Nordic-American cultural exchange through art

 

Strengthening Nordic-American cultural exchange through art education

This article describes the artistic and teaching practice of Alison Aune, who is Professor and Area Chair of Art Education and Museum Education at the University of Minnesota Duluth, in United States. As an artist, Aune draws inspiration from traditional Nordic art and cultural artefacts and integrates them in her paintings and illustrations; and as an art educator, she strives to strengthen Nordic-American knowledge exchange in art and art education through various collaborations and study programs. Her research and teaching areas mainly focus on Scandinavian art education, museum based art teacher training, multicultural and environmental curriculum development and women artists in history.

Originally, from Amherst, Massachusetts in USA, Aune has Scandinavian roots with a Norwegian-American father and Swedish-American mother. Aune’s maternal great grandparents were pioneer farmers who came from Växjö in Sweden to Minnesota in the United States as immigrants in 1864. Proud of her ancestral heritage and culture, she was intrigued by her Nordic-American identity, which she explored especially through the arts. Since 1981, she has traveled to various Nordic countries that include Sweden, Norway and Finland to explore her interests as an artist, researcher and art educator. As an artist, she tries to preserve and honor ancient Nordic art and culture and as an art educator, she tries to strengthen knowledge exchange between students and faculty in the United States and the Nordic-Baltic countries. 

Honoring Nordic-American identity and culture through art

While studying the arts, Aune was particularly influenced by 19th and early 20th century Nordic artists such as Harriet Backer, Karin Larsson, Cora Sandel, and Tora Vega-Holmström. Over the years, she has developed her own style of painting that comes from a feministic aesthetic and ancient Nordic culture, representing her Nordic -American identity and her interest in preserving ancient and traditional artforms. Aune draws inspiration from a variety of Nordic cultural and anthropological artefacts that include traditional handmade textiles, clothing, folk costumes, kitchenware, cushions, linens and other products of domestic adornment. For creating one body of work, she went to Sweden and collected handmade woven fabrics with elaborate patterns that date back to 18th-century styles; which are of little value in Sweden today. Traditional art and artefacts are also rare in Swedish products sold in the Swedish store IKEA, in the United States. 

She considers these as anthropological artefacts in need of conservation. In another body of work, Aune drew inspiration from patterns found on the packaging of the Swedish traditional food knäckerbröd, which is considered by some to be “peasant food from poor soil of the cold north”. In another body of work, she used traditional patterns from Dalarna, a province in central Sweden. One painting, Dalarna Altar, uses a knäckerbröd image of two Swedish immigrants holding hands. In another body of work, Dekorglädje, which literally means decoration happiness, Aune explored domestic ethnography, and used patterns that relate to historic feminine spaces and difference in the lives of women in the medieval times and now. Aune mentions that, as medieval artisans, women often worked together and their work demonstrated collective pride and identity. Hidden between Aune’s ornate, repetitive and traditional styles are deeper meanings that reflect her identity, ancestry, American-Nordic cultural upbringing and Nordic art and culture.

 A unique feature in her works is that they have a central image with patterned borders that are decorative, symmetrical and floral - which in some ways is an antithesis of contemporary styles in visual arts. Aune mentions that while studying art in school, art related to nature or decorative art was frowned upon; instead, barbed wires and dead birds were considered serious and nitty-gritty art. Aune resisted conformity and made art that was part of her identity and resonated with words like music, beauty, hope, and happiness. Aune has exhibited her works in various places in the United States as well as the Nordic countries and often, her works conflict with views of art critics who support postmodern conceptual art. By using cultural artefacts as inspiration, and conserving them through her works, Aune seeks to honor her Swedish mother, her ancestry, centuries old folk art and the Swedish culture as a whole, which gives her the strength to resist contemporary trends. 

Fostering Nordic-American knowledge exchange in art and art education 

In an effort to foster knowledge exchange between the two regions in art and art education, Aune has led various workshops on a variety of subjects both in the United States and the Nordic-Baltic countries. One workshop was on Ojibwe (American Indian) bead traditions for Swedish teachers. In other workshops led by Aune, art education students made works inspired by traditional Varend folk dress patterns from Småland; children created banners for the President of Finland at Finnfest and paintings for the King and Queen of Norway. In another workshop, a community Home schooler families, created Swedish ceiling crowns (takkronor, oroar) that are ancient symbols for good luck and fertility for a Sustainability event using recycled materials, and she leads annual intergenerational Nordic art workshops for the Swedish Cultural Society’s Midsommar, the Sons of Norway’s Pepperkakerbyne (Gingerbread City), and holiday craft workshops in Duluth, Minnesota.  

Over the years, Aune has also invited various artists and art educators from Sweden, Estonia, Finland and Norway in the United States, who have provided their insights on art, culture and art education through presentations and workshops, some of which are also for children. These include a wide variety of topics such as folktales from the ancient Arctic storytelling tradition by Stina Fagertun and Anita Barth-Jørgensen from Tromsø, Norway, above the Arctic Circle. The Norwegian art educators  presented Sámi arts and stories along with song, dance and talked about similarities between Sámi people of Norway and the Ojibwe people of in Minnesota. Other topics include Finnish and Estonian art education, Contemporary art and visual culture in Finland and Baltic countries and so on. Apart from inviting artists and art educators, Aune has also collaborated with Nordic-Baltic art educators to develop intensive courses for art education students with the aim of studying international perspectives in art education. 

Exploring art education in Nordic-Baltic countries (Sweden-Finland-Estonia)

In the summer of 2011, Alison led an 18-day intensive course for six art education majors and one studio art major, focusing on art education in Sweden, Finland and Estonia. Students went to these countries and attended a series of lectures, presentations and workshops in various universities, schools and museums. Through this trip, students investigated the cross-cultural goals of art education, socially constructed national design aesthetics, pedagogical issues related to art and the environment, visual culture, sustaining traditional folk arts, and the dynamic innovations of Nordic-Baltic collaborators. Students worked on pre-trip assignments and prepared individual journals for reflective, creative and critical writing, related to materials gathered during the trip, as well as for documenting their own artworks. The first part of the trip involved visiting Växjö and Stockholm in Sweden, then Tartu and Tallin in Estonia and finally Helsinki in Finalnd. 

At Växjö and Stockholm in Sweden: Duluth is one of Växjö’s ten sister cities and since 1987, there have been several cultural and academic exchanges between the two cities. Students had a two-day workshop with art education and education faculty members Margareta Wallin Wictorin and Eva Cronquist of Växjö University (now known as Linneaus University). The workshop provided in-depth understanding of historic, contemporary, and international art education movements in Sweden. Students also had an opportunity to meet with art education and international students at the university. According to Aune, the central themes that emerged throughout the Swedish perspectives were the concepts that “art is for a democratic society,” “art is for all,” and “art is a language.” Students from both countries discussed art education’s role in a globalized culture and why children need the arts as a central part of their education. They also agreed that there was a need for students to receive meaningful art experiences and how teachers can guide learners to explore art as a language for communication. Following the workshop, students visited an area school, where the art teacher Lars Palm gave a lecture on his views of art and education, and demonstrated how his school integrates art into every subject. The teacher also shared a strategy that he created for promoting positive art critiques with children. The method called “two stars and a wish” has each child share two things that they like about their work, and one thing that they wish they had done better. 

After the school visit, students visited the municipal art museum, Konsthall, where the museum educator Filippa de Vos  shared perspectives on their educational programs emphasizing the importance of socially directed pedagogy or “art for everyone.” In the museum, for each exhibition, there is a space for youth of all ages to explore samtidskonst (contemporary art) through guided discussions and by responding to art through creating their own art in the gallery studio. There is no charge for this, and schools are encouraged to be regular participants. From Växjö, students went to Stockholm, where they received behind-the-scenes access to museum education programs by museum educators Marika Bogren and guest curator Patrick Steorn at the National Museum of Art and Maria Taube and Ulf Eriksson at Moderna Museet, (the Museum of Modern Art), two premier art institutes in Sweden. These experiences in Sweden were great sources of inspiration for integrating historic and contemporary art and design into the school curriculum.

At Tartu and Tallinn in Estonia: In Tartu, students met with faculty Katri Piret Viirpaulu and Rauno Thomas Moss of the Art Education Department at the University of Tartu and visited art studios of a faculty there.  From Tartu, students went to Tallinn, where art education graduate students of the Estonian Academy of Arts gave a lecture-workshop that involved an investigation into the symbolism of traditional textile patterns and fabric printing in Estonian art. Later at the art cooperative Loovala, students received two workshops by artist-educators who shared their work with Eastern-inspired art methods and creative strategies. In a workshop, students drew inspiration from Estonian folk art designs that have repeating lines, shapes, colors, and patterns, found in many day to day objects such as socks and boots, and then used these old designs in new ways. In one workshop, with Anne Lindström, students made a Mandala that manifests how Aune and Lindström connected through InSEA – as a symbol of togetherness, cultural understanding and mutual respect. The center of the artwork has two drawings that were the seeds that started this exchange.  Students and artists from Looovla contributed by adding motifs until the Mandala was complete. Following these workshops, students visited an after school program for pre-school to adults named Sally Studio. 

In Tallinn, the highlight of their visit was however Eksperimenta! - The Contemporary Art Triennial for School Students. Experimenta! show cased the power of youth art and the importance of making youth voices heard. It was the first international art exhibition by 14-19 year olds, and installed in three full floors on the grounds of the historic Song Festival Park, where the Estonian Singing Revolution took place 20 years ago. Through Experimenta! art teachers and curators aimed to promote sustainable changes in art education for youth and to authentically give youth freedom of expression. Following Experimenta! students also visited the Pelgulinna High School, where students receive 10 hours of art a week. The art teachers shared their experiences about living through difficult times during the Soviet occupation, lasting from 1940 to 1991. Today Estonia, which has only recently become independent, boasts a dedicated arts community, open to sharing their culture and are firm in the belief that art education is a way to build a better society.

At Helsinki, in Finland: Students visited the Aalto University School of Art and Design in Helsinki, where they had presentation a by professor Mira Kallio Tavin, providing an in-depth look at their 100-year-old art teacher-training program and an overview of many research innovations in contemporary art education, visual culture, museum education, and art-based environmental education. One of the Nordic-Baltic collaborators for this course was Anne Lindström, whom Alison met at an InSEA congress in Japan. Lindström teaches art to young school children in Helsinki as well as being a professor at the Estonian Academy of Arts in Tallinn, Estonia. While the students were there in Helsinki, she gave a tour of the substantial art facilities at the grade school she teaches. 

At the end of the trip, students agreed that some of the contemporary Swedish, Estonian, and Finnish approaches to art education and teacher training mirrored American concerns, such as the current theoretical debates between Discipline-Based Art Education versus Visual Culture. However, the specific cultural paradigms that the students observed provided new perspectives and offered possible solutions to deficiencies in approaches to theory and practice in art education, teacher training, and museum education in Minnesota. 

Based on the success of this trip in teaching international perspectives in art education especially with reference to these Nordic-Baltic countries, Aune plans to take another group of art education students to Sweden and Norway in 2014 and continue this tradition of fostering Nordic-American cultural exchange through art and art education. For more information, please contact Alison Aune.

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