In memoriam: Remembering Høstfest carver Steinar Karlsen

Photo: Barbara K. Rostad A Viking carved by Karlsen and backed by a sunset on the fjord. This piece was sold at Høstfest and will be shipped to Iceland.

Photo: Barbara K. Rostad
A Viking carved by Karlsen and backed by a sunset on the fjord. This piece was sold at Høstfest and will be shipped to Iceland.

Barbara K. Rostad
Coeur d’ Alene, Idaho

Almost everyone who attends Høstfest in Minot, N.D., stops for a photo at the troll bench next to the Troll Stage, snuggling up to a life-size painted troll with multiple smaller trolls carved into the back of the bench.

Or they pose next to one of the many carved columns featuring Viking warriors.

Maybe, as fans of the Lawrence Welk Show, they pause at the carving of Myron Floren, one of the earliest headliners at Høstfest.

Perhaps they toss rings toward the Antler Troll, hoping to win a prize.

Or they spot Terry Ree amid the crowd, thinking, “I recognize him,”—then realize it’s because he’s so well portrayed in the sculpture, “Willie and the White Guy,” that they can identify him just from having seen the statue. Ree and Bruce Williams are a pair of comedians who are a longtime Høstfest staple.

All these artworks were created by a single artist, Steinar Karlsen, whose chainsaw sculptures are found throughout the Høstfest halls at the North Dakota State Fairgrounds.

Created over a period of years in the late 90s and early 2000s, these works are a permanent legacy of Karlsen’s talent and Norwegian heritage, as well as a testimony to the cultural traditions Høstfest strives to preserve. This contribution was acknowledged posthumously with a plaque presented at the October 2 performance by Martina McBride in the Great Hall of the Vikings.

Karlsen died June 17, 2015, in Salmon, Idaho, on the day before his 74th birthday, following a five-year struggle with cancer and other complications. He had returned to his native Norway in 2010 for medical treatment but came back to the States a few weeks before his death.

Born in 1941 during the German occupation, he came to the U.S. in 1952 with his parents and siblings. One of his sisters, Astrid Karlsen Scott, is a well-known talent in the realm of writing and gave a presentation on her books at the Høstfest Author’s Corner this year. Karlsen too has written a book, Gift of the Wind, in which he explains his spiritual philosophy.

Leaving school at 16, Karlsen joined the Norwegian Merchant Marines to travel the world and live in five different countries. Later he worked in construction but also experimented with many different drawing and painting mediums including water color, oil, charcoal, ink, and tempera.

He was nearly 45 when he became a full-time artist, began sculpting in 1987, and in 1990 discovered chainsaw carving. By happenstance he met a cowboy producing life-size figures with a chainsaw and spent the next several months in Oregon helping him create wooden cowboys.

Then, in an act of roadside serendipity, he met another Oregonian, Bend Sons of Norway member Bruce Meland, who invited him to practice his new art form at Meland’s property. They would find suitable logs on that property for Karlsen to carve. Together they would haul the newest creations to Høstfest, a pattern that continued for several years.

As noted earlier, one of his most popular pieces is the bench troll, recently named Thorvald, who usually resides in Minot’s Visitor Center at Heritage Park but spends his days at the fairgrounds during Høstfest. Thorvald appeared on the September 2015 cover of Scandinavian Heritage News, published quarterly in Minot.

This year Meland arranged a Memorial Display at Høstfest to honor Karlsen’s memory and his extensive contribution to the largest Scandinavian Festival in North America. He was in attendance at the McBride concert when the plaque acknowledging Karlsen’s contribution was presented.

While visiting Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, in 2009, Karlsen attended a Sons of Norway Syttende Mai Fest and subsequently agreed to carve that lodge a statue of their namesake, Harald Haarfager. He created the statue of the first king to unite all of Norway in commemoration of the lodge’s Centennial Year, which they celebrated by hosting the 2010 Sons of Norway International Convention with the theme, “Viking Spirit United.”

That statue is now on loan by the lodge to the Museum of North Idaho in Coeur d’Alene, where some history about Karlsen, Harald Haarfager, and Norwegians in North Idaho is described.

Karlsen, who also carved other figures such as trolls, famous people, Native Americans, sea turtles, and more, had been heard to say that his favorite characters to carve are Vikings because “they symbolize the spirit that leads adventurous souls into uncharted areas.”

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.