Whittle While You Work: Decorah artist’s traditional carvings to be featured on PBS ‘Craft in America’
By Diana Nollen
December 20, 2013
Harley Refsal of Decorah has carved a niche in folk artistry so deep that even the King of Norway has taken notice.
PBS has taken notice, too, and is featuring the award-winning whittler in December’s “Craft in America” holiday episode, airing in various parts of the country at 8 p.m. today. Iowa Public Television, however, will show it at 2 a.m. Monday and 7 p.m. Wednesday. Wisconsin viewers can tune in at 12:30 p.m. Saturday.
A PBS crew filmed Refsal at work at the John C. Campbell Folk School in North Carolina this past March. That’s just one of the places he’s taught over the years. Thousands of students have learned the centuries-old techniques of Scandinavian flat-plane carving through his classes across the United States and Scandinavia. He’s also written three books on the topic, the most recent being “Whittle Little Folk,” published in 2011.
In 1996, Norway’s King Harald V awarded Refsal the St. Olav’s Medal for his efforts to revive the dying art form. A representative from the Honorary Consulate General in Minneapolis presented the medal in a ceremony in Decorah. The following year, Refsal had an audience with the king in Oslo-conversing in the sovereign’s native tongue.
Refsal, 68, grew up speaking Norwegian and English in his family’s farm home in rural Minnesota. He attended college in Minnesota. He attended college in Minnesota and Norway, and taught Norwegian language and Scandinavian fine handcraft at Luther College in Decorah from 1972 to 2010. He teaches there during the January interim term, where classes fill quickly.
“In a world when things are so high-tech, there’s a need for that which is low-tech but high-touch,” he says, adding that in earlier days, people didn’t turn to YouTube or classes for instruction. “They went to Grandma’s house, but now Grandma lives in a condo in Florida.”
Refsal has been carving for as long as he can remember, and didn’t have far to go for instruction. He learned the Scandinavia technique from his Norwegian immigrant grandfather who lived with them when Refsal was very young.
“Everybody did stuff with their hands-my mother, my dad and aunts and uncles-there was nothing unusual about that,” Refsal says by phone from his home in Decorah, where he plies his art in his basement, a local coffee shop or classrooms and folk-art demonstrations far and wide.
“I whittled and sort of putzed around with a knife when I was little,” he says. “I went to country school and we’d bring knives along to school and play games with them, and all sorts of things.”
As he got older, carving got shoved to the background until his college days. He went on a six-week European tour in 1965, between his sophomore and junior years, and says “it was love at first sight” when he saw the Norwegian villagers with their carved figurines. Unlike the impossibly difficult ornate carvings in the churches where his group sang, these little figurines looked “absolutely inviting and doable.”
So he purchased two pieces for $4 and $10, as gifts for his father and uncle.
“I brought (the figures) home, set them down in front of me and started carving,” he says. “It wasn’t quite as easy as it looked, but by that time, I was hooked.”
Fifty years later, he’s still whittling for a few hours every day when his schedule allows. His main tool is a knife he designed, appropriately dubbed a Harley knife. He uses the 2-inch blade to whittle figures from 2 or 3 inches up to 12 inches. Most are in the 5- to 7-inch range, all made out of linden wood he gets from a friend in northern Minnesota. He adds color with an acrylic stain, then dunks them in linseed oil or wax for a protective finish.
In the long-held traditions dating back to the 13th century, he carves what he sees, making sketches of interesting people who pass by.
“Someone’s very interesting nose may be the genesis” for one of his figures, he says. He also carves horses and roosters, which is a “very Scandinavian” tradition.
He sells most of his creations, and only has about half a dozen figures displayed in the home he shares with Norma, his wife of nearly 40 years.
He creates a different holiday ornament each year, priced “in the $30s,” while his figures start at $100. Eventually, they’ll be available online at Harleyrefsal.com, but for now, he handles sales via email at email@example.com and at events such as the recent Norwegian Christmas Weekend at Decorah’s Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum.
In another Scandinavian tradition, he’s passed his artistry to his two sons. Now young adults, they’re busy with graduate school, law school and getting established. He has no doubt they will pick up their knives again one day.
“They were doing it when they were so little, that they have it in their hands,” he says. “I’m sure they can return to it-and probably will at some time.”