Last summer and fall I worked with a marvelous team at the Valley Grove Preservation Society in Nerstrand, Minnesota, near Northfield. They were interested in commissioning a tapestry in traditional Norwegian billedvev for one of the two historic churches they are restoring. As a result of the planning and thorough grant-writing by Gary Wagenbach, Marlene Halverson, and Margit Johnson, I will be weaving four tapestries (approximately 20″ x 26″ each) for the beautiful and spare space within the stone church built in 1862. This project is funded by the National Fund for Sacred Spaces, a program of Partners for Sacred Places in collaboration with the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
A Summer Visit to the Churches
I was invited to visit the churches, about an hour away from the city. My schedule was flexible, but Marlene wanted me to come at 6 pm–that was the most beautiful time of late-summer light, slanting so slightly across the landscape. You can understand why I stopped the car when I caught my first glimpse of the churches across the rolling fields.
We greeted one another in the weird, masked, distanced way required and first stepped into the small stone church. It was built in 1862 and used by the Norwegian-American congregation until the larger wood church was built in 1894. The stone church was used later by the Ladies Aid as a gathering place for the congregation.
The restoration of the interior is beautifully done. Looking toward the former altar area is a sliding-door opening to the kitchen. You can imagine how many church dinners have been served in the last century.
And before those community gatherings, the pulpit was in this area.
We also spent time in the white wooden church from 1894.
Part of the impetus for this project was the possibility of grant money from the National Fund for Sacred Places, which was emphasizing traditional ethnic folk arts in their current round of funding. When we were inside this building, which had larger wall areas, and seemed to require much larger decorative elements, I suggested, in an off-hand way, that they could consider work in a different textile technique, because tapestry is such slow work and hence more expensive. I then stepped out to my car to retrieve one of my tapestries to show them. When I returned, a side conversation had obviously occurred. Tapestry was what they wanted!
After reviewing the spaces, we all were all most attracted to the spacious yet intimate, spare interior of the early stone church, and we returned there. I brought butcher paper to test out sizes and placement. In the end we decided on proposing four tapestries to hang below sconces on either side of the two long walls.
Looking through my email strings over the fall, I realize how hard we worked to develop a great project. Gary Wagenbach worked with the board for their approval. The grant application was on Version 7.0 by the time it was ready in December.
The four tapestries I envision will celebrate the history of the churches and the area. Tentatively, one will depict the land and flora of the area. The Valley Grove Preservation Society purchased 50 acres of land adjoining the churches and is restoring it to the native oak savannah landscape. Part of the Society mission reads, “To manage the surrounding 50 acres of land using the best understanding of how to create a landscape that approximates that experienced by the early Norwegian settlers.” The other three tapestries will incorporate the built environment, people, and wildlife.
During this project (and after) there will be a good deal of outreach. You can read about it in the description from the grant below, and I will post about it as plans are developed.
From the Grant Application
What type of folk art is featured in the grant application? Weaving/tapestry – Norwegian billedvev
Where will the completed work be located? The 1862 Stone Church, north and south walls
What are the anticipated completed dimensions? 4 tapestries, each 20” high x 26” wide
What cultural traditions are featured as part of the commissioned work? Norwegian billedvev or picture tapestry is a textile tradition in Norway that flourished between 1550 and 1850, and enjoyed a strong revival during the early 20th century . The Continental European tapestry tradition evolved in Norway as tapestry weaving spread from the coastal areas into the rest of the country. Norwegian women worked in small workshops and individually, creating figurative weavings representing familiar motifs and biblical stories.
Detailed Project Description:
The Valley Grove Preservation Society proposes to commission four tapestries, woven in the traditional billedvev style, to hang beneath the lighted sconces to further enhance the 1862 Stone Church. We propose to commission weaver Robbie LaFleur of Minneapolis to design and create these tapestries.
Construction of the Stone Church at Valley Grove began in 1862. The church was dedicated in 1868, complete with a raised pulpit, a small organ, an ornate chandelier, matching wall sconces, and a hand-carved arch that spanned the congregation sitting beneath the three-sided choir loft. Women sitting in that congregation had emigrated from Norway with the knowledge and skills to knit and weave. Indeed, they may have woven lap robes to keep their families warm in winter as they worshipped in the Stone Church. They were, no doubt, familiar with tapestry weaving.
As the congregation numbers grew, the Stone Church became too crowded. So the Norwegian settlers built the larger clapboard church in 1894, moving the pulpit, organ, and chandelier to the new church, and leaving the Stone Church a bit plainer as their Guild Hall.
In 1916 the Valley Grove Ladies’ Aid, founded in 1890, decided to remodel the Stone Church as a gathering place for their growing society and to host social gatherings of the congregation and neighborhood. They divided the spaces into a kitchen and meeting hall.
Recent efforts by the Valley Grove Preservation Society have restored the Stone Church in significant ways for its continued use as a gathering place. The original balcony and ceiling have been uncovered, the floor replaced, the chandelier and sconces reinstated, and an iconic rooster installed on the refurbished steeple.
The four tapestries proposed for the building will add visual interest and color to the interior of the Stone Church. Hanging beneath the sconces they will be easily seen, their bright colors and detailed figures illuminated by the lighting. In the tradition of Norwegian picture tapestries they will illustrate the stories of the first immigrants and pastors, the architecture and construction of the churches, the prairies and the Big Woods surrounding the site, and the animals common in the area. The style of tapestry weaving lends itself to small details, such as flowers and traditional patterns and symbols, interspersed with larger figures and motifs. It creates something of a visual “Easter egg hunt,” to quote Ms. LaFleur. The wool tapestries will be mounted and lined for hanging on the north and south walls.
During the winter season, when the unheated Stone Church is not used, the tapestries will be stored in a traveling case and made available for display in community spaces in nearby Nerstrand, Northfield and Faribault. Libraries, schools, historical society museums, community centers and senior centers are likely places to exhibit the tapestries accompanied by information about the tradition of Norwegian billedvev tapestry weaving and the stories behind these four tapestries and the Valley Grove churches.
An auxiliary benefit of the traveling tapestry exhibit is to raise awareness of the Valley Grove churches and the Preservation Society’s restoration efforts and social activities at the site. The Valley Grove Preservation Society board intends to launch a capital campaign to raise funds to restore the limestone exterior of the Stone Church. The tapestries will attract people to the Stone Church, which the board hopes will encourage them to donate to the capital campaign.
The four weavings will continue the Norwegian billedvev tradition, which has experienced a revival since the 1970’s and continues to be a popular textile art form in Norway and elsewhere. Community members throughout southern Minnesota will enjoy a new form of celebrating their local history and ties to the land. A broader audience will include Norwegian-Americans from other areas, weavers and other textile artists, and textile enthusiasts. The project will be publicized via local media outlets, the Weavers’ Guild of Minnesota, and the The Textile Center of Minnesota, Norway House, tapestry and weaving blogs, and the Norwegian Textile Newsletter, of which our commissioned artist Robbie LaFleur is the editor.
Ms. LaFleur will document the process of designing and weaving the tapestries through photographs and short videos. These visual aids will be added to the Valley Grove Preservation Society website featuring the four tapestries, and will be used during a lecture and in the traveling exhibits. Ms. LaFleur plans to offer a 2021 summer public event on site. She will speak about the tradition of Norwegian picture weavings and demonstrate her weaving techniques on a portable loom. She will also have a “sample loom” on hand for participants to try their hand at weaving a simple landscape picture.
If the pandemic prevents an in-person public gathering, Ms. LaFleur will offer an online presentation and weaving demonstration. Either event, in person or online, can be recorded and used on the Valley Grove website and in traveling exhibits.
My Artist Statement from the grant application
Medieval Norwegian tapestries told stories. In the 16th and 17th centuries, they came mostly from the Bible— instructional parables meant to illustrate moral lessons. During the resurgence of interest in tapestry during the National Romantic period of the late 1800s and early 1900s, folk tales were popular motifs.
The Valley Grove tapestries will tell a story in a set of four symbol-filled tableaus. They will pay homage to an enduring art form, one with deep ties to Norway.
Weaving a tapestry is slow work, building the images that come together into whole cloth. I hope to create a “whole cloth” Valley Grove church story, bringing together the plants, animals, the land, immigrants, and the churches they built.
These tapestries will be linked to a sacred place. They will hang in a historical church, but it is more than worshiping with a pastor that makes a place sacred. The land, with its particular form and geology, the animals supported in the landscape, the common struggle of people in the surrounding communities to build farms and lives and families—all these create a wider “sacred space” to honor in these tapestries. I hope these pieces will spark a sense of community among those whose families are from the church and from the surrounding region.
In Medieval Norwegian churches, tapestries were valued objects, adding color and warmth to places where community members came together. I have a fantasy that someone who saw a tapestry in a church in Hallingdal or Valdres made the difficult decision to travel across the ocean and found herself in Minnesota. Generations later, her great-great grandchild might see the new tapestries—a thread travels through time.
Robbie LaFleur, Minneapolis, 2020