Crafts rock all five senses at Norsk Høstfest

From handicrafts to food, dance, and music, this massive festival preserves culture

Photo: Barbara K. Rostad Don Karsky, a staple at Høstfest for years, is weaving his colorful ethnic flag products, such as placemats and table runners. Here he produces a Norwegian flag motif.

Photo: Barbara K. Rostad
Don Karsky, a staple at Høstfest for years, is weaving his colorful ethnic flag products, such as placemats and table runners. Here he produces a Norwegian flag motif.

Barbara K. Rostad
Coeur d’ Alene, Idaho

Where can one hear Norwegian duo Didrik and Emil Solli-Tangen, take a class in Swedish clog dancing, watch an expert Danish paper cutter, and talk to an Icelandic Viking re-enactor all in the same day?

Only at Norsk Høstfest, presented every fall in Minot, N.D., the largest Scandinavian festival in North America where a broad range of arts and crafts, music, and food fills seven separate halls, two villages, and a mezzanine with all things Scandinavian.

Woodturner Phil Holtan says of his craft, “I love everything about it: the energizing burst of a new idea and the painstaking pace of problem solving, the challenge of mastering tools to bring into being what I had only imagined. For me, it is an act of both faith and imagination to turn a bowl.”

These words would likely resonate with many of the artisans found at Høstfest as they pursue a craft they love, a heritage they cherish, and a larger sense of self connected to past, present, and future.

For this reason an overview of the incredible variety of crafts found at Høstfest is presented here as a sampling of the vast artistic avenues pursued today by those wishing to develop old skills and preserve tradition while pushing these crafts to new heights and passing them on to others.

One such person is Holtan, 2013 Høstfest Artist of the Year, who has immersed himself for 30 years in this craft with Norwegian roots. He has made five trips to Norway to learn, and he is passing on his knowledge through DVDs and woodturning classes in which he has already taught over 1,100 students.

Also a Lutheran pastor, Holtan says, “I am reminded that God doesn’t work with perfect material either. So I must trust that in this distressed and unlikely wood, burled, decayed, worm-eaten, twisted, bird-pecked, in this least likely looking material, most of all, there is the promise of beauty.”

That same passion drives others as well. Jørgen Sando, a fourth generation goldsmith, is a member of the Norwegian Goldsmith Association founded by his great-grandfather Kolbjørn Sando. He makes specialty brooches for bunads as well as other creations.

Handmade replicas of sterling silver jewelry is the specialty of Birte Nellesen of Corvallis, Mont. A thousand years ago Scandinavians believed silver was moonlight that turned into metal under magical conditions. She noted that Scandinavians mined silver but also traveled to Arabia to trade goods for silver coins they could melt down to make jewelry.

Another metalworker intrigued with ancient designs is Pedro Bedard who was stationed in the Viking Village to demonstrate repoussé, the old art of hammering designs in bronze.

Kelsey Patton of Stromsburg, Neb., raises Icelandic sheep, then spins and knits with their wool. She wears clothing typical for a Viking woman of the 900s from Sweden. A visitor to both Sweden and Norway, she taught a class on tablet weaving at Høstfest University where people may take three-hour or daylong classes for about $25 per hour.

Photo: Barbara K. Rostad Geir Ness appeals to the sense of smell with two Norwegian perfumes based on “the fresh scents of Norway.” Ness chats with a customer while wearing his unique t-shirt marketing tool.

Photo: Barbara K. Rostad
Geir Ness appeals to the sense of smell with two Norwegian perfumes based on “the fresh scents of Norway.” Ness chats with a customer while wearing his unique t-shirt marketing tool.

Some of the other classes offered at the 2015 event were Swedish clog dancing, Arctic flute making, a felting workshop, bunad embroidery, or Viking Age carving.

Ethnic flags, table runners, placemats, and coasters hand woven by Don Karsky of St. Croix Falls, Wis., won an award at Høstfest in 2012. A large loom for weaving is part of his display so the artist may be observed bringing threads together to form any one of the five Scandinavian flags. Flag motifs form the bulk of Karsky’s Kraft, providing colorful products.

Among the many booths of rosemalers, Helga Kennedy of Story City, Iowa, offers a unique combination of Hardanger embroidery and rosemaling on some of her pieces. Her friend Diane Hoven supplies the Hardanger in relatively small patches, for example, a single heart, which Helga then frames and adds her rosemaling to either the wooden frame or, in other instances, to the glass itself.

Viking Era Master Carver Jay Haavik, of Seattle, began his professional career doing art forms of the Northwest Coastal Native people, such as totem poles, masks, and more. In the late 1990s he got excited about wood carvings from the Viking Era after making several trips to Norway, the land of his heritage.

Then in 2003 he received a Norwegian Marshall Fund Award to study at the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo, Norway. He has studied and worked extensively there. In June 2010 he was hired by the New Oseberg Foundation in Norway to be the lead carver for a replica of the Oseberg Viking ship.

Haavik has had exhibits in his own backyard at Seattle’s Nordic Heritage Museum in 2002 and in 2004 at Pacific Lutheran University, plus many others across the U.S.

Of course, many visitors to Høstfest wear their Norwegian sweaters, and many varieties were for sale at shops throughout the festival, but most compelling were the more than 70 hand-knit sweaters shown on the stage by folks of every age from a sleeping baby to grandpas and grandmas. Behind each was a story, often one spanning 50 years or more. For example, Katherine Moe, now in her later years, knit her first Norwegian sweater at age nine.

Norwegian sweaters became national sportswear once the design labeled “Marius” became coveted. Top-ranked Olympic skier Stein Eriksen and his brother Marius, also a skier, popularized that design from Setesdal.

Setesdal sweaters often feature cross designs and what are called “lice,” row upon row of little white dots. Valdres sweaters often feature hearts in the pattern, some upside down. The Selbu sweater, featuring the eight-point snowflake, sometimes called the Selbu rose, has also continued to be popular over 100 years.

Emcee Helene Anderson, who has also knit many sweaters, relayed the stories about each sweater and commented on the styles and colors, calling attention to such details as hand embroidery or buttons made from Norwegian coins no longer in use.

When sweaters wore out, making another identical to it was common practice. Worn-out sweaters actually became the source of inspiration for one Høstfest artist who fashions heart-shaped Christmas ornaments from segments of such sweaters.

And of course, Norwegian sweaters and skiing are inseparable. Tarjei Gjelstad, Director of the Norwegian Ski Museum in Morgedal, made wooden skis at the Telemark booth.

Icelandic Viking Jarl Gunnar Olafson, a direct descendant of two famous Viking kings, Harald Haarfager and Harald Hardrada, manages the Viking Festival in his country. He was part of the Viking Village last year and this year brought his teenage daughter along, both dressed in authentic Viking garb.

Also in the Viking Village can be found handmade long bows of the Viking Age, nearly as tall as the person holding it. Blacksmiths are forging hot iron into different items used a thousand years ago such as helmets, weapons, hinges, and bolts.

Those gathered in the Tromsø Cultural Village also aim to preserve early times. Here one can learn Sámi braiding techniques, try felting with wool from Norwegian sheep, hear fairy tales, and play traditional games.

In addition to the two villages just described, Høstfest is scattered over several other halls. All linked together by connecting covered walkways, they form a vast panoply of events and displays to overwhelm the five senses. Visual overload happens easily. All the artists described so far are engaged in creating something to look at. Sweaters, bunads, rosemaling, and Danish paper cutting are just a few of the visual delights.

Much is touchable too, especially the sweaters, balls of yarn, woven fabrics, and carvings.

Laila and Geir, two Norwegian perfumes created by Geir Ness, are heady scents. Also wafting everywhere are mingled aromas of many foods, ranging from Viking-on-a Stick to a six-course dinner at En To Tre, a restaurant with Norwegian chefs offering such fare as juniper-cured reindeer, smoked salmon, and beef tenderloin. Of course, these are not just to smell, but to taste.

Finally, there is “The Sound of Music” throughout all the halls. There are 10 areas for performers with programming from 8:30 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. at most of them.

Big names for 2015 were the likes of Martina McBride, Celtic Thunder, and Ronnie Milsap, all in the Great Hall of the Vikings. But many fine entertainers gave free performances on the other stages. Among them was the much-loved “Norwegian Cowboy” Bjøro Håland, celebrating his 30th year with Høstfest.

Other platforms offered accordion music, pianists, Scandinavian folk music, Swedish dancers and cloggers, Western Plains Children’s Choir all in bunads, and more.

Another audio/visual experience was the Author’s Corner with readings by novelists Lauraine Snelling and Vidar Sundstøl, Astrid Karlsen Scott’s nonfiction, and children’s books by the Christmas Wish Family: Anja, photographer Per Breiehagen, and writer Lori Evert.

The quick review of ways to experience the five senses at Høstfest is to explain that gathered in this single spot in Minot there exists on an annual basis the opportunity to see, hear, touch, taste, and smell a cornucopia of Scandinavian heritage that is likely unrivaled in its breadth and depth. This massive presentation of cultural material in a way that allows a lot of visitor participation creates the potential to snowball into an avalanche of renewed appreciation for Scandinavian heritage.

Does that sound like an ad for Høstfest? Actually, it’s an endorsement of strategies to protect and preserve treasured cultural traditions. It’s easier to treasure something you have seen, even tried to do. Some visitors will be inspired to develop a new skill and thus join the parade of torch bearers. Others contribute by purchasing a cultural item relevant to them. Together with museums, camps, festivals, films, and books, appreciation for Scandinavian arts and crafts can be fostered.

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 23, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.