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Turning Scandinavian Bowls

Posted July 24, 2015

Over the past two weeks my summer has been abuzz with spinning bowls and flying wood shavings.

As part of my Minnesota State Arts Board Folk and Traditional Arts Grant, I have been doing Scandinavian wooden bowl turning demonstrations to spread the word about traditional bowl designs and their history!

Turning at North House Folk School's campus. 

Although moving the majority of my workshop to a temporary location is no easy feat, it’s been well worth it. I turned for four days at North House Folk School in Grand Marais, MN, and this past weekend at the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis during the Great Makers Exchange. While I was turning some of my favorite comments came from the youngest visitors. “I like the color of that wood,” and “Why are you doing that?” asked a 5-year old. I had never been asked that before and it got the reflective wheels in my head turning.

I turn wooden bowls because I find the process meditative. I loose track of time while all of my attention is on using the tools to create an inspiring shape. I turn Scandinavian ale bowls because the beauty of the shapes and designs tickle my brain. Not only do they serve an aesthetic function, but they also serve a social function, for their tradition lies in gathering and ceremony.

They were used at weddings, funerals and religious ceremonies. Often they would be passed around and everyone would take a sip from the communal wooden bowl.

Images of traditional Scandinavian ale bowls, from the book, Träsvarvning efter gamla förebilder, by Hans Mårtensson.

These bowls are a part of the cultural landscape of Minnesota. During the mass emigration of Norwegian and Swedish populations in the mid to late 19th century, many people brought their utensils and woodenware to the United States because they were necessary for survival. Norwegian and Swedish folk art traditions were still vibrant at the time of emigration, so those skills were brought over. Although industrialization in urban centers removed the need for wooden crafts, there was an active folk arts tradition in rural regions of Minnesota, particularly in the southeast. These crafts often became symbols of the immigrants’ identity and heritage, passed from one generation to the next. In contemporary culture, Scandinavian handmade wooden bowls are still used as a way to commemorate significant life events like birthdays and weddings.

Two of my favorite ale bowl shapes, from the book, Vackert Svarvat: skönt målat by Svening Svenningson, 2011. 

While I studied for 10 months as an intern at North House Folk School, I was exposed to a contemporary wood culture. Woodworking instructors would often eat their meals from Scandinavian wooden bowls with wooden spoons, and at night share beer and stories while drinking from handmade treenware. Although I do not have Scandinavian heritage, I was drawn to this wood culture because of the sense of community and connection to place that this tradition seems to naturally inspire. I am excited to teach others about these designs and techniques, and hope that people continue to find beauty and connectedness through their everyday use.

Woodenware and traditional crafts enthusiast, Mary Anderson, with some of my birch ale bowls!