradition of "hyttsill," where people stood around a glassmaker's furnace, eating and drinking.

"Audiences jumped from 50,000 to 165,000 people" in the first year of the new building, Karstadt said.

Now he's looking ahead to undertaking restoration work on the Turnblad Mansion. It has already undergone some updates — restoring water-damaged interior spaces; fixing up the solarium and veranda; adding new roofs, gutters and a drainage system, and reproducing the grand hall carpet based on its original design.

Thirty years seems like a long time, but Karstadt said he doesn't intend to retire anytime soon. He actually lives near the institute.

He likens his job to a line from the Robert Frost poem "Two Tramps in Mud Time":

My object in living is to unite

My avocation and my vocation

As my two eyes make one in sight.

"This job is an opportunity for me to do what I really love personally, in my family life and friendships in Sweden, and translate that into working full-time," he said. "That's rare."

612-673-4437 • @AliciaEler