Running Errands with Erlend: Trondheim, Norway & A Family Legacy of Art

I have to backtrack a few weeks to highlight one of my first adventures in Norway. During my research for this trip, I reached out to lots of different crafts people and resources to find woodworkers and woodartists in Norway and Sweden. Thanks to the input from members of the facebook group, Critical Craft Forum, I got connected to a renowned wood sculptor, Erlend Leirdal, who is based in Trondheim, Norway.

I wrote him asking if I could visit his workshop and learn about his work, and he generously invited me to stay at his home and sent a list of museums and sites I would have to check out. Then a few weeks later, his plans changed, and he had to drive to the west coast to pick up a used lathe – did I want to join?

Initially I thought – yes! And then I google-mapped the route and realized, oh… It’s 9 hours one way, 18 hours total, and that’s without stopping. Hmm…

Fortunately friends and my instinct said go for it.

I went to Trondheim a day before the roadtrip departure date, and he showed me a little bit of the city. Upon picking me up from the Trondheim train station, we went straight to his workshop. It’s on the top floor of a German WWII-era building. It’s eye-opening to think about how he moves his large scale wooden materials and sculptures up and down from the ground to the fourth floor. There is a crane but I didn’t get to see it in action. The challenge of moving his materials and projects seemed like a testament to his determination to create.

From Erlend's workshop you can see a much larger German WWII relic – a submarine bunker with 10’-thick concrete walls and an 11’-thick ceiling. Germany occupied Norway from 1940 - 45 and used Trondheim as a naval base.

 The building that house's Erlend's workshop. His red pickup truck and some wood materials on the ground. Scraps for firewood at the top of the spiral staircase. 

The building that house's Erlend's workshop. His red pickup truck and some wood materials on the ground. Scraps for firewood at the top of the spiral staircase. 

 The view from his workshop of the massive WWII-era German submarine bunker. The submarines would enter at the water-level openings.

The view from his workshop of the massive WWII-era German submarine bunker. The submarines would enter at the water-level openings.

 Inside Erlend's workshop - a well-used bandsaw from the late 1890s, made in Norway. 

Inside Erlend's workshop - a well-used bandsaw from the late 1890s, made in Norway. 

Erlend is originally from Trondheim, and was raised by a sculptor and a ceramicist. He worked in construction in the past, but transitioned to being a fulltime artist since then and makes a variety of artwork, including large-scale private and public art often out of Norwegian pine and large-diameter oak.

 "Amulet," 2010. From one piece of oak. Location: Gauldal Skole-og Kultursenter

"Amulet," 2010. From one piece of oak. Location: Gauldal Skole-og Kultursenter

 "Amulet" and Erlend. 

"Amulet" and Erlend. 

 "The sea is very big my son," approximately  3 x 1.5 meters. At the gallery  Dropsfabrikken . Mountain birch. 2013. 

"The sea is very big my son," approximately  3 x 1.5 meters. At the gallery Dropsfabrikken. Mountain birch. 2013. 

 Close up of the joinery used to connect these curvy pieces of mountain birch.

Close up of the joinery used to connect these curvy pieces of mountain birch.

His father’s sculptures still dot the city, including one of unique prominence on the iconic gothic Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim. It is the northernmost medieval cathedral in the world and is the burial site for St. Olav, a king who was posthumously canonized as the patron saint of Norway. The church was first completed in 1300, and prominent Norwegian artists rebuilt the figures of the western wall in the 20th century.

 The western wall of Nidaros Cathedral, Trondheim. The St. Michael sculpture made by his father is on the top left turret.

The western wall of Nidaros Cathedral, Trondheim. The St. Michael sculpture made by his father is on the top left turret.

In 1969 Erlend's father, Kristofer Leirdal, was commissioned to make a St. Michael sculpture for the cathedral. He decided to make St. Michael resemble Bob Dylan, as a critique of the U.S.'s involvement in the Vietnam War and an American bishop who was said to have blessed napalm, bombs and aircrafts at an airbase before they were sent to Vietnam. (I believe this might be referring to Cardinal Francis Spellman, but I could not confirm this after doing a cursory search online.) Leirdal did not publicly acknowledge this until 2001, when he was 85 years old. This act of resistance was moving to learn about, especially given the current tumultuous and highly politicized state of the U.S. It’s powerful to think about how long that sculpture will remain on such a symbolic building.

 St. Michael as Bob Dylan, spearing a dragon, 1969. Photo of a postcard I purchased at the cathedral.

St. Michael as Bob Dylan, spearing a dragon, 1969. Photo of a postcard I purchased at the cathedral.

After seeing Erlend's workshop, hearing family stories and diving into the politics of Norway, we went grocery shopping and returned to his home where he and his partner made a delicious meal of cod, potatoes and vegetables. That night we started talking about the logistics of the roadtrip, but didn't start packing until the next morning.

I will have to pause here and write the roadtrip story another time. Being in Trondheim and learning about the city from Erlend and his family was such a rich experience – I hope I can return there someday to learn more.

 Erlend, Mikael, me, Ylva, and Lotte at their home.

Erlend, Mikael, me, Ylva, and Lotte at their home.

Boatbuilding at 70°N

 My attempt to see the midnight sun in Tromsø, Norway. I was encouraged to bike to this harbor because it was the only nearby place where you can see the open ocean to the north. 

My attempt to see the midnight sun in Tromsø, Norway. I was encouraged to bike to this harbor because it was the only nearby place where you can see the open ocean to the north. 

This past week I was in Tromsø, Norway, 70°N. It’s the land of the midnight sun, as well as midnight clouds and midnight rain. Although I didn’t see the sun late at night, I did get to witness the lack of darkness. The level of light through the clouds never really changed throughout the night. 

 Location of Tromsø, Norway. 

Location of Tromsø, Norway. 

Fortunately I didn’t travel that far just to see the midnight sun. I went to Tromsø to study with and get to know boatbuilders in a traditional boatbuilding workshop. The Trondheim-based sculptor, Erlend Leirdal connected me with his friend Arne-Terje Sæther, and he was kind enough to let me join their crew for the week and even stay in his sailboat at a nearby harbor.

 View from the harbor. 

View from the harbor. 

The owner of the boatshop lent me a bicycle and I was able to ride to the workshop every morning and to “Norway’s best grocery store” (according to Erlend and others) in the evening for dinner.

The master boatbuilder and owner of the business, Gunnar Eldjarn, is both a researcher and professional boatbuilder. He researched and co-wrote the four-part definitive book on northern coastal Norwegian boats, Nordlandsbåten og Åfjordsbåten, with his friend Jon B. Godal. He’s had his boatshop in Tromsø since 1985, and Arne-Terje and Ola Fjelltun joined in the mid and late 1990s.

Although this was not the focus on my visit, it’s hard to start this story without highlighting their involvement in "the project of a lifetime." The three of them were all key builders in the making of the largest Viking Ship in modern times, the Draken Harald Harfagre. It was a two-year long quixotic endeavor from 2010 - 12, and was commissioned by a private individual. The 115-foot ship cost millions of dollars, with up to 16 people working on it at various points.

The story of this project is documented in Arne-Terje’s book, Dragon Harald Fairhair.

 Cover of Arne-Terje's bilingual book on the topic.

Cover of Arne-Terje's bilingual book on the topic.

I read the book at night while I was staying on his sailboat. Not only the scale of the building process struck me, but also by the challenge of material acquisition. In order to get oak that was long enough and clear of knots, they had to go to a German forest that had been managed for 400+ years. There they were able to select and fell oak trees whose trunks were straight and clear of branches for over 60 feet. Milling the boards and shipping it to Norway was a whole other ordeal.

Meanwhile they also undertook a thorough research and design process. They made three smaller boats with different hull shapes in order to test out their functionality. They were also in conversation with archaeologists from the Viking Ship Museum in Denmark who built a replica. However since there is no documentation of original Viking ship designs or intact originals, any building project relies heavily on conjecture.

When the two famous ships in the Oslo’s Viking Ship Museum, the Oseberg and Gogstad, were excavated they were completely flattened from being buried in the ground. The iconic Oseberg ship was so flat the keel (the lengthwise timber on the bottom of the ship) was higher than the rest of the structure. Although the ships are now beautifully reconstructed in the museum, to their highly trained boatbuilding eyes, the shape of the hull raises some questions of how accurate it is to the original design.

It’s not possible to make a truly authentic Viking ship, but this boatbuilding team certainly came close. They created a ship that retraced the Vikings' transatlantic voyage from Norway to the Atlantic Canadian and U.S. coast. Unfortunately for the midwestern wooden boat enthusiasts and Viking fans, the ship was kept from traveling all the way through the Great Lakes due to prohibitively expensive regulations

While I was visiting, they were working on a unique commission that I enthusiastically called a Viking Ship. However upon asking the seemingly philosophical question, “what is a Viking Ship?” they answered, “a ship built by a Viking, with a rudder on the side, and tall stems.” “So is this a Viking Ship?” I asked, and received the response, “we are not Vikings, and this is not a ship. It’s a boat.” So I got to participate in the building of a Viking-style boat.

 A view from outside of the workshop. Steambox in the foreground.

A view from outside of the workshop. Steambox in the foreground.

 Arne-Terje, Ola and Gunnar discussing the frame that will support the side rudder.

Arne-Terje, Ola and Gunnar discussing the frame that will support the side rudder.

Gunnar graciously led me through the process of fitting one of the oak frames that helps to secure the side planks or strakes. It took me four days to complete what he can do in one, which is a testament to his patience and generosity.

 Gunnar explaining how to install the frame. Photo by Arne-Terje Sæther.

Gunnar explaining how to install the frame. Photo by Arne-Terje Sæther.

They readily switched from modern to traditional tools – Makita power planers to wooden handmade planes, chainsaws to axes, bandsaws to carving knives – quickly securing what did the job best.

Once I finally finished my precious frame on day four, Gunnar said, now make 2,000 more and you’ll get it.

 Using a slöyd knife to carve out a hole for the mast rigging (a large rope which supports the mast). Photo by Gunnar Eldjarn

Using a slöyd knife to carve out a hole for the mast rigging (a large rope which supports the mast). Photo by Gunnar Eldjarn

 Gunnar and Arne-Terje checking the fit of the line on the frame I carved.

Gunnar and Arne-Terje checking the fit of the line on the frame I carved.

We installed the frame an hour before my time was up, using pine trunnels ("treenails") and wedges. The trunnels are from the heartwood of the tree, and the wedges from the sapwood. The orientation of the grain direction was also intentional, and is a debated topic within this niche community. It was amazing to learn just this one step in the boat – because it reveals how much complex knowledge is behind every single step.     

 Close up of one of the pine trunnels and discussing grain orientation. 

Close up of one of the pine trunnels and discussing grain orientation. 

 Painting pine tar onto the boat and frame before installation. The pine tar is made in Norway using traditional methods.  

Painting pine tar onto the boat and frame before installation. The pine tar is made in Norway using traditional methods.  

I learned much more from these builders over the course of the week but it’s more than I could sum up in a few blog posts. We talked about the financial realities of making a living as a boatbuilder in Norway, the rich traditions of wooden boats on Norway’s coast and their central role in the cod fishing industry, the limits of historic reconstruction projects, the stories of historic artifacts that decorate the workshop, future hopes of developing a boatbuilding program at the local university, and much more.

 From L to R: Me, Ola, Arne-Terje, Gunnar and a tree knee. 

From L to R: Me, Ola, Arne-Terje, Gunnar and a tree knee. 

Their story is so rich – here are some places to learn more:

  • See the boat in progress at their facebook page: link
  • Learn about other projects they’ve done at their website: www.nordlandsbaat.com 
  • The story of the Dragon Harald Fairhair: link
  • See a snapshot of life in Tromsø & the greater arctic from Arne-Terje's partner, Mariann Jacobsen Mathisen's instagram page: link
 The view from the plane as I flew out of Tromsø on June 22. 

The view from the plane as I flew out of Tromsø on June 22. 

Wild Stools & Lots of Light

Since I arrived in Norway it's been a little non-stoppe! Which is how I enjoy traveling, but it's not the most conducive to prolific blog writing. So I will try to steppe it up.

I am staying outside of Lillehammer this evening, and it's pastoral and bucolic. Sheep and their little lambs are baaa-ing outside of my window, the sun is slowly setting (it's 10 o'clock and totally bright outside) on a far off hillside and I have a room to myself thanks to a generous member of the couchsurfing community. 

 Outside of the home where I'm staying around 6 PM.

Outside of the home where I'm staying around 6 PM.

Lillehammer is a two-hour train ride north of Oslo, and is nestled in valley that is filled by a long and narrow lake, Lake Mjøsa. (*alert* lake factoid: in Norway, Mjøsa is the largest lake by surface area and the 4th deepest.)

 A view of Lake Mjøsa from the train ride.

A view of Lake Mjøsa from the train ride.

I traveled here to visit the Maihuagen Museum, an enormous open air museum with buildings that span from the 1200s to the 1990s. I didn't get a chance to explore the grounds today, but instead went indoors to their archives and to meet with someone who works at the Norwegian Handicraft Institute. I will visit the outdoor part this weekend.

I could have spent days in their woodenware and furniture archives but alas, I only had an hour and a half. So I dove into their wooden containers and bowls area, carefully, and with gloves on. There were great locking lid boxes and wonderful decorations.  Feel free to click to enlarge.

I then sped walked over to the furniture building. Below are some of the stools that I fell in love with. Note the serpentine heads carved into multiple stools! I am curious if anyone has ideas about the potential significance of this design.

I am inspired by the use of natural curves, branches and play. If you're curious to see more images and information on these pieces, I recommend visiting the amazing online database, "Digitalt Museum."

Now that it's 11 PM, I guess I can say the sun is officially setting, or approaching setting. It's wild to witness so much light. 

 The view outside my window as I write. Happy little lambs. 11 PM. 

The view outside my window as I write. Happy little lambs. 11 PM.