artclub


Introduction:

I first got interested in The Norwegian Art & Craft Club of Brooklyn through one of its members, Karli Waagenes Johnsen. She was my friend's grandmother and owned a fascinating collection of African and Alaskan inspired wooden masks, some embellished with real human teeth, courtesy of a local dentist.  These masks were not collected on some exotic journey, but rather created by Karli herself and made to look like wood. They were actually ceramic.  I later learned that she had also been a member of The Norwegian Art & Craft Club of Brooklyn, which had seen its demise before I was born. 

Karli's daughter, Elsa Waagenes Udbjorg, who grew up in Brooklyn was also a member, and to my delight she added to my knowledge of the club, with anecdotal information and photographs from the club's costume parties. 

I later realized that many other Norwegian-American artists I admired, had also belonged to this mysterious club, such as Bernhard Berntsen the ironworker artist - how romantic and Einar Larsen the whimsical illustrator for Nordisk Tidende.  

Being female, I couldn't fail to notice that women were welcomed as members and not in a middling manner. A large percentage of the membership was female.  These egalitarian democratic principles are quite amazing for the period in which the club existed 1938 - 1956, but so indicative of Norwegian societal mores which insisted and still insist on gender inclusion.

What also marks the club as unusual for its time is that fine art and crafts were put on the same footing.  So often crafts were and still are relegated as inferior to the fine arts.  Even the terminology, fine arts, sets itself as superior to other creative genres.  But not in this club.  

 

I believe that the club's non-hierarchal reading of the visual arts can also be traced back to Norway.  It was during Norway's Romantic Nationalism Movement, 1840 - 1867, that an interest in traditional crafts flourished.  One must remember that  Norway economy had been basically agrarian and seafaring up to that time.  It was a country that had been controlled by foreign powers for over 300 years and did not gain independence, until 1905.

When the Norwegian Romantic Nationalism Movement arose, it was to claim an identity that was authentically and purely Norwegian.  And what was authentically and purely Norwegian was their traditional handiwork: lace, beading, embroidery and knitting.  These are still cherished today as evidenced in their amazing care, time and individuality put into every traditional costume. 

Today, when it comes to winter wear, patterns derived from traditional Nordic handiwork are globally ubiquitous. One only has to take a look at a Tommy Hillfiger's recent collection or at the clothing placed on  mannequins carefully propped in toney store windows along New York's Fifth Avenue to see how popular their designs have become.        

Wood carving was and continues to be another traditional Norwegian craft form, inspired by the abundance of raw material in Norway's lush forests.  A material they mastered and manipulated for centuries.  First found in the ornamentation of Viking ships and later continued by ship's carpenters who wandered to the shores of Brooklyn in the 19th and 20th centuries, leaving behind those intricately carved patterns framing the windows, doors, and roofs of Brooklyn row-houses in their wake.   

Some of the club members who worked in crafts included: Karli Waagenes Johnsen often worked in rosemaling (rose painting), as did Eldrid Arntzen.  Rosemaling is a traditional Scandinavian decorative technique that uses wood or less frequently tin as its canvas.  Paint can be applied to an object as small as a plate or as large as a cabinet.  Another member, Maria Mundal, worked in weaving, creating both pictorial and geometric designs. 

The Club's broad based inclusion: in both gender and art forms, truly exemplified Scandinavian sensibilities.  And The Club went even one step further - you didn't need to be Norwegian to belong. 

When I applied for a grant to fund this project, through the Brooklyn Arts Council‚Äòs Re-grant Program sponsored by JP Morgan Chase,  I had two goals.  The first was to document the Norwegian Art & Craft Club of Brooklyn on our Virtual Museum, making it accessible to the international public, thus ensuring that the club and its members would be documented, discovered and remembered.

The second objective was to educate the public about the complexity  of the Norwegian colony in Brooklyn.  Yes, they were sailors and builders and engineers.  Yes, they had a very strong sense of social responsibility indicative of the institutions they created, such as: Lutheran Medical Center,  the Norwegian Christian Home & Health  Center and the Norwegian Children's Home.  Yes, athletics were important as is evidenced by the 100 year old Sporting Club Gjoa. 


 
 
 
 



 

 

 


Norwegians created a well rounded society in Brooklyn.  And could there be a well rounded  society without the arts?  Here we are speaking about one art club, but the Norwegian colony in Bay Ridge founded many other cultural organizations, as well: the Norwegian Singing Society, church choirs, string bands, the Viking Junior Band, theater groups, folk dance organizations, and publishing companies.  

When I applied for this grant, I had no idea that Vesterheim, the Norwegian museum in Decorah, Iowa was planning an exhibition about the club, ‚ÄúThe Norwegian Art and Craft Club of Brooklyn.  The exhibit ran from, August 21, 2010 through September 5, 2011, and was derived from the artwork of club members found in their collection.

This past week, I also learned that the Sag Harbor Whaling and Historical Museum had curated their current exhibit, ‚ÄúThe Many Aliases of Local Painting Legend Cappy Amundsen.‚Äù a centennial celebration.  Cappy had been a NACCB member. 

On that same day that I learned about Cappy, I discovered some interesting information about another club member, William Ekgren.  After careful investigation, in trying to identify the artist responsible for several comic book covers, blogger, Kevin Quattro, aka The Comic Book Detective revealed Ekgren to be the artist, even though Ekgren's pieces were not intended as such. 

These findings, as well as the ongoing interest in NACCB members, such as Claus Hoie, leads me to declare with all certainty that this club, though little known, outside the Norwegian and  Norwegian-American  communities remains relevant and deserves to be shared with a larger audience. We celebrate the recent exhibitions and interest about individual members of the club.  We are grateful for Vesterheim's scholarly research about the club and their generosity in sharing this information.  We appreciate all of the galleries and museums that continue to show and educate the public about individual club members. We are delighted that so many pieces of the club members have been preserved. 

This site does not intend to duplicate what already exists. Rather, our purpose is to gather information from all corners, so that we have the most comprehensive archival, anecdotal and virtual collection of both the history of the club, its individual members and their work. Since, so many of the members are gone, we will continue to do research. Thus, this is a work in progress, that will evolve as more information comes to light.  We welcome anything you have to offer that will contribute to this project.

I would like to thanks the following for their input and support: Elsa Waagenes Udbjorg, Laurann Gilbertson of the Vesterheim Museum, Thor A. Larsen and Dina Tolfsby.      

Victoria Hofmo, President
Scandinavian East Coast Museum
Online Exhibit Curator

October 2011

 

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