LAKELAND IN SWEDEN: SEARCHING FOR ART AND NATURE
As I carefully make my way up the fern-lined walk, up a little slope, the celadon birch leaves sway in the warm breeze. Sunlight slants through the dense, scented forest, and I can make out the bubbling of a nearby creek. Looking around, I notice a small patch of sunlight shining on a delicate purple lily with black-spotted leaves in the middle of the walkway ahead.
I scratch my head in disbelief and see that there is no running water. I thought I heard a person, but it was just the trees rustling in the wind. A hilltop picnic table in a shorn hayfield with sweeping views of central Sweden’s field and forest can be reached by this route. I raise my face to the light and breathe in the musty, dry-grass scent that has been liberated by the day’s warmth.
I am not out walking; rather, I am waiting for a lunching merchant to open his shop. In addition, his store is not located in a metropolitan area but rather at the artist’s residence, a timber house surrounded by rose gardens on a hillside, beyond verdant fields dotted with Belgian horses and neat red wood homes with white lace curtains in the windows.
I had seen a flier for Bosse’s Träslöjd, a wooden handicrafts shop in the adjacent lakeside village of Rättvik, where the owner, Bosse, creates his own versions of Sweden’s fameddalahäst (wooden horse).
With a map in hand, I drove out into the rural landscape in my rental car, a bright green Volvo, and followed the signs to North Lindberg, a tiny settlement with no more than a dozen farms. While Bosse and his wife were eating lunch, Bosse greeted me and recommended I take a walk.
“Welcome back!”Bosse greets me with a friendly “(Welcome back)” as I emerge from the forest. Respond to the question, “What did you think of Semester Väg (holiday path)?” I tell him excitedly about my newfound lily, and he tells me it grows naturally in this region.
I go with Bosse to his hillside timber studio, where he opens the door and shows me the pastel-colored dalahäster on the shelves. Horses in Bosse’s hometown of Leksand, Norway, are famous for their vibrant coat colors and shine. However, these equines are like sweet colored candies. I can’t help but notice the azure horse with the gilded mane and the small seashell necklace.
Bosse comments, “That one makes me think of the ocean not far from where I grew up, south of Göteborg.”
My horse-loving 11-year-old daughter, Kirsten, would really adore a beautifully beautiful white mare with golden swirls of paint and a bell strung around its neck.
My Shetland pony Blända inspired that one; she’s off enjoying some grass in the woods right now.
We have a nice chat about our mutual interest in equines, and Bosse tells me of a local herd where horses from all around Dalarna gather annually for a “summer holiday” to socialize. When I thanked Bosse for his help, he invited me to visit the fäbod (summer farm) where the horses were housed the next day for a walk in the forest and a picnic. I’ll be right back with a flat of fresh, local strawberries.
I think about how this kind of experience is only possible away from the bustle of the city, where an artist working alone in his studio is eager to share his thoughts and life with visitors, as I drive downhill back to Rättvik with my radio blaring Swedish pop tunes and the heady fragrance of wildflowers in hedgerows wafting through the open window.
I’ll be spending a week in Sweden, the land of my ancestors, where I plan to reconnect with family, dance to traditional, heartfelt fiddle tunes in rustic country dance halls, and explore the incredible biodiversity of the country’s folk province. In the same way that I look for rocks with a white ring around them at the beach because my grandmother told me they were “lucky stones,” I am hoping to locate valuable items in places I wouldn’t normally look.
I’ve marked the homes of craftspeople on a map and want to visit their rustic workshops and lakeside retreats in quest of unique pieces that will transport me back to the warm, fragrant days of a Swedish summer.
I can’t decide if it’s better to have the mystery of the artist behind the work of art that graces my walls solved or to have the thrill of discovery as I travel through some of the most breathtaking landscapes I’ve ever seen.
And I’ve found the right place: Sweden may be known as the land of the midnight sun and of tall blond people with an egalitarian bent, but those in the know will tell you that it is also a place where centuries-old folk traditions continue to be carried on in handmade ceramic bowls, glass vases, silver pendants, woven table runners, and wooden baskets.
And Dalarna, Sweden’s lake-dotted folk area, three hours northwest of Stockholm, is one of the greatest sites to find a large assortment of these crafts.
As I make my way through the forests to the north of Rättvik, the sun is shining and the day promises to be exciting. The roadside pastures are ablaze with purple, pink, and white fireweed, and each one seems to hold at least three horses, if not a whole herd. My husband Eric is a huge fan of thick, attractive, and well-crafted pottery, therefore I’m on the lookout for a present like that. Nittsjö Keramik is a famous ceramics plant in the area, and I’ve seen their cozy brown platters and vases in restaurants and stores and thought they’d be perfect.
I arrive at a clearing and a basic, two-story brick building. The store’s size and selection took me by surprise because it didn’t look promising from the outside. A few guests look at the porcelain gnome-like figures called nisser, who are famed for their kind care to animals, and the fanciful bird-shaped ocarinas that line the shelves.
Serving pieces in rich blues and earthy browns, all hand painted with flower and leaf themes, fill the other shelves. For Eric, I choose a bowl that is cobalt blue and has a daisy design painted along the rim. It will remind me of both my Swedish grandmother’s cinnamon-scented kitchen and our family’s favorite bowl for serving homemade applesauce.
It’s another hot day as I travel the winding road leading to Tällberg, a little town several miles southeast of Rättvik famous for its arts and crafts stores built in modest wooden structures clustered around a grass courtyard. Turning a corner, I see a sign promoting Siljansleden, a well-traveled walking and biking route that goes all the way around Lake Siljan, Sweden’s third largest lake at 25 miles (40 km) in length.
I take a side road and park beside some fields. The edge of the field is covered in wildflowers like roses, bluebells, daisies, buttercups, and even wild strawberries. I take a leisurely stroll along a lakeside lane lined with birch trees. Little coves formed by the bend of the granite jetties make ideal spots for the upside-down mooring of wooden rowboats. A pretty white pavilion sits on one of the piers. A local family is soaking up some rays on a tiny balcony nearby.
My automobile is parked across the street from the Korgmakeri workshop, which is proudly advertised in white letters on a rusty wood structure. I enter Knäppasken Korgmakeri and see Björn Majors, a calm, spectacled man, carefully removing inch-long pieces of birch wood from a paper-thin sheet. Between the stacked baskets, there is a mountain of wood shavings that emit a pungent odor.
Björn, whose hands are effortlessly hefting tools as he handles the wood, tells me how he left a career as a postal worker in the city to pursue carpentry in the peaceful countryside after retiring. When he says he has finally found his place in the world, the wrinkles at the corners of his eyes back up his claim.
Indifferently, I pick up an oval willow-and-ash dish with sides made of a single strip of willow, bent and attached with small pegs and, strangely, flowing threads made of wood fiber as Björn attends to other customers who enter the shop. I keep going back to caress it because it is as cool and soft as a baby’s cheek.
As I clutch the tray to my bosom and thank Björn for creating such a beautiful work of art, I envisage gorgeous cupcakes nestled on a linen cloth and decide it will be wonderful for serving sandwiches.
While in Tällberg, I like to wander around the shops selling local arts and crafts, looking at the ceramics, jewelry, and textiles on sale. But the costs are quite expensive. I just paid a third as much for a tray that looks identical to the one I bought.
Before getting back in the car, I take the wooden steps up to the deck of Siljansgrdens Kaffestuga (Lake Siljan farmhouse coffeeshop) on an island in the lake and have a few heart-shaped vaffles with golden cloudberry jam and whipped cream.
To the south, I travel through a tall bridge over the Dalälven River where it emerges from Lake Siljan and enter the historic district of Leksand, a town of 15,400 people home to a beautiful church built in the 13th century. Leksand, like the other one hundred or so surrounding villages, is a vibrant cultural center. On special occasions, locals still row a long boat decorated with birch boughs to church, dance around the maypole in the village square on the evening of the longest day of summer, and dress in vibrant traditional garb.
In a corner of Leksand’s Hemslöjd (handicraft shop), you can see examples of the region’s strong textile legacy, such as the tendrils of embroidery on poppy-red vests and the skillfully stitched golden scrollwork on the shoulders of deep-blue wool waistcoats.
In cities across Sweden, you can visit a place called a “Hemslöjd,” where works by local artists are on exhibit. If you don’t have time to explore the countryside on your trip, a stop to a hemslöjd, where you may peruse a stunning collection of handmade goods, is the next best thing. Artists who sell at hemslöjds earn a fair portion of the profits, and while pricing may be higher than at commercial, tourist-oriented crafts markets, they are still typically lower.
The hemslöjd in Leksand is the greatest I’ve seen so far; its shelves are stocked with both antique and contemporary versions of traditional arts and crafts. A metal candleholder in the form of a grazing horse holds four candles along its back in a contemporary design. I go upstairs to a room packed with wooden furniture and home goods, and there I find fat, circular bowls that want to be picked up and examined.
They are painted a bright cerulean blue on the surface and have the pristine white interior of birch. When I turned one over, I saw my name, Forsberg, written upside down. Even though I know we aren’t connected, the thought that a local artist might share our ancestry gives me pause.
I open the door and immediately had to shield my eyes from the sun’s glare. The horizon is slowly being enveloped by billowing clouds that appear to be carrying rain. It’s hot and sticky outside, and I could use a swim in the lake. I was able to receive directions to the beach that is the hemslöjd clerk’s favorite from her. To get to the magnificent coastline walk surrounded with little, nook-like beaches separated by small rock jetties, I park the car at a pullout in the trees above the lake and descend down a steep trail.
I take a seat on a beach of copper sand that is scattered with brilliant pink and orange and gray and white granite pebbles. At the beach across the street, three young blonde boys play around with shovels and buckets as their mother lounges in the sun with a book.
I put on my waders and walk till the water is up to my waist, then I swim to some adjacent round rocks. Sitting atop one, I take in the scene of low, pine- and fir-covered hills dotted with clusters of rusty buildings and the joyful squeals of the lads as they play in the water. The harmony between humans and the natural world here is palpable.
The light sparkles off the lake like molten silver, like specks of quartz in the granite boulders, as a freshet of air rises and ruffles the surface. A fleeting recollection that will return to me everytime I catch sight of my silver heart necklace, Kirsten’s dalahäst’s jingling bell, or any of the other ethereal charms I discovered among the forests and lakes of central Sweden.