Tiny Minnesota Town Art School Renowned For Teaching Scandinavian Folk Art

31 March 2022

MILAN, Minn. (WCCO) — Because of its size, Milan is one of those don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-it western Minnesota towns. But if you take a closer look, you’ll find little treasures around every corner.

“The best way to describe Milan is quirky,” said Ron Porep. “It’s small, but there’s just so much going on in this town.”

During the farm crisis of the 1980s, the Milan Village Art School opened as a way to create teaching jobs for struggling artists.

“This area is a big Norwegian immigrant area, so most of the classes we teach are Scandinavian in nature,” said Porep, the director at the art school.

Over the years, the school has carved out a role for itself, gaining popularity around the world and helping to make Minnesota the hub of the Scandinavian art movement. People come to the school from across the Midwest to learn crafts like silversmithing, rosemaling and knifemaking.

“The Norwegians themselves were unique in bringing it here,” said Jock Holmen, who teaches at the school.

Holmen’s grandparents came to Minnesota from Norway. He drives from the Twin Cities to Milan to teach a Scandinavian art form called “acanthus.”

“It’s mainly carving leaves to decorate anything from doorways to cabinets,” he said.

(credit: CBS)

Using chisels and gauges that are significantly sharper than scalpels, Holmen’s students create art out of birch and basswood. Some projects, like Kathy Nardi’s, can take weeks to complete.

“This is supposed to go over a doorway,” Nardi said, referring to a piece was recently working on. “It’s nice because it’ll be eight feet away, and no one will see all my little mistakes.”

Nardi has made the two-hour trip from St. Cloud to Milan many times. Acanthus is just the latest folk art she is working to master.

“You take one class, you start taking other classes, and pretty soon you’re hooked,” she said. “You get the catalogue and you’re like, OK, there’s those next three that I’m signing up for.”

According to Holmen, one of these crafts can take decades to master, and they often lead students to explore other types of Scandinavian folk art. All inside a 107-year-old school building.

Teachers at the Milan Village Art School are often from Minnesota, but some travel from across the country to teach in a town with only 300 residents.

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