MILAN – A small town in greater Minnesota has kept its Norwegian roots alive by teaching others traditional disciplines within folk art.
A converted 109-year-old schoolhouse, which was bought for $50 in 1995 and then moved to its current location, serves as the Milan School of the Arts, where classes are taught and events are held. The National School of Arts has been part of the Milan community for about 35 years.
MVAS was originally founded in 1988 to employ local artists during turbulent times for rural communities like Milan. According to the school’s web page, local businesses began to close and people began to move out of small western towns for better economic opportunities as the reality of the agricultural industry required larger scale and fewer farms.
School director Ron Porep said that for probably 20 to 50 years before the Milan Village School of Art, there had always been traditional Scandinavian art forms taught and exhibited in Milan, as many of the people there were of Norwegian/Scandinavian heritage.
The art forms of Scandinavian culture are included in the category of “folk art”.
As a result of the nationality of the community’s early immigrants, Porep said MVAS is well positioned to begin teaching these art forms.
“We were probably the first school to start this,” Porep said.
There was, of course, the already established American-Swedish Institute in the Twin Cities, which also taught handmade folk arts, but for a while Milan was the only school that hosted folk art classes in most of Minnesota.
Modeled after folk schools in Denmark and Norway, MVAS attracts craftsmen within traditional folk art disciplines such as flat figure carving, rosemaling – a type of floral design that can be painted or carved – and beer bowl carving. The school also teaches more traditional forms of fine art such as watercolor painting.
Since then, public schools in Ely, Duluth and other communities have also sprung up, but the pandemic has stunted their growth, according to Porep.
Porep said since the pandemic, classes at MVAS have seen a significant increase in demand. Some of the most popular classes, such as silversmithing and jewelry making, fill up quickly.
“We’re really the only school in the Midwest that does this,” Porep said, “Some schools touch on little bits or pieces of it, but they don’t do it to the extent that we do.”
People can sign up for a number of different classes throughout the year. The tuition fee for the class is based on the number of days the instructor will be at the school and the cost of any additional tools or equipment needed.
The school is a non-profit organization and members receive a $15 discount on most classes in addition to access to studios or equipment.
“One of the things that happened during COVID was that some of the larger schools started doing a lot of online teaching,” Porep said. “They can take students from all over the world and teach a class for three to four hours,” something Milan can’t do given its smaller size and staff.
Porep said he sat down with instructors and students and just listened to what they had to say. “The instructors didn’t want to do that; they like to come to a facility like this where they can sit down and teach a two- or three-day class,” he said.
Students also did not want to go the online route.
“Sometimes it’s a holiday for them … I regularly get people from Nebraska and other states to come for a week … to come carve and be with an instructor and they’ll learn a lot more in a two- or three-day class with an instructor than would do online,” he said.
“You can teach anything you want in public school,” Porep said, saying other schools have started teaching things like canning and growing vegetables. “We are unique in what we do,” he said.
There are cultural centers and museums in larger cities like Minneapolis that also teach Nordic arts. Porep said it’s great that these centers exist, but he explained that some of these things are usually nothing more than parts of a larger exhibit.
“We’re very particular about what we do,” he said. “Everything we do is about teaching the arts, supporting the artists and supporting the students.” He explained that Minnesota is changing and the demographics are changing. More and more people are moving here from more ethnic groups.
“This town used to be called ‘Little Norway’ … now half the town is South Pacific Islanders,” he said.
Porep, who has been the school’s principal for about 15 years, said the changing demographics aren’t seen as a bad thing by faculty or residents, but in turn could present challenges going forward.
“Right now, a lot of what we teach … there are only a few instructors in the United States who teach these art forms,” he said, “but I can’t say how in demand they will be in the future.”
So far so good.
Porep said all the artists who hosted courses last year have signed on to teach at least one course next year. Classes fill up easily because not only is MVAS one of the few schools that teach art forms, but also, as Porep said, the school tries to hire “the best instructors in their genre” and draws people from all ends of the United States.
He also said the school aims to pay instructors better rates than similar schools. Future artists will also have living quarters below the school during their time as instructors. The bedroom is now complete, but the basement level is still under construction to accommodate a bathroom and living space that can also double as an exhibition space/meeting space.
“The school has catered to the needs of the community,” Porep said, and it’s only grown over time. “I know the school wasn’t taken seriously when we opened by a lot of the community because that’s what I was told. I think they realize that we’re a really integral part of the community and for a city of this size to have a facility of this quality is really fortunate.”
Milano has overcome similar challenges to many communities of its size, but has come through without losing parts of its historical identity such as cafes, libraries, post office, supermarket, community center and the MVAS itself.
“For a small town, it’s very dense with things that keep the town alive,” Porep said. “A lot of cities just lose that and you can tell. You can drive through these towns and their high streets look terrible and the buildings look terrible with broken windows and boarded up businesses.
“We’re not an example of that, but you can look at Milan and say there are opportunities for rural communities. We built this and people come from all over the United States to come here. It was never really planned, it just happened that way,” he said.