BiographyHarley Refsal was born on December 25, 1944, in Hoffman, a small town in west central Minnesota. Refsal’s grandparents emigrated from Norway. His grandfather lived with his family while he was young always speaking Norwegian in the home. Since Hoffman was an established Norwegian community, Refsal grew up speaking the language. Refsal’s grandfather came from a farm called Refsal, near the town of Stange, in the county of Hedemark and his father's mother came from the same general area in Hedemark. On his mother's (Clara Brekke) side, her father came from a farm named Brekke, near Sandnes, on the SW coast. His grandmother came from the southern coastal town of Lista.
Initially in 1972, Refsal was hired at Luther College as the campus pastor and head resident of Dieseth Hall. He also began teaching Norwegian and initiated an international student program at Luther College. In 2007, he became a Professor of Scandinavian Folk Art, teaching in both the Art and Modern Languages Departments.
Refsal traveled to Norway for the first time in 1965, where he was introduced to folk carving. Although he had done woodworking while growing up, influenced by his father who was a carpenter, he had not attempted carving. After much trial and error, he refined his techniques without taking any formal classes. He began teaching wood carving classes at Vesterheim, the Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah, IA, expanding to teaching carving classes in states such as Vermont, North Carolina, North Dakota, and in Norway. Refsal actually reintroduced the flat-plane carving style that is his specialty since it had nearly disappeared in Norway before he revived it. Although it had emerged as a craft in Norway about 1840, its practitioners had died out.
Refsal is best known for his carvings of the rural people who emigrated from Norway to the United States a century ago. His art is influenced by the Norwegian-American community where he was raised and the Northeast Iowa community of Decorah with its heavy Norwegian background. Refsal’s designs begin as a sketch and then are transferred to wood. After sketching, he designs a caricature which is cut with a bandsaw. The remainder of the carving is done with a knife (tollekniv). The style has been described as minimalist with exposed knife marks. Refsal uses a number of different woods but prefers basswood. He explains, “ Basswood is the hardest of woods that is able to take detail well.” Once the carving is completed, it is painted in muted colors.
Refsal has received many awards which recognize his skill and artistry in the wood carving medium. He was invited to lecture and demonstrate his art for the centennial celebration of Oslo’s Norwegian Folk Museum in 1994. In recognition of his services to Norway, Refsal was awarded the St. Olav Medal in 1996 from the Royal Norwegian Consul General of the Norwegian Consulate in Minneapolis. He was invited as a guest to participate several times on Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion Show in his capacity as a carver.
Refsal has received commissions to do many carvings. He presented a carving to His Royal Highness Crown Prince Haakon of Norway during his visit to Decorah in 1999. He also had created a carving for King Olav V, Haakon’s grandfather, called “Taming the Prairie” which depicts an immigrant couple planting a tree. A prolific worker, he has carved innumerable works for individuals who prize his skills.
The carving in the Fine Arts Collection is an Ale Bowl commissioned by the Peace Prize Conference Committee for their 1991 conference at Luther College. Refsal carved ten such bowls as gifts for featured speakers at the conference. They are based on traditional Norwegian design and incorporate the Peace Prize logo, a stylized peace dove. The bowl in the Fine Arts Collection was actually given to Nobel prize winner Betty Williams who, in turn, presented it to Luther College. In an artist’s statement about the ale bowl, Refsal writes:
An ale bowl was among the wooden objects excavated with the Viking-era Oseberg Ship, now housed at the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo. And for the past one thousand years or more in Norway, important ceremonies or occasions were frequently marked by the passing of the ale bowl. Norwegian ale bowls were often created with handles which resembled heads of dragons, horses, or birds. The bowl I created for this occasion, carved from local Midwest basswood, features a peace dove.
The ale bowl was featured on a Christmas card sent by President and Mrs. Richard Torgerson in 2002.
Refsal has authored a number of books whose titles are listed here: Scandinavian-style Figure Carving Patterns (1991); Woodcarving in the Scandinavian Style (1992); Carving Trolls and Other Scandinavian-style Characters (1995); Art & Technique of Scandinavian-style Woodcarving (2004); Figure Carving Scandinavian Style with Harley Refsal [DVD also available] (2004). He was a featured artist in Celebrating Birch: the Lore, Art and Craft of an Ancient Tree (2007) and has collaborated with noted children’s book writer, Betsy Byars. He continues as a frequent workshop presenter and is sought out for his teaching expertise in many venues, both nationally and internationally.
Source of Biography“Iowa Artists Strengthen International Ties.” Iowa Arts News. 26:2 (n.d.);
“Harley Refsal.” Minnesota Monthly (August 1990), 23;
“Harley Refsal Receives St. Olav Medal.” College Chips 113:14 (February 29, 1996), 2;
“Harley Refsal Re-establishes Norwegian Carving Tradition.” Decorah Journal. 136:31 (August 3, 2000)