Robbie LaFleur, September 2022
The Valley Grove Church Tapestries: Project background
Two beautiful churches, one in stone and one painted white, sit atop a hill near Nerstrand, Minnesota. Construction of the older stone church 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 Valley Grove 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.
Now four tapestries woven in traditional Norwegian tapestry–billedvev, or “picture weaving”–add color to the beautiful, spare interior of the Stone Church. They were funded through a grant from the Nordic Churches Project (part of Partners for Sacred Places) to the Valley Grove Preservation Society.
The tapestries illustrate the stories of the first immigrants and pastors, the architecture of the churches, the prairie 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.
Read about the tapestries (Click on the titles)
Artist Statement: Robbie LaFleur, 2022
Historical 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 tell a story in a set of four symbol-filled tableaus. They 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. My hope was to create a “whole cloth” Valley Grove church story, bringing together the plants, animals, the land, immigrants, and the churches they built.
These tapestries are linked to a sacred place. They hang in a historical church, but it is more than worshipping 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.
Some background on Norwegian Billedvev
Billedvev, the Norwegian word for tapestry, translates perfectly: picture weaving. Tapestry spread north to Scandinavia with itinerant weavers from Europe, and flourished in Norway during the 1600s and 1700s. Most tapestries were used as bed coverlets, though sometimes displayed on walls. The images were generally religious themes with instructive moral lessons. For example, the most commonly woven bridal coverlet image, relating the parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins, held a clear message to young brides, to be virginal and vigilant.
Norway never developed a professional guild system of trained tapestry weavers. Instead, Norwegian women of means learned the craft, and they wove in relative isolation. As patterns were shared, copied, and revised, the figures became flat and without perspective, and any empty spaces were filled with pattern. But the Norwegian billedvev designs held a charming freshness that was lacking in many Continental tapestries that were slavish copies of paintings.
Norwegian billedvev technique veered from Continental tapestry technique in important ways, likely because the tapestries were used as coverlets. Norwegian weavers wove in all of the loose ends on the back of the billedvev, so they were reversible. They also used decorative joins and dovetailing when colors joined along a straight line following a warp thread. Eliminating slits resulted in a more durable coverlet. Medieval coverlets were woven using weft of the strong and lustrous wool of Norwegian spelsau sheep, and warp of linen.
Billedvev died out in the early 1800s, but interest was revived at the end of the century, a time of National Romanticism and heightened interest in the roots of Norwegian folk arts. Researchers investigated the images, yarns, and the natural dyes used in centuries past, and patterns based on historical tapestries were sold by Den Norske Husfliden (the National Handcraft Society).
The Valley Grove Tapestries honor the tradition of billedvev with the use of flat, abstracted images. They were woven on an upright loom using Norwegian yarn from the same Norwegian spelsau breed found in Norway during the golden age of tapestry (roughly 1600-1750). Rather than relate biblical tales, the new tapestries focus on plants and animals of the Valley Grove area, the church buildings, and the Lutheran church community of Norwegian immigrants.
More about the project
Krause Paul. Valley Grove: A Living Tapestry. Only the first tapestry was complete when the film-maker was finishing his public television documentary about the Valley Grove Preservation Society, but the project inspired the title he chose.
LaFleur, Robbie. Valley Grove Project: Contemporary Billedvev Tapestry Weaving. Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum, March, 2022. A 48 minute webinar highlighting the Valley Grove tapestries and the process of designing and weaving them.
Thompson, Pamela. “Norwegian tapestries unveiled at Valley Grove Stone Church.” Northfield News, June 29, 2022.
More about Norwegian tapestry
Collections Connection: Billedvev (Tapestry Weaving). July, 2021. A 22-minute webinar sponsored by Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum gives background on Norwegian tapestry weaving, highlighting examples from the museum collection.
Support for the tapestry project
A grant from Partners for Sacred Places’ Nordic Churches Project provided the Valley Grove Preservation Society with funds to commission the four Norwegian billedvev tapestries.
The Nordic Churches Project helps historic churches in the Upper Midwest with cultural roots in Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden, preserve their buildings, encourage cultural appreciation and interest in folk art practices, and engage their broader communities.
Partners for Sacred Places, founded in 1989, is the only national, non-sectarian, nonprofit organization focused on building the capacity of congregations of historic sacred places to better serve their communities as anchor institutions, nurturing transformation, and shaping vibrant, creative communities.
To learn more, please visit sacredplaces.org.