Back in the classroom with VevangMPLS
A conversation with woodcarver Erik Vevang
St. Paul, Minn.
The pandemic put up barriers for educators at every level, from state universities and teaching hospitals to local craftspeople. Beyond the innovations that teachers have had to integrate into their lives to reach students, there was also a mental block that many creatives experienced during isolation. I spoke with Erik Vevang, a carver and woodcarving teacher in Minneapolis, about the transition back to teaching in person after a long hiatus and the challenges this poses.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Laila Simon: How did you begin woodcarving?
Erik Vevang: Specifically, the woodcarving that we teach, we started seven or eight years ago. My youngest brother was getting married and didn’t register anywhere, and my wife, Michele, read something that said, “Carve a spoon: what a great gift for someone — small, practical, pretty heartfelt.” We tried carving and it started a passion, particularly for Michele. We owned a hair salon at the time and Michele ran it, so she would carve as a way to unwind. From there, we learned more, got better tools, and took classes ourselves. We eventually started teaching, and have been teaching classes for maybe four years, three for sure.
LS: Where did you take classes when you were learning?
EV: We took them at North House Folk school which is in Grand Marais, MN. It certainly helped my carving a lot, and helped my teaching as well, by watching them manage and teach a class.
LS: When you started to learn, did you know you wanted to teach or were you inspired by the learning process?
EV: I didn’t know that I wanted to teach. I think it was inspiring and exciting to learn. It is a lot of fun to teach; we started offering classes just to friends and family as guinea pigs. Then eventually we expanded to other friends and began advertising online. We were, before the pandemic, teaching a couple classes per month. It turns out that I really enjoy teaching a lot. It’s really gratifying.
LS: How has the pandemic affected your outreach and your connection with students?
EV: We always taught small classes, in a small group setting. Ten people at the most. You’re sitting fairly close together, and it is an intimate process, where you’re coaching and helping, sitting next to people. We couldn’t do it during the pandemic. I did some work with Zoom online and that was fine, but I didn’t pursue it. We actually didn’t even carve that much which is really surprising if you have all this time. Instead, it was kind of the opposite where it’s like maybe the pressure was off so we didn’t do anything. It was an interesting response to that situation.
LS: What are the types of carvings that you like to make?
EV: For carving, I’ve been doing a lot of spoons. I’ve also carved bowls, in a traditional fashion as well as other household items like cutting boards, hooks, handles, and any small things that we needed around the house. Once you can carve a spoon you can figure out how to carve anything small. Spoons are small, so that skill is very transferable.
LS: When you teach beginning classes, do you start with a spoon?
EV: We start with a practice stick, so our beginning classes are brief, they are three hours which is quite short for an introductory class. A lot of beginner’s classes are a full day or even more. We start with knife grips and knife safety, practicing grips. I provide what I call a spoon blank, which is a roughed-in shape of a spoon, and we start carving. By the end, three hours goes by really fast, and most people have a sort of small spoon. Bowl carving would be a fabulous class; I’d love to do that. But we don’t really have enough tools to share and you can’t really ask people to buy those tools as they can be expensive.
LS: I’m curious about what kind of tools you need to get started. What do you think the barriers to woodworking are, if there are any?
EV: Woodworking in general and specifically woodcarving, is a mindset. You have to be willing to explore and try new things. I think that’s the main thing. Physically, most people have the ability. But you really need to have an exploratory mind set, to be willing to try it. The tools themselves are quite simple, just a carving knife, with a 2-inch blade, and then a hook knife, which has a curved blade, used to hollow out the bowl of the spoon.
LS: Could you tell me a little bit about your Nordic connection?
EV: I have family in Norway. My Dad was born in Norway. The town where he was from is Vevang, a small farming and fishing village of just a few hundred people. That is where we got our name. So, I did spend some time in Norway in the summers as a kid. I still have aunts and cousins and uncles over there.
The particular style of carving that we do is also a Scandinavian style. It’s an old-fashioned craft that fell out of favor when people stopped making their own implements. It became easier and cheaper just to buy a metal spoon. And there were woodworkers and crafters, particularly in Sweden, who preserved the craft and taught it to new generations and that’s how it has come down to us. It’s traditional. Wood is such a ubiquitous material that every culture has their own carving tradition. It’s part of living with wood—you’re going to use it.
LS: There is a return to traditional crafts. What is it that draws people to work with their hands and go back to these crafts?
EV: Yeah, there is! I think woodcarving and spoon carving is an offshoot of that same general interest in doing things on your own, be it gardening or weaving or sewing. I think there is a certain appeal to something that is tangible. I think a lot of people in their daily lives have jobs where not a lot is tangible. You’re in front of the computer all the time. We’re also at a point where a lot of people can buy what they want, they can go to IKEA and get stuff. I think there is a desire for authenticity and something that has a deeper meaning than the churn of stuff that we all go through.
The other aspect of carving is there is a certain satisfaction from the physicality of it. People talk about a runner’s high, or you go for a brisk walk and you feel better. I think there is that same physicality when you’re doing something with your hands. There’s a certain pleasure, maybe that’s not the right word and maybe in other languages they have a word for it, but there is certain satisfaction with carving. There is also a mental component to it. You’re dealing with real sharp tools, and you have to pay attention to something, and your mind can’t wander and ruminate on all your other problems! You are forced to slow down and concentrate. It’s a great way to relax, I think. I find that about two hours into the class, it’s almost always completely silent.
LS: Where do you teach?
EV: I’ve been working with the Marine Mills Folk School, and I’ve been teaching with them for two years. And then at our studio, VevangMPLS, in northeast Minneapolis, 2807 Johnson St, we have a storefront and teach classes. We teach at Ingebretsen’s Nordic Marketplace too. We have those three spots right now, and I’m always looking for other opportunities.
LS: What is it about teaching that you enjoy?
EV: That’s a great question. I think it’s fun to see people’s progress. When you start with someone who perhaps has never held a knife before, aside from a paring knife, there’s a delight in seeing that person learn. Even over the course of three hours, people learn and grow and become confident about what they’re doing. They produce something that they never would have believed they could have done. That appeals to me a lot. Helping that and watching that is a lot of fun. Sharing something that I like to do is a lot of fun too, trying to inspire people.
As classes of all kinds are opening up again, you can find class listings and available carved products by Erik and Michele at vevangmpls.com
All photos courtesy of VevangMPLS
This article originally appeared in the Sept. 3, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.