- By Linda Andersen - The Atlantic, in 2016, published an article titled “The Graying of Rural America,” detailing the decline of small, rural communities.
Karlstad (population 747), a rural community in the Northwest corner of Minnesota just thirty miles from the Canadian border, is keeping its color—thanks, in part, to the work of Curt, Sharon (now deceased), Matt, and Andrea Wikstrom.
Curt, CEO of Wikstrom Telephone Company (Wiktel), and his wife, Sharon, conceived the idea of transforming Karlstad into a Scandinavian themed community since a large number of Scandinavian emigrants had settled in the area. Besides inspiring local businesses to add Scandinavian touches to their buildings, they opened a gift & variety store and began a restaurant, which includes a heritage center.
Their son Matt was a part of the project from the start and, in his marriage to Andrea Gladen in the summer of 2011, acquired a new partner in the project.
For the last six years of her life, until her untimely death in early 2011, Sharon volunteered many hours to designing, painting, and beautifying Karlstad. She once studied art at the University of Minnesota and according to Andrea, had a “knack for understanding colors and shadows.” All color schemes on the exteriors and interiors of buildings are authentic colors from Norway and Sweden.
The Wikstroms called their variety store Nordisk Hemslöjd, a Swedish name, meaning “Scandinavian Handicrafts.” Sharon and Matt set to work painting a mural on the side of the building. Matt reminisces about the early days of the work. He says they worked after dark to project the design on the side of the building using an overhead projector and laptop. Then they drew the design on the stucco wall using Sharpies. He says he was “eaten alive by mosquitoes” until his mother began holding a fan next to him to blow off the critters.
They named the restaurant Nordhem (Northern Home) and began to paint designs on panels, doors, and walls. Matt and Andrea have continued the time consuming work since Sharon’s death. Matt manages to do most of his work as graphic artist and webmaster for Wikstrom Telephone Company from their primary home (the port town of Anacortes, Washington), but the couple travels to Karlstad periodically for their ongoing Karlstad project.
In creating scenes, they try to “keep things interesting to the people here” and try to choose subjects that “have a connection to the people here.” One finds scenes that include subjects such as moose, fishermen, and farmers.
They say Bible stories and Scandinavian folk tales and heritage inspire their work. Matt, who has painted panels above restaurant booths and most recently decorated doors in the restaurant, has represented the parable of the mustard seed on one door and the parable of the lost sheep on another. One door bears the Swedish words for “God bless this meal.” He says the painting of each panel in every door takes about ten hours, not including planning time.
Although Andrea was not particularly familiar with Scandinavian art when she first came to Karlstad, she said she has an “interest in other cultures,” and is happy to learn. She and Matt have taken classes in Scandinavian arts at the Vesterheim Museum in Decorah, Iowa.
Andrea has painted scenes inspired by Norwegian folk tales on the walls beside each booth, bringing characters such as Mr. Goodbrand and Little Grouse to life. “The style of painting mimics Sigmond Aarseth,” she says.
A heritage center (telecommunications and printing museum) adjoins Nordhem. The Wikstrom Family has been in the telecommunications business for seventy years and donated equipment, such as antique telephones (including old magneto crank phones through the first dial phones) and switchboards to the center. The local newspaper, The North Star News, donated old printing equipment, such as a linotype machine, an early copy machine, and trays of lead type.
The Wikstroms’ artwork is also featured in the museum. Andrea painted a mural on one wall. Matt describes it as “anachronous,” or “something out of step with time.” The work is a merger of three scenes, beginning with a fishing village of Norway, then going to a scene from Karlstad, Sweden, and finally going to a scene from 1950s Karlstad, Minnesota. Depicted in the latter scene are Matt’s grandparents, George and Delores Wikstrom, founders of Wikstrom Telephone Company.
Andrea, who maintains a presence on the web at www.artmurals.com and on Facebook, also loves to create jewelry. She calls her business “B.U.tiful” and occasionally holds a sale of her creations at Nordhem. She makes her jewelry from antiqued brass, and semi-precious gemstones and glass. She says nature, people, and cultures provide the inspiration for each piece.
The Wikstroms aren’t sure when they’ll be finished with their Karlstad project, saying it’s “one of those things that takes longer than anticipated.” Matt plans to paint more doors in the restaurant. Andrea will take her brush to the banquet room.
“When we’re done with the restaurant we will be planning a booklet that explains the artwork because everything has a story behind it,” concludes Andrea.
Looks like the Wikstroms will help keep Karlstad colorful for a while longer!