These ‘folk schools’ teach heritage crafts
People are seeking them out to learn hands-on creative skills to balance out tech-filled lives.
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.
Holmen at work in a classroom.
Holmen’s sturdily traditional tools reflect the carving he teaches.
An acanthus plant being carved out, Norwegian-style.