By Bob Duncan
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 discovered 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 Vesterheim Norwegian Museum, which sponsors classes in handcrafts, woodworking, and the Norwegian style of painting called rosemaling. For years Harley bugged the director of the museum to invite a Norwegian carver to teach. The director finally told Harley that he couldn’t find a carver from Norway to teach—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 even completed commissions for 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 initially planned to coordinate a meeting between Harley and some Norwegian carvers. But when the director started looking for carvers, he couldn’t find any—the people Harley had seen in 1965 had died, and no one was doing flat-plane carving anymore.
“Just like in this country, I was invited to teach classes in Norway,” Harley said. “Guys who were my father’s age took the four-day class, and they kept saying they were glad the classes were being offered. These budding carvers saw their fathers and grandfathers carving, and they planned to carve when they retired, but when retirement came, there was no one to teach it anymore.”
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 annual spring break. 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 30 classes in Norway, Sweden, and Iceland.
His work has paid off. Not only is Harley one of the founding members of the Caricature Carvers of America (CCA) and the published author of several books and magazine articles, but in 1996, he was honored by King Harold 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 had an audience with King Harold at the palace in Oslo, Norway, as well as a presentation ceremony with the Norwegian consulate in the United States.
Like King Harold, Woodcarving Illustrated is honoring Harley for his dedication to not only the art of Scandinavian-style flat-plane carving, but also his passion for sharing his knowledge and preserving the art. Without Harley’s devotion to flat-plane carving, it could have died out with the last generation of carvers.
“Harley’s devotion to preserving this traditional folk art is nothing short of inspiring,” Alan Giagnocavo, publisher of Woodcarving Illustrated said. “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 makes Harley the perfect choice for the 2012 Woodcarving Illustrated Woodcarver of the Year Award.”