A nisse’s work is never done

Norwegian artist works year-round to realize a dream

Studio Bodil nisse

Photo: Bodil Østmo-Sæter
The nisser at Studio Bodil are known for their realistic facial expressions.

Lori Ann Reinhall
The Norwegian American

It was always Bodil Østmo-Sæter’s dream to make dolls, but she never got the chance until family obligations forced her to take a break from her busy schedule at the Bergen Art Academy. Her second child was on the way, and before she knew it, a third was coming. With time, there were five children to take care of, but the time at home gave her the opportunity to step back from her usual work and realize her dream.

Bodil Østmo-Sæter with nisse

Photo: Bodil Østmo-Sæter
Artist Bodil Østmo-Sæter with her good friend, her own life-sized nisse.

Østmo-Sæter (hereafter referred to as Bodil, as she is far too friendly for formalities) is an artist by profession, with an education in the visual arts. Ever since she was a schoolchild, she has enjoyed drawing and working in all kinds of media. But in the end, she found her true calling in nisser, the Norwegian gnomes of days gone by. Today, alongside teaching art, these fantastic little elves are a big part of her livelihood. And I have to add that after seeing them, it is easy to understand how one can build a business around these special little creatures.

But to backtrack a bit, Bodil’s unusual career got started when she one day sat down and decided to make a porcelain doll for her 6-year-old daughter. While she had no formal training in making dolls, her technique was more or less self-developed. Granted, her knowledge of drawing, anatomy, sculpture, and molds gave her a foundation to build upon, but her first creations more or less evolved organically, and that is still very much the way she works today.

Baking nisse

Photo: Bodil Østmo-Sæter
And then there is the Christmas baking for Mrs. Nisse every year.

In the early 1990s, Bodil became inspired to start making nisser for Christmas presents for family and friends, and things took off from there.  They were so life-like and full of expression that soon everyone wanted one. The artist turned doll-maker started to go to Christmas markets to sell her nisser, where she consistently sells out each year. Over the years, she has made thousands of nisser—she has not kept track of the exact number—each with a certain individuality.  It is a unique product that comes out of a unique process, I learned.

When I asked Bodil from where she draws her inspiration, she told me that she feels a “special affinity” with the nisse, and somehow, they come to life in her own head before they take physical shape. She has never used human models, and she does not do any planning or sketching in advance.  The artist explained that something thought out or overworked easily becomes unnatural: “The nisse decides how he will look, and Bodil follows,” she said. Sometimes it takes only an hour or so for one of them to come to life, and other times, it can take several days. 

While Bodil functions as a “medium for the preternatural” in her own imagination, she also takes inspiration from old postcards and books, from both Norway and Sweden. The tradition is very rich in western Norway in Voss and Hardanger, not far from where Bodil lives in Kolltveit, outside of Bergen.

Nisse porridge

Photo: Bodil Østmo-Sæter
What would Christmas be for nisse without a good bowl of porridge?

It is the tradition of the gårdsnisse, the farm gnome that comes to life in Bodil’s studio. She explains that nisse was originally the farmer who built the farm, and he continues to live there in the barn, to make sure the farm is taken care of. In particular, he is very fond of animals, especially horses and cats. 

The gårdsnisse is small in stature and has a long white beard. He wears woolen clothes to keep warm, a gray or red cap, and wooden shoes, which he has made himself. These traditions and details are very important to Bodil, who painstakingly works to preserve them. She regrets that the Anglo-American Santa Claus is gaining so much ground in Norway, as the old ways are being lost. 

For the artist, it is important that Norwegians, especially younger generations, remember the traditions and values of the past. This is one of the reasons why she teaches children how to make their own nisser in her classes. “Children have a wonderful way of expressing themselves,” she said. “They see things in a different way; their imaginations are freer.” She gets inspired from working with the kids, where new ideas always emerge.

Bodil crafts the nisse dolls with her bare hands, starting by creating the core of the heads with aluminum foil. She then uses Super Sculpey, a clay product that she orders from the United States on the internet, and things begin to take shape. She sews the little clothes by hand and creates the intricate accessories. One of her nisse even played the Hardanger fiddle, which earned her a prestigious award.

Studio Bodil nisser

Photo: Bodil Østmo-Sæter
No detail is too big or small to escape close attention by the artist. Here an award-winning nisse plays the Hardanger fiddle.

And Bodil’s artistry certainly has not gone without notice: she has won numerous competitions for her dolls, both in Norway and the United States. When I asked her what sets her dolls apart, she underlined it is their facial expressions that speak to people. “You can’t put your finger on it,” said Bodil, “it’s something intangible, something magical.” Nisse magic.

When she is not making dolls or teaching art classes, Bodil finds time to make ceramic objects, drawings, and angel faces, some which can be seen on her website at www.studiobodil.com/eng. The angels have a special meaning for her as a representation of what is best in people, and they are, of course, very popular at Christmastime.

Bodil has also made many dolls for museums, where they are needed to display old clothes. She explained that people were much smaller at one time, and modern mannequins have different dimensions. Unfortunately, many museums have faced budget cuts in recent years, and more of their money is allocated to IT projects as opposed to traditional crafts. Projecting images on a screen is faster and cheaper in a world that is moving very fast.

But you can still slow down and visit Bodil’s studio at her home in Kolltveit to see her nisser, but these days, outside of the Christmas markets, most of her business is done online via her Facebook page at www.facebook.com/Bodils-Nisseverksted-128502583885551. And the demand is very high: once she posts new dolls, they sell out immediately. She has had customers from the United States, and even American-Norwegian singer Chris Medina of American Idol fame has put in an order. Prices start at NOK 1,000, depending on the size, clothing, and accessories, even though smaller dolls can be just as much work as the larger ones. She intentionally keeps her prices down: “Everyone who dreams of owning a nisse should have one,” is her motto.

Studio Bodil nisser

Photo: Bodil Østmo-Sæter
Even Mr. and Mrs. Nisse enjoy a good bottle of holiday juleøl.

Bodil works year-round non-stop to keep her nisse business going, and you may even find her working on a nisse on a beach in Spain during her summer holidays. It’s all part of her dream, a dream that will soon become a reality. With her husband retiring next year, the couple is looking at an old farm to buy to fill up with nisser of all sizes. 

A Norwegian nisse farm: an unusual, intriguing business concept. For one, I’m betting on its success—and one thing is for sure: Bodil and the nisser will take very good care of the farm, which is certain to be a place enjoyed by visitors from far and wide. 

This article originally appeared in the December 27, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Lori Ann Reinhall

Lori Ann Reinhall, editor-in-chief of The Norwegian American, is a multilingual journalist and cultural ambassador based in Seattle. She is the president of the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association, and she serves on the boards of several Nordic organizations.