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Leif Melgaard

Jan. 15, 1899 - March 9, 1991

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Leif Melgaard learned woodcarving while growing up in Norway. After moving to the United States, he carved mostly in his spare time. When he retired in 1964, he was able to devote all his time to creating intricately crafted spoons, mangle boards (which were used to smooth linens), bellows and porridge containers, such as the one is holding in this picture. Photograph by Phil Nusbaum, courtesy Minnesota State Arts Board
Horn of plenty by Leif Melgaard, Minneapolis, Minnesota, carved willow, 12" high, ca. 1987, Photograph by Michel Monteaux, courtesy Museum of International Folk Art, Santa Fe, New Mexico
Leif Melgaard carving his horn of plenty, photograph by Phil Nusbaum, Courtesy Minnesota State Arts Board
Leif Melgaard at work, Minneapolis, Minnesota, photograph by Phil Nusbaum, courtesy Minnesota State Arts Board
Italianate mahogany bellows (detail) by Leif Melgaard, photograph by Phil Nusbaum, 1987, courtesy Minnesota State Arts Board
Detail of mangle board handle by Leif Melgaard, photograph by Phil Nusbaum, courtesy Minnesota State Arts Board
Woodcarving by Leif Melgaard, photograph by Phil Nusbaum, 1987, courtesy Minnesota State Arts Board
Woodcarving by Leif Melgaard, photograph by Phil Nusbaum, 1987, courtesy Minnesota State Arts Board
Woodcarving by Leif Melgaard, photograph by Phil Nusbaum, 1987, courtesy Minnesota State Arts Board
Porridge container by Leif Melgaard,  photograph by Phil Nusbaum, 1987, courtesy Minnesota State Arts Board
Hand-carved spoon by Leif Melgaard, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1987, photograph by Phil Nusbaum, courtesy Minnesota State Arts Board
Italianate walnut bellows by Leif Melgaard, 25" x 10", Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1987, photograph by Phil Nusbaum, courtesy Minnesota State Arts Board
Detail of scrollwork on Italianate walnut bellows by Leif Melgaard, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1987, photograph by Phil Nusbaum, courtesy Minnesota State Arts Board
Detail of mangle board handle by Leif Melgaard, photograph by Phil Nusbaum, 1987, courtesy Minnesota State Arts Board
Mangle board by Leif Melgaard, Minneapolis, Minnesota, carved birch, 11" long, photograph by Michel Monteaux, courtesy Museum of International Folk Art (a unit of the Museum of New Mexico)
Detail of another part of a mangle board by Leif Melgaard,  photograph by Phil Nusbaum, 1987, courtesy Minnesota State Arts Board
Walnut acanthus bellows by Leif Melgaard, 24" x 9",  photograph by Phil Nusbaum, 1987, courtesy Minnesota State Arts Board
Leif Melgaard at work,  photograph by Phil Nusbaum, 1987, courtesy Minnesota State Arts Board
Walnut acanthus bellows (detail) by Leif Melgaard,  photograph by Phil Nusbaum, 1987, courtesy Minnesota State Arts Board
Leif Melgaard holding one of his bellows,  photograph by Phil Nusbaum, 1987, courtesy Minnesota State Arts Board
Willow horn of plenty by Leif Melgaard, 25" straight across, 7" horn handle, photograph by Phil Nusbaum, 1987, courtesy Minnesota State Arts Board
Viking ship ale bowls by Leif Melgaard,  photograph by Phil Nusbaum, 1987, courtesy Minnesota State Arts Board
Mirror frame by Leif Melgaard,  photograph by Phil Nusbaum, 1987, courtesy Minnesota State Arts Board
Mirror frame (detail) by Leif Melgaard,  photograph by Phil Nusbaum, 1987, courtesy Minnesota State Arts Board

Leif Melgaard spent his childhood working on his peasant family's homestead in Sor-Fron, Gudbrandsdal, Norway. With the encouragement of an uncle, a talented local woodcarver, he began to carve as a child. Melgaard's father discouraged it as a waste of time. "He was a slave driver, my father was, so I didn't have much time for carving, only in the evenings," Melgaard said.

At age 17, he enrolled at the Craft School of the Museum of Industrial Arts at Dakka, Norway. The six-week course was his only formal training. It included two weeks of cabinetmaking and two weeks of carving under the tutelage of Lillevik, the master Gudbrandsdal carver of the time. Gudbrandsdal carving is a traditional Norwegian style that is elaborately improvised, imaginative and technically very difficult. It centers on the acanthus leaf and vine motif and includes grotesque animals and other figures.

Melgaard came to the United States in 1920, assuming that he could continue his artistic training. But opportunities were limited. After several years in the farming region of western Minnesota, he settled in Minneapolis in 1926. There he found employment as a carpenter and cabinetmaker at the Lake Street Sash and Door Company. He remained there until his retirement in 1964. He continued carving at home and on occasion at work, when commissions involving ornamental carving were received. One of his best-known pieces done for the company is the altar at the Norwegian Lutheran Memorial Church. After his retirement Melgaard devoted all his time to carving.

He also took great pride in his work outside the traditional style. One such piece was a relief panel carved from mahogany in the 1940s that featured an Italianate rococo design. "I was working with some Swiss and Germans, you know, and they were always talking about how clumsy Scandinavian woodcarving was," he said. "I just wanted to show them."

Melgaard used a variety of materials, including birch, oak, mahogany, maple, apple and buckthorn. He went to great lengths to find the right wood for particular objects. Several spoons and bowls, for instance, were made of wood he cut from a tree where the stump merged with the trunk so that the pieces would feature the contrasting textures.

His carving has been displayed at Norwegian gatherings around the state, and several pieces were included in an exhibition at Vesterheim, the Norwegian American museum in Decorah, Iowa. Many students of the tradition say that Melgaard's work would be better known if he had been willing to sell and exhibit more, and they rate him equal or superior to the finest European carvers. Apparently it was difficult for him to overcome the widespread characterization of "whittling" as an idle activity and to recognize his own work as an art form. He was also reluctant to teach. "I don't have any workshop to teach in," he said. "And besides, they're always trying to learn my secrets."

Bibliography
Congdon, Kristin G., and Kara Kelley Hallmark. American Folk Art: A Regional Reference, Volume 1. (Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, 2012), 419.
Henning, Darrell D., Marion J. Nelson, and Roger L Welsh, eds. Norwegian-American Wood Carving of the Upper Midwest. (Decorah, Iowa: The Norwegian-American Museum, 1978.)

Watch

Masters of Traditional Arts kiosk video, produced by Documentary Arts

Listen

Leif Melgaard, recorded live at the 1985 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, Washington, D.C., courtesy National Endowment for the Arts