Dave and Lynn Susag, pictured here in traditional Viking garb, have made multiple trips to Norway. (Photo submitted by Lynn Susag)
A Norwegian Love Story
LANESBORO — When Dave and Lynn Susag first met in 2003, they had a few things in common. Both grew up on dairy farms, Lynn near Spring Grove, and Dave in northwestern Minnesota, close to the small town of Hawley. Both had Norwegian roots.
Both also had a love for Scandinavian culture. So much so, in fact, it sparked a unique creativity—as individuals and as a couple—that’s led to a lifetime of artistic adventure.
“Our grade school teacher brought our class to a potato warehouse known as the ‘Hawley Shipyard’ where a Viking ship (at that point just a keel) was being built that later successfully sailed to Norway,” Dave recalls. “I loved seeing that and learning about the people, history and culture of Norway. I can still tell you where all the Scandinavian gift shops are or were located in Minnesota. I visited them every chance I got.
“Years later when I was working in Arizona,” he continues, “my mom sent me some lefse which my friends thought was tortillas. Today I have two main hobbies. Norway and turkey-hunting. If there were turkeys in Norway, I’d be in heaven.”
Lynn Bunge Susag also treasured her heritage from an early age. “My Grandfather Rostad came to America from Norway and I grew up in a family that knew and loved Norwegian culture. My mother was always creating something, either sewing, knitting, or crocheting.”
Lynn attended Luther College, in Decorah, where she majored in education with a minor in history.
“I took language classes, a museum-studies course at Decorah’s Vesterheim Museum, and worked in Luther’s history archives where I loved discovering pioneer stories. On a study-abroad program in England I was also able to visit Norway twice.”
Dave and Lynn’s love for each other, and for all things Norwegian, blossomed. In 2006 they eloped (to Norway, where else?), then made their home in Lanesboro.
While working full-time jobs—including Dave’s with the DNR and the State Fish Hatchery, and Lynn’s 18-year career as manager of Lanesboro’s Cottage House Inn—they also became serious students of and active participants in Norwegian art.
“I first visited Vesterheim thirty years ago,” says Dave. Later he started taking classes at their Folk Art School.
“I tried all kinds of things, making wooden bowls, knife-making, basket-making, rosemaling, cooking, painting, and blacksmithing. I even explored smelting and took silversmith classes from Liz Bucheit (Crown Trout Jewelers, Lanesboro). Over the years I’ve learned so much and met so many great people.”
An eagerness to explore new forms of Norwegian art is something else Dave and Lynn have in common.
“They certainly know Dave at Vesterheim,” says Lynn with a laugh “He’s taken more than 90 classes there, more than anyone else in its history! He encouraged me to try some, too, and I loved it. We challenge each other to take a class on something new each year. We also began taking study-vacations to places like the North House Folk School in Grand Marais.”
Lynn’s artistic interests led her to try woodcarving, paper cutting, painting, and svidekor, a decorative wood-burning technique using iron stamps heated in a fire.
“I also fell in love with figure carving,” she says. “I’d grown up with relatives who did rosemaling, and while David and I both tried that, it proved quite challenging. I enjoy making sheepskin ornaments and I’m hoping to develop my axe skills.”
Ask Dave to name his favorite Norwegian craft and he’ll tell you “…the one I’m working on at the time.”
He’s become quite proficient, though, with a springpole lathe, an ancient, now rare foot-powered tool used in woodwork projects.
“There’s an illustration in a Bible from around 1250 showing a man using a springpole lathe to turn a bowl,” he says. “Lathes are now powered with electricity, of course. Fewer than one hundred people in the world today exclusively use treadle-powered lathes. That’s less than the number of astronauts!
“I built my own and use it for turning bowls,” Dave says. “It’s quite a physical workout, but when I get into a rhythm with it I find that it helps me think. My goal is to use my lathe to make a cup with a handle on it, which will be an interesting challenge.”
Creating Usable Art
Dave and Lynn take classes together. They also work together.
“Our first project was building a Norwegian kick-sled,” Dave says. “We saw people using them in Norway—kids riding them to school, elderly people heading home from the grocery store, or people transporting passengers from a boat-dock. One day we had freezing rain in Lanesboro so Lynn used our kick-sled to get to work at the Cottage House.”
They also help each other with sewing projects (for those sheepskin ornaments) and Lynn often does the painting on Dave’s wooden bowls.
While people think of those items as “art,” the creation of usable objects—with a sense of beauty—is very much a part of Norwegian culture, explains Dave.
“Sometimes it may seem that Norwegians decorate things for no real purpose,” he says.” There certainly is one, though. They care about these objects that are so much a part of their everyday life. Decorating them gives meaning. Like one of our instructors told us, ‘the eye must also be pleased.’”
Personal fulfillment is one motivation for this artist-couple.
“When I make a wood-burning decoration or paint a bowl it gives me a sense of satisfaction,” says Lynn. “It pleases me to make something from start to finish. Doing that also allows me to take my mind to another place for a while. It can be very calming and relaxing.”
The Susags eagerly share their work and provide informal teaching demonstrations in a variety of settings. You’ll find their pieces at the Vesterheim, the Swedish Institute in Minneapolis, and at the Lanesboro Art Gallery.
Lynn and Dave have won awards. Dave’s recent entry of wooden bowls in a national folk-art exhibition received two ribbons, while Lynn received high recognition in the “embellishment category” for a svidekor piece still on display at the Vesterheim.
Personal satisfaction and sharing their work creates joy. A third benefit may be just as important.
“We’ve met so many wonderful people over the years,” Lynn says.
“We’re part of a community of instructors and artists from all over the country, even the world! We become friends with people who teach and inspire us. They become like family!”
An example? Dave and Lynn have taken four trips to Norway and plan more in the future.
What’s their advice for others thinking about trying to “do” art, maybe for the first time?
“Just do it!” Lynn says. “Especially as you get older, follow your impulse to create.
“It’s important for everyone to do something creative with their hands on a regular basis. Like exercise and enough sleep and eating good food, it’s an important part of staying healthy.”
“Some people think they’ll start doing things like this only when they retire. Don’t wait! Start now. Learn and try new things. Take classes. Meet people. You’ll be very glad you did. I know we are.”
Steve Harris, with his wife, Sue, is a former Lanesboro innkeeper, and is a freelance writer and the author of “Lanesboro, Minnesota”.
Root River Current’s coverage of the arts is made possible, in part, by the voters of Minnesota through a grant from the Southeastern Minnesota Arts Council thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts & cultural heritage fund.