Theater’s new Storytelling Barn (Berättarladan) in Sunne is the most complex commission I have accepted so far. Perhaps the most fun, too! In discussions with the theater staff, I realized I already have thirty-five years of preparation behind me by studying material, techniques, and folk art in countless archives and outdoor museums. All this experience was crucial because it was a very long, intense, and complex production period filled with powerful cuts, long physical working hours, difficulties with the raw lumber, heavy pieces, and a lot of oil paint.
First, a little about the theater. [picked from their website] Västanå has a distinctive profile known throughout Scandinavia. Their format is storytelling using complex, precise composition of music and dance together with spoken words creates a unique form of acting. An important source of inspiration for their unique stage expression is Scandinavian folk culture, which is happy to embrace traditions and theatrical formats from other parts of the world.
In September 2018, I saw “Charlotte Löwensköld,” a wild fusion of folk culture. Dance, music, drama, and costumes were boiling onstage in a pot of rich, soulful character that really appealed to me. What a start for a show!
Radio Sweden’s Culture News calls Västanå, “A world-class theater house in the middle of the Swedish countryside.” On the drive home, the size of the project hit me and I felt thrilled, challenged, and scared at the same time. When I took measurements and visualized how the new entrance would appear, I was exhilarated to be adding my own creative expression to this building’s history.
Once at home, I dug into my library of inspirational images: gates and portals, cabinets with cornices and columns, and the figures and animals I had photographed over the years. When there is an assignment to focus on, the images filter differently and you see completely new things.
I sent in my mood board and the conversations began. The director and artistic director, Leif Stinnerbom, and the costumer, Inger Hallström, have a familiarity with folk culture that made it easy to talk about slöjd. Like me, they focused on the energy and grammar of traditional folk culture. Their input of folk dance, costume, older architecture, and Stone Age carving patterns made the first drafts of the sketch more challenging. I long for exactly this kind challenge as I develop my craft.
After an intense sketching period, I chose a carved entrance with wide, wedge-cut [[tongue and groove?]] planks as doors. In my work, the model is an important part of the work process. I often follow the model very closely and if I’m not completely satisfied, I make a new one. A scale model makes composing elements and calculating material easier. On each side, I placed two bold columns called “Face2Face” crowned with a gigantic cornice. I wanted to fill the columns with faces and flower borders as a conversation with the stage performance.
Between the arched cornice and the door is a space called the Tympanum, which I filled with figures dancing an old folk dance called halling, and with symbols from my pattern library. The cosmic symbol in the middle is a personal favorite, inspired by a pattern from a small drawing box at Gammelgården. For me, the humanistic symbol of eternity communicates life’s cosmic carousel—round and round we go, rotating for all eternity.
On the crest, I placed a juicy red tulip, “Kurrbitz” with a folk art raven on each side. The ravens are inspired by northern mythology: Odin’s two ravens, Hugin and Munin. They are excellent scouts and do what they can to satisfy their master’s vast hunger for knowledge. Every day, they fly over the world then return to report everything they have seen and heard. Hugin’s name comes from the word hague, meaning thought, mind or desire. Munin is named for memory. Together, they symbolize human reason. They are needed to prevent cultural progress from falling into conservative backwardness and petty racism. I carved them with an ax to get a rougher surface to match Munin’s character.
The assignment included making window casing and a cornice to a beautiful window facing Lake Fryken, also to two side entrances. All casings received unique patterns in flat relief. A repetitive pattern was given to the cornice with dashed figures dancing Halling, a pattern report reminiscent of a score.
Wood preparation and steaming
From the beginning, the plan was to make the crown arch out of one piece of wood, so I needed logs in large dimensions. No sooner said than done. It was urgent to find the wood so it could air dry without cracking. January was late enough in the season for the wooden blanks of 50 x 40 cm to Page 6 of 7 dry completely. A call to the sawmill in Sävar solved the need for large growth timber and I had the luxury to choose from a number of logs laid out by the large tractor loaders. I felt like an incredibly rich man when the logs were loaded onto the truck that drove them to the sawmill in Balsjö.
The sawyer would call when he had time in his schedule. February came and the light returned slowly as well as the frigid cold and strong winds. When I didn’t hear anything from the sawyer for a few weeks, I had to call. He was lying in the hospital after an operation following a massive heart attack! The poor man wasn’t able to do anything until early April. The operation was successful, so he could work again.
The only solution in the meantime was to use a jig with a Solo chainsaw. Because the dimensions were so large, I had to first split them by using a long blade on the chainsaw. The pieces barely fit on the saw bench after that, but I was able to get the right dimensions. After two trips and a number of days, the largest pieces were laid out in two big boxes with troughs filled with water for drying. Steaming involves heat at 85⁰ C and several liters of water in the trough during the first week. Then the water is emptied and the drying temperature is set at about 45⁰ C for three weeks. I got some cracks–not unexpected with rough dimensions of 40 x 22 cm–but still managed to get columns and crowns to a moisture ratio of 16% in six weeks.
Unexpectedly at the end of August, essential help came from the United States in Mike Loeffler, who was in Scandinavia on a study trip. We hand-planed the doors down to the right thickness with an ox plane. It has two handles adding greater power to the plane.
At this point, all pieces were nearly ready. In order to get a visual overview, we made a level floor in the barn to be sure everything fit together and the proportions were right. We screwed all parts in place to check the fit. It was a nice feeling to climb the ladder and see how the pieces became a whole. I had to adjust the cornice a few times before it fit.
The workspace in the barn is a nice outdoor workshop. Open the doors and a warm breeze blows through with the right light for carving on a hot summer’s day. A work situation which gives me total happiness.