Harley Refsal

Norwegian woodcarver, Decorah
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Harley Refsal

Harley Refsal, who grew up on a farm settled by his Norwegian immigrant grandparents, has always worked in wood. Both his grandfather and father were carpenters and farmers, so wood, tools, and encouragement were readily available.

Refsal began to carve in the flat plane style in the late 1960s and has been working in this medium for over 30 years. Like many traditional artists, he learned his craft by watching and observing as well as through his own experience. Refsal, who teaches in the Art Department at Luther College, also studied and researched the history and techniques of Scandinavian carving in Norway.

Harley Refsal

Norwegian figure carving is a flat-plane style that emerged in the mid-eighteenth century; Norwegian carving itself dates to well before the Viking Era (800-1050). Using a single carving or whittling knife, Scandinavian woodworkers created small, six-to-nine- inch figures that likely began as children’s toys. The figures, which typically depicted farm animals and country folk, also appealed to adults. Transportable and affordable, the carvings provided a small income source, especially during the winter months.

The tradition grew in popularity throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth but began to decline after World War II. In the past twenty years, the tradition has undergone a revival in Scandinavia and among Scandinavian Americans. Today, this style of carving involves roughing out a figure with an axe or band saw, then using a modified Swedish slöjdkniv (whittling knife) to carve figures out of basswood.

Harley Refsal

Refsal, a master artist in the Iowa Arts Council’s Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program who has taught and exhibited his work internationally for many years, has a palpable love for his craft and his heritage that he passes on to all of his students. As his 2002 apprentice, Dr. Dan Mansfield put it, “Figure carving captures the expression and emotion of everyday people doing everyday things. It allows the common to become extraordinary.”

Contact: Harley Refsal, refsalha@luther.edu, (home) 563.382.9383, (work) 563.387.1328.