Harley Refsal and Craft in America


Harley Refsal and Craft in America
December 13, 2013

Of course we all know him primarily as the approachable, down-to-earth, and beloved woodcarving instructor at Vesterheim’s Folk Art School and a tour leader for the museum’s popular Sámi tours-but Harley Refsal, who received the St. Olav Medal for the work he has done promoting Scandinavian folk art, in particular the flat-plane figure carving he is noted for, has now received broad national attention as one of the most notable folk artists in America. The prestigious PBS series Craft in America has recognized the seminal role Harley has played in American folk art, featuring him in a new episode, Holiday, which premiered on most PBS stations on December 20. If you missed it, the episode will be available for viewing on the PBS website for a time after the premiere and DVDs of the show will be available in Vesterheim’s Museum Store after the first of the year.

And Sauvion cannot speak too highly of Harley:

Harley Refsal is a master Scandinavian flat-plane woodcarver who is of supreme importance to the Craft in America Holiday episode. Harley, better than anyone else, can tell the story of Winter Solstice and populate this original winter holiday with the mysterious and mischievous Haugbui, Nisse, and Tomte figures, which predate Santa Claus and even the Christian Manger figures. Harley begins the Holiday episode with tales of light in a season of darkness and instructions on how his “deceptively simple” figures are carved.

For the first time, Craft in America is including a how-to component to their documentary series. The Holiday episode will include five webmarkers leading our audience to the PBS website and information about making the crafts filmed for the hour. Harley will star in one of these How-To clips, sharing his knowledge and skill with our audience. His tool: one simple knife. His generous instructions will start many viewers on a path of discovery and accomplishment.

In short, Harley Refsal makes Winter Solstice come alive and inspires viewers to find their own creativity. Nothing else is needed to celebrate winter’s great holidays!

In the Holiday episode, Harley explains that “Many holiday traditions, Christian and non-Christian, come from the winter solstice, which was a pagan holiday that marked the start of the solar year and celebrated light and the rebirth of the sun. Santa, the Christmas tree, gifts, and special meals all had their beginnings in the winter solstice.” He also probes what it means to be a “Maker” in this day and age and demonstrates flat plane carving.

The episode also features the annual National Gingerbread House Competition held at the Grove Park Inn in Asheville, North Carolina; the Biltmore House, a magnificent estate with 250 rooms and 8,000 acres in the Blue Ridge Mountains; Colorado artist Susan Garson, who hand paints fanciful designs on menorahs that she forms from clay; and the artists and community of San Antonio, Texas, with their colorful Mexican take on the holidays.

The episode honors Harley Refsal, but more importantly it honors what he himself values so highly-craft. As Craft in America expresses so perfectly:

We have a deep sense of longing for the handmade. Perhaps because of each of us, in our own way, has had a craft experience. Sometimes it’s an object passed down to us, or one that crosses our path, and connects us to others in traditions, heritage, and rituals. Craft is all around us. You’ll find it wherever you look-hiding in plain sight.