These ‘folk schools’ teach her­itage crafts

Peo­ple are seek­ing them out to learn hands-on cre­ative skills to bal­ance out tech-filled lives.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Living - By KIM ODE

THERESA Craw­ford eyed the 2.5m piece of tim­ber, a far more for­mi­da­ble chunk of wood than the slen­der lengths she usu­ally carves into St Ni­cholas fig­ures. Over two days, she’d chis­elled out long bevels and deep notches, stand­ing in a grow­ing pile of pine shav­ings.

The post’s fu­ture is func­tional – to dis­play the ad­dress at the fam­ily cabin. But in the tra­di­tion of folk art, why not make it beau­ti­ful? Why not make it her­self? Craw­ford re­cently drove over 700km from her home in South Dakota to Grand Marais, Min­nesota, for her first class at the North House Folk School, drawn by the chance to cre­ate some­thing both hand­made and use­ful.

The class al­lowed in­struc­tor Jock Hol­men of Burnsville to put into prac­tice what a Nor­we­gian mas­ter carver once told him: “Don’t die with what you know.”

“He was all about, ‘share, share, share’,” says Hol­men, who teaches at var­i­ous folk schools in the north­ern United States, in­clud­ing North House and the Vester­heim Folk Art School in Dec­o­rah, Iowa.

Of course, you can only share if some­one’s will­ing to ab­sorb. But there are more and more thirsty minds, judg­ing by the steadily grow­ing folk school move­ment in the United States, where there are more than 200 schools of vary­ing de­scrip­tion.

In the past decade, sev­eral have opened in Min­nesota, join­ing stal­warts like the North House, in its 20th year, and the Mi­lan Vil­lage Arts School, which opened in 1988.

What ex­actly is a folk school?

The folk school con­cept is rooted in the Dan­ish folke­ho­jskole, or folk high school, founded by Dan­ish teacher and politi­cian N.F.S. Grundtvig as a bal­ance to the more elite uni­ver­si­ties. Life­long learn­ing, he be­lieved, re­sulted in a strength­ened com­mu­nity.

Greg Wright, North House’s ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor, agrees, cit­ing the school’s mis­sion.

“We’re en­rich­ing lives and build­ing com­mu­nity through the teach­ing of tra­di­tional north­ern crafts,” he says. “It’s re­ally im­por­tant that the state­ment doesn’t start out by say­ing ‘to teach craft skills’, but ‘to en­rich lives’. Craft is the ve­hi­cle that leads to the gath­er­ing.”

At the Ely Folk School, which opened three years ago, many cour­ses re­flect the re­gion’s Fin­nish and Slove­nian her­itage, with classes about mak­ing pot­ica pas­try and pasties, snow­shoes and wool slip­pers. As its web­site states: “Folk schools are havens for in­ter­ac­tion and re­newal. Their mis­sion is to in­spire, not com­pel. They en­cour­age learn­ing for life in­stead of for ex­ams.”

That said, some schools are tweak­ing the tra­di­tional model and mak­ing their venues mul­tipur­pose des­ti­na­tions. At Lanes­boro’s Ea­gle Bluff Skills School, which opened in 2013, the em­pha­sis is on help­ing peo­ple lead “a more bal­anced and sus­tain­able life”, and it draws on the area’s strong Amish pres­ence.

The Du­luth Folk School opened last year with what co­founder Bryan French en­vi­sions as “a mul­ti­pronged busi­ness” that in­cludes skills classes, but also space for artists and mak­ers to rent stu­dios, and even­tu­ally a cafe and store.

“Be­ing just a folk school is not enough for us to be fi­nan­cially suc­cess­ful,” French says. “We’re be­ing a lit­tle bit looser. For ex­am­ple, we had an in­tro to kayak­ing class last week­end. It’s not a Scan­di­na­vian thing, but a thing that peo­ple want to do.

“We have classes on learn­ing to use a chain­saw with­out cut­ting off your fin­ger, or learn­ing to play the banjo.

“But there’s also rug-mak­ing or learn­ing to carve a di­a­mond wil­low trekking stick.”

Den­mark via North Carolina

The first folk school in the United States was the John C. Camp­bell Folk School near Brasstown, North Carolina, founded in 1925 by John and Olive Camp­bell. She’d dis­cov­ered the folke­ho­jskole con­cept while in Den­mark and thought that fewer ru­ral peo­ple would move to the cities if they had a saleable skill that also pre­served their cul­ture.

To­day, it serves more than 6,000 stu­dents an­nu­ally, at­tract­ing “a lot of very smart, young, en­tre­pre­neur­ial peo­ple look­ing, af­ter the econ­omy bombed out in 2008, for other ways they could be their own bosses”, says Keather Gougler, mar­ket­ing man­ager.

While they al­ways will teach the Ap­palachian crafts indige­nous to the east­ern United States, the ros­ter is chang­ing with the times. There’s a class in cook­ing over an open hearth, but also one on sushi.

Wright cred­its the maker and do-it-your­self move­ments with North House be­com­ing a multi­build­ing cam­pus that now draws more than 2,300 stu­dents to 400some classes.

Like Camp­bell, North House also re­flects its ge­o­graph­i­cal place. “Peo­ple who live here re­ally do still chop wood and make snow­shoes as a part of their lives,” he says.

In one of the stal­wart classes, stu­dents learn to build a wood-fired brick bread oven. The quirki­est class may be one in which you build your own cas­ket, which car­ries the tagline, “bury your­self in your work”.

Ac­cord­ing to Wright, many stu­dents en­rol to step away from tech­nol­ogy and build some­thing with their hands.

“Sur­fac­ing when it did, the school did an­swer some kind of call,” he says. “We say that smart­phones play a big role here: Peo­ple ei­ther want to get away from them, or they need them to find North House.”

Gen­er­ally speak­ing, the typ­i­cal folk school stu­dent is older, “some­one who has the time, in­ter­est, and the money, as well as a strong in­ter­est in life­long learn­ing”, Wright says.

Tim Har­ri­son of Orono came to Grand Marais for the class on build­ing a brick oven. Whether he ends up build­ing his own de­pends on find­ing a proper site, “but the fun part is the process – al­most more so than hav­ing it”.

This is his sec­ond class at North House.

“The more you ex­pe­ri­ence it, the more you want to ex­pe­ri­ence it,” he says. “It’s kind of like life: You should en­joy the process, be­cause it’s a lot more re­ward­ing than the fin­ish line.”

Does birch­bark mat­ter?

French em­pha­sises that folk schools en­able peo­ple to try a skill on for size, as well as con­nect with others.

“I can’t help but won­der at the pre­pon­der­ance of ways we so­cially iso­late our­selves, and not even in a neg­a­tive way,” he says. “It’s so easy to get wrapped into an e-mail chain, or phones. I use those things like every­body does. But peo­ple crave in­ter­ac­tion, to phys­i­cally en­gage in their world in a way that may be the less than ob­vi­ous choice.”

Maybe that’s an in­tro­duc­tion to rais­ing back­yard chick­ens, or how to graft ap­ple trees.

“It’s so grat­i­fy­ing to watch peo­ple kind of get elec­tri­fied dur­ing class,” says French, “to see them get out of their nor­mal mode and try some­thing.”

At North House, a 10-month in­tern­ship pro­gramme is help­ing at­tract more young peo­ple to cam­pus “who get to meet se­nior in­struc­tors and be­gin to think about what’s pos­si­ble”, Wright says.

“It comes around to other ques­tions: Where does the fu­ture of craft come from? How do we move that for­ward an­other notch? In an era of driver­less cars, does birch­bark weav­ing mat­ter?”

It does, says wood­carver Jack Hol­men – he’s also known as the Nor­we­gian Ter­mite (get it?). He says he of­ten emerges from a class stint with re­newed op­ti­mism.

“When you get the 30some­things and younger in here, so many stu­dents push my bound­aries with new ideas of what’s pos­si­ble, what they see in the wood,” he says. “It makes it all sorts of fun.”

They leave with some­thing they’ve made with their hands, but also with his guid­ing phi­los­o­phy in their heads: Don’t die with what you know.

— Pho­tos: TNS

Hol­men at work in a class­room.

Hol­men’s stur­dily tra­di­tional tools re­flect the carv­ing he teaches.

An acan­thus plant be­ing carved out, Nor­we­gian-style.

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