Imagine Northeast Iowa

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Decorah Woodcarver Featured on PBS ‘Craft in America’
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Decorah Woodcarver Featured on PBS ‘Craft in America’

You may have seen talented artist Harley Refsal from Decorah whittling away at one of the Vesterheim’s events, demonstrating Scandinavian flat-plane carving technique, making delightful wood carved figures. Humble Harley has carved his way into folk artistry with a sharp knife and is being featured on PBS tonight, December 20, in December’s “Craft in America” holiday episode, airing in various parts of the country. Don’t worry if you are unable to tune in tonight, the show will also be on Iowa Public Television Monday at 2 a.m. and 7 p.m. Wednesday.

PBS filmed Harley teaching his traditional woodcarving techniques of Scandinavian flat-plane carving, which he teaches all over the United States and Scandinavia. He’s has also written three books on woodcarving.

Harley, 68, grew up in farm home whittling with his Norwegian Immigrant grandfather who lived with the family. Harley carried his woodcarving knife with him wherever he went, even to country school. He taught Norwegian language and Scandinavian fine handcraft at Luther College in Decorah from 1972 to 2010. Now, he just teaches his fine art during the January interim at Luther, where classes fill up quickly.

Harley continues to whittle as he explains his fine art, “In a world when things are so high-tech, there’s a need for that which is low-tech but high-touch.” His main tool is a two inch knife he designed himself and in Scandinavian tradition, he carves what he sees. He first makes sketches of interesting people he sees, especially takes note of any interesting noses, and turns them into a work of art. After carved, he adds color using an acrylic stain and finishes them by dunking them in linseed oil or wax as a protective finish to his works of art.

Harley’s work is much more than expert hands whittling away to make a rough ornament or figure. My first thought when I looked closely at the wooden figures was the exquisite facial features and expressions that made me smile and think of Normal Rockwell’s artistic drawings of body features and facial expressions that draw one into the spirit of the person portrayed.

Harley wears a Kevlar glove on his left hand to prevent slippage and cutting his fingers and to hold the linden wood he uses to carve in place. He has had accidents before and nicked the end off one thumb and the other was shortened a bit with the use of a band saw, though just a flesh wound.

Each year for Christmas, he creates a unique holiday ornament priced around $30, his figures run about $100 each. He sells his work at different events in Northeast Iowa and you can also email him refsal@gmail if you are interested in buying his work. He is in the works of getting up a website at where you can buy his work online.

This famous Northeast Iowan was awarded the St. Olav’s Medal for his efforts to revive this dying art form by Norway’s King Harald V in 1996. The next year, Harley had an audience with the king Oslo where they conversed in the sovereign’s tongue.

I hope you have the opportunity to watch one of our own Northeast Iowan’s this busy holiday season on television.

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