Vesterheim offers classes in person and virtually
Connecting people with handcrafts and folk-art traditions
The Norwegian American
Nestled in the northwest corner of Iowa, Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum and its hometown of Decorah are exploding with Norwegian heritage. From Luther College to radio station KVIK to Viking State Bank & Trust to Aase Haugen Senior Services and their independent living homes Nabotunet and Vennehjem, it is clear to see the lasting impact Norwegian Americans have had on the town.
Vesterheim is home to a nearly 60,000-piece collection, which grew from the efforts of individual Norwegian Americans at Luther College in the late 19th century. Since then, it has grown into one of the nation’s largest museums dedicated to a single immigrant group.
Education at Vesterheim got its formal start when it offered its first two classes in 1967. These classes taught Hardanger embroidery and rosemaling and were led by artists from Decorah and Norway, respectively. By the next year, the program included five classes with 63 students from 12 states.
Today, Andrew Ellingsen is the director of folk art education at Vesterheim. Ellingsen first became involved with the folk-art school when he took a Sámi-inspired bracelet class with Norma Refsal. Then, while stuck at home in 2020, Ellingsen became captivated by this art form.
In a world that was so big and scary, making bracelets served as a small, beautiful way to focus on something within his control and offered a creative and therapeutic outlet. Ultimately, his love for this northern folk art led him to apply for a position at Vesterheim. After a stint working with online programming, he stepped into his current role as director and has been there for nearly three years now. Ellingsen also says he’s made somewhere around 1,000 bracelets.
The COVID-19 pandemic pushed the Folk Art School to explore new ways to facilitate creativity from a distance. Ellingsen explained that while “there were very few silver linings to the pandemic, pushing Vesterheim into an online platform transformed our ability to bring Vesterheim educational opportunities to people where they are.”
The development of Vesterheim’s virtual programming has endured past the height of COVID infections and continues to encourage engagement in folk art. There can be significant time and cost barriers to traveling to Decorah. Through virtual programming, Vesterheim has been able to remove some of those barriers, which has greatly increased enrollment in folk-art classes. In 2019, about 600 or 700 students came from 28 or 29 states to Vesterheim for classes. However, by 2021, more than 5,000 individuals from all 50 states and 18 different countries participated in either online or in-person programming.
Although Vesterheim is not the only place to find instruction in folk arts, these classes stand out because of their strong connection to the museum’s collection. Ellingsen gives the example of a class studying rosemaling being able to “go into the collection that is not on display in the museum and go into collection storage with someone from the collections team and the instructor and pull specific pieces that are in the style of rosemaling that they’re studying and see those absolutely stunning objects up close and personal gives the class a different connection to culture and history than it would otherwise.”
Conversely, visiting artists can teach classes based on inspiration from the collection, and Ellingsen explains that it gives a “real connection from the historic piece — the artifact — to the contemporary application of the handcraft and the skill.”
Every year, Vesterheim also leads two or three tours to Norway, each with a different focus. The folk-art school has led one of these tours almost every other year for multiple decades. In 2023, tours were focused on coastal heritage, folk art, and textiles in both Norway and England.
The folk-art tour, entitled “Looking Forward, Looking Back” revolved around traditional folk art and contemporary interpretations of the same art. More specifically, the group learned about Norwegian jewelry-making, fiber art, and architecture, and it examined these disciplines both “from a historic perspective and in the contemporary lens and how those things are continuing to grow and change in Norwegian culture.”
As far as the future of education at Vesterheim is concerned, Ellingsen says he hopes that in-person programming continues to serve as the strong core of the experience. But with such a demand for classes, he recognizes that the “move to the online format for some of our programming has really helped us connect with more folks in more places on a more frequent basis. This two-pronged approach to education has led to massive growth for Vesterheim, but it cannot replace the impact of an in-person course.”
Ellingsen is also excited about finding new ways to support folk artists at every level through the continued development of Vesterheim’s Folk Art Apprentice and Residency programs. Regardless of the format participants choose, Ellingsen simply hopes to “connect people with handcrafts and folk-art traditions that add meaning and joy to their life.”
All images courtesy of Vesterheim
This article originally appeared in the October 2023 issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.