Like so many others, Harley Refsal discovered his life’s work while in college. But Harley wasn’t inspired to become a doctor, lawyer, or businessman.
Instead, on a choir tour to Scandinavia in 1965, Harley encountered flat-plane woodcarving.
“I saw whittled figures, what I know now were considered Scandinavian-style flat-plane carvings,” Harley said. “This figure carving was done not with a whole arsenal of tools, but with just one knife.” This knife, called a “sloyd” knife, was thick-bladed and used for everything in the rural communities of Scandinavia.
“These rural folk carved what they knew about,” Harley continued. “They whittled horses, fishermen, farmers. I saw these kinds of carvings and thought to myself, ‘Boy, I can do that.’ The carvings were chunky but highly expressive—a kind of art I could relate to. I bought a couple carvings while I was there, came back home, and started carving.”
Harley was no stranger to the woodshop even then. “I grew up in a community where handwork was not unique,” said Harley, remembering his family’s farm near Hoffman, Minn., which was settled by his Norwegian immigrant grandparents. “The women did crocheting and quilting, and working with wood was nothing unique.
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t work with wood. I whittled toys when I was small and, as I grew older, I spent time with a childless uncle who lived in town. My uncle had more spare time than my farming father, and he had a nice, well-equipped shop.”
After college, Harley moved to Decorah, Iowa, to work at Luther College. He also took every carving class he could find. Most of the classes taught acanthus and chip carving.
“It wasn’t figure carving, like I was interested in, but I took them anyway,” Harley said.
“I learned something in each class. But I kept coming back to the Scandinavian-style of figure carving.”
One class, taught by Harold Enlow and Claude Bolton, was pivotal for Harley, although not because of the topic. Harley happened to borrow Harold’s knife to carve while Harold was at lunch. “All those years I’d been carving, I never used such a sharp knife,” remembered Harley. “When Harold came back from lunch, I asked him to show me how to sharpen a knife.”
Decorah, Harley’s adopted hometown, is also the location of the Norwegian-American Museum, which sponsors classes in handcrafts, woodworking, and the Norwegian style of painting called rosemaling. For years Harley urged the director of the museum to invite a figure carver to teach. The director finally told Harley that he couldn’t find a figure carver from Norway—and asked Harley to teach instead. “Nothing teaches you something as well as the opportunity to teach someone else,” said Harley. “You have to show, explain, and demonstrate, and it really makes you think about your work. It’s important and interesting to me to realize that the technical goes hand in hand with tradition.”
Harley refined his style by practicing and teaching, and also began to accept commissions from customers. In the mid-1980s, seeking more instruction, he moved his family to Norway to attend a graduate program in Norwegian folk art. The head of the program promised to arrange a meeting between Harley and some Norwegian figure carvers. But, Harley recalls, when the director started looking for carvers, he couldn’t find any—the people Harley had seen and drawn inspiration from in 1965 had died, and no one was teaching flat-plane figure carving.
“I was invited to teach classes in Norway,” Harley said. “And since I can speak Norwegian, teaching there was not a problem. Folks of varying ages enrolled, and they kept saying they were glad the classes were being offered. These budding carvers had seen their fathers and grandfathers carve, and they too planned to begin carving, perhaps when they retired, but when retirement came, there was no one to teach them until I came along.”
Harley wrote his dissertation on Scandinavian-style flat-plane carving and later adapted the dissertation into his book Art & Technique of Scandinavian Style Woodcarving. The book was published by Sterling in 1991 and reissued by Fox Chapel Publishing in a reworked and expanded version in 2005.
After returning to the United States, Harley resumed his position at Luther College, but also taught carving classes all over the United States during the college’s breaks. Even after retiring, Harley continues to teach a class in Scandinavian fine hand craft during the January term, a three-week mini-semester featuring all-day classes in one subject. In addition, over the past three decades Harley has taught more than 50 classes in Norway, Sweden, and Iceland.
The carver has a gift not just for making art, but for making it accessible to his students. “Harley carves amazing things with just a few tools—usually just a knife,” said Marv Kaisersatt, a Caricature Carvers of America (CCA) member and the 2006 Woodcarving Illustrated Woodcarver of the Year. “People look at my work and think, ‘I could never do that.’ But people look at his work and think, ‘I can do that,’ especially since it’s done with only one knife. I know it’s a lot more complicated than that, but people feel like they can do it.”
Harley’s work and teaching have been widely recognized. Not only is he a founding member of the CCA and the published author of several books and magazine articles, but in 1996, he was honored by King Harald V of Norway. The king awarded Harley the St. Olav’s Medal for his work promoting and popularizing the art of Scandinavian-style flat-plane carving in the United States and Norway, as well as his research into the origins of the art. Harley was granted an audience with King Harald at the palace in Oslo, Norway, and a presentation ceremony with the Norwegian Consul General in the United States.
Like King Harald, Woodcarving Illustrated is honoring Harley for his dedication to the art of Scandinavian-style flat-plane carving and his passion for sharing his knowledge and preserving the art. Without Harley’s devotion to flat-plane carving, it could have died out half a century ago.
“Harley’s devotion to preserving this traditional folk art is nothing short of inspiring,” said Alan Giagnocavo, the publisher of Woodcarving Illustrated. “The passion he has shown in rediscovering the techniques to carve in this expressive style, combined with his dedication to passing this art on to other carvers, make Harley the perfect choice for the 2012 Woodcarving Illustrated Woodcarver of the Year Award.”
Scroll down for a pattern of a flat-plane Scandinavian troll by Harley Refsal.