A matter of time

Slow down and connect to your heritage with Lusk Scandia Woodworks

Photo courtesy of Lusk Scandia Woodworks
A large tine box has been completed. These boxes were used to hold provisions in earlier days.

St. Paul, Minn.

Where is the time to slow down and focus on craftsmanship in a fast-paced society?

Woodworking, like other traditional folk arts, is a craft that was prevalent in Scandinavia because of the abundance of natural materials. Woodwork styles from Norway and Sweden are known for their high functionality as well as ornate carved decoration.

Wood is inexpensive and widely available, but working with it takes time and skill. For the baby boomer generation especially, connecting to heritage and ancestry is having a resurgence, and some have dedicated their careers to continuing these craft traditions.

Becky and Mike Lusk started Lusk Scandia Woodworks in 2000, and it has been their job ever since. After working in dairy farming and boat building, they were able to focus primarily on woodworking and have garnered a reputation for their handcrafted Scandinavian designs.

Becky found herself to be the youngest student in her calls when she began taking carving lessons. She grew up around Norwegian folk art. Her grandfather, Hans Simonson, was an immigrant from Norway and spent his spare time carving, and her mother, Jean Giese, is a Vesterheim Gold-Medalist rosemaler. She was in high school when she took her first class in acanthus carving (acanthus is a recognizable leaf pattern seen on many traditional Scandinavian pieces) at Vesterheim Folk Art School in Decorah, Iowa.

Photo courtesy of Lusk Scandia Woodworks
Becky Lusk works on a decorative Norwegian acanthus panel.

Although Becky started carving at a young age, passing heritage crafts down from generation to generation is not as common as it once was. Mike Lusk said, “I feel that the woodworking craft will always be around, but the idea of making a living by only doing woodworking will be harder and harder for younger generations to do. I definitely want to expose my grandchildren to woodworking, but basically, it will be up to them if it’s something they want to pursue.”

This is where the role of folk schools, or folk high schools, come in. In Norway, students often attend folk high school after they graduate upper secondary school (American high school), but there is no age cap on who can attend. The theory behind folk schools is to provide a collaborative learning environment, where the goal is to learn for the sake of learning, no grades or curriculum exist.

There are over 40 folk schools in the United States, Vesterheim being one of the most well-known and the one with the strongest Norwegian connection, with its affiliation with the Vesterheim National Norwegian-American Museum. They offer classes in woodworking, cooking, weaving, rosemaling (painting), metalwork, fiber arts, and more.

Becky “fell into” teaching, after being asked to teach a class at a regional art center. She continues to teach today at Vesterheim Folk Art School, Norskedalen Heritage Center in Coon Valley, Wis., and at various woodcarving clubs. When asked, Becky said, “the best part of teaching is seeing when a student really gets it and comes into their own as a carver.”

Taking classes is a great way to learn and connect with other artisans in your community, but it is not always possible due to time and financial constraints. Family craft trades passed down through generations are also not as prevalent today and this is reflected in the absence of younger people taking up these traditional crafts.

Becky says every once and a while she will have a younger person in a class, similar to when she was learning, and perhaps there will always be at least a few younger students to take up woodworking. The millennial generation has already moved toward a “make your own job” mindset and with high value on quality handmade goods and local business, the sustainability of hand crafts feels more secure.

Photo courtesy of Lusk Scandia Woodworks
Mike Lusk bends wood for a traditional Scandinavian tine box.

Mike is primarily self-taught and describes his carving style as very minimal. He started with simple objects and has expanded into an expansive catalog of furniture, housewares, figures, and more. Many of Mike’s pieces are made as a base for carvers and painters.

Providing these designs for rosemalers has opened up an entire community of folk artists. Becky said, “Doing this type of work and demonstrating and exhibiting at Scandinavian festivals has brought us into a group of fun, talented people. We bounce ideas off of each other and sometimes collaborate on pieces. Just getting together with other artisans helps to keep us focused and inspired.”

In addition to her training, Becky has also taught herself, specifically her ale bowl carving and dragon style, which has had an increase of popularity because of the show Vikings. The Lusks are inspired by traditional Norwegian designs, as well as other artists. They look to museums, books, and even antique stores on their visits to Norway for new ideas.

While Mike works sometimes on a larger scale, Becky works more with figures, reliefs, ale bowls, and acanthus. Figure carving, more from Sweden than Norway (which focused on utilitarian woodwork), is more of an art form and Becky looks at old photographs to get an idea of clothing and customs that will work in her designs.

“My style of carving has a lot to do with living in this present time and looking back at life in the old days in Norway. I probably present a romanticized view of that time through my art,” she said.

Photo courtesy Lusk Scandia Woodworks
Two painted bowls are displayed with a selection of smaller objects.

Unfortunately, the Lusks have noted a decline in interest in Nordic-inspired woodcarving over the years.

“When we first started doing shows, there would be several other booths selling woodenware. As the years have gone by, many are no longer participating. At the same time, the number of people trying to make a living rosemaling or carving has also decreased.

“Attendance at Scandinavian shows has also decreased, making it harder for everyone involved to make a living. The younger generations are not holding on to traditions as much as the older generations did. The best we can hope for is that by producing traditional crafts and educating the public about the Scandinavian heritage that it will live on.”

Time will tell, as we all start to slow down a little more. Woodworking is a skill that anyone can learn, and with good tools, commitment, and willingness, entire communities and traditions become available. Mike and Becky Lusk have honed their craft for years and continue to share their passions with others. You can find them at their shop in Coon Valley and online at luskscandiawoodworks.com.

This article originally appeared in the May 21, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Laila Simon

Laila Simon is a writer in Minneapolis. She is a dual citizen of Norway and the United States and has been writing for The Norwegian American since 2017. When she’s not attempting ambitious recipes, Laila translates Norwegian poetry and adds to her houseplant collection.