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January/February 2004


They Yearned for America

by Helga Berry

Nine epic tapestries - each measuring six and a half feet tall and more than twice as wide - tell the story of Swedish emigration to the United States.

When my Latvian friend, Aina Muze, sent me a postcard of her latest tapestry in October 2002, she modestly mentioned that it would be displayed at the Swedish American Museum Center in Chicago. Assuming I'd see only her tapestry, I was overwhelmed when I walked into an exhibition of nine huge tapestries documenting the emigration of the Swedes to the United States. The works were spectacular - riddled with images, quotes, poems, and text. It was elating.

This series is a prime example of contemporary tapestry fulfilling the purpose of storytelling and recording of historical events. This enormous project was a collaboration between two Swedes, Carl-Axel Valén, a gallery owner in Stockholm who conceived the project, and a textile artist, Åsa Bengtsson of Stockholm, who developed the designs for the tapestries. Vilhelm Moberg's four-part novel about the Swedish emigration - The Emigrants, Unto a Good Land, The Settlers, and The Last Letter Home - chosen in 1999 by Swedish TV as the most popular Swedish novel of the 20th century, served as research material. Seven highly skilled Latvian tapestry artists from Riga were awarded the contract to interpret the designs and weave the tapestries in traditional tapestry technique - building shapes and areas using discontinued weft. The project took five years to complete.

The tapestries will be exhibited again in Sweden in 2004 and 2005 and at the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 2006.

Six tapestries in the series tell the story of the emigration. The first, They Yearned for America, woven by Zinta Beimane, "sets the stage" for the emigration history. Depicted are Queen Christina, the Swedish flag, the Statue of Liberty, the U.S. flag, and Karl Oskar, the hero of the novel (who was dismayed about the quantity of rocks in the soil of Sweden). The second tapestry, New Sweden, woven by Skaidritte Leimane, highlights the Swedish settlement established in 1638 on the coast of present-day Delaware and the Swedish Territory in the West Indies (1655).

Bishop Hill, woven by Lija Rage, is the third tapestry in the series. Pastor Erik Jansson, who fled from religious persecution in Biskopskulla, Sweden, founded Bishop Hill (today a historic site in Illinois) with his followers. The emigrants are shown establishing a community and cultivating their land; building houses, schools, and churches; and establishing the rudiments of everyday life.

Chicago, (detail below) 6.6 by 16.2 feet. Designed by Åsa Bengtsson, woven by Aina Muze.

The Chicago tapestry, woven by Aina Muze, illustrates the hustle and bustle of this large city. By 1873, approximately 30,000 Swedes lived in Chicago. A glass skyscraper in the center and the elevated train system forming "the loop" reflect the modern city. On the bottom, a scene with a steamboat floating on the tree-lined river gives tribute to Julius Soderstam, who was instrumental in diverting the Chicago River to drain into the Mississippi River. After the great fire in 1871, many Swedes participated in the rebuilding of the city; the famous Wrigley Building stands tall, and other buildings are shown under construction. Young Swedes are playing soccer on Wrigley Field. North Clark Street, the site of the Swedish American Museum since 1987, is depicted on the top right. Carl Sandburg plays his guitar next to Swedish girls on bicycles; a saxophonist is practicing his tunes. On the left, a side of beef illustrates Chicago as the "cattle capital." Above is a list of logos from American-Swedish newspapers. "The Rebel Girl" is holding a scarlet-red banner to support the Industrial Workers of the World.

The emigration reached its peak of 45,500 settlers in 1888. By 1900, Chicago was the second largest Swedish city behind Stockholm; the first Swedish vice consulate was established in Chicago.

The fifth tapestry depicts scenes from another area in which Swedes settled. Minnesota, woven by Anita Celma, illustrates a lively scene of homesteading, logging, and railroad construction in the lush green landscape. An apprehensive Indian chief, Manpiua Lua (Red Cloud), watches the encroachment on land now laid out in a grid.

Going West (details below), 6.6 by 16.2 feet. Woven by Zinta Beimane. All of the tapestries were designed by Åsa Bengtsson.

The Going West tapestry, woven by Zinta Beimane, documents the emigration of Swedes stretching from California to Alaska. Incorporated is text from the July 11, 1897, Seattle Post-Intelligencer ("Latest News from the Klondike") on the top left of the tapestry. An upward streak contains names of landmarks along the steep Klondike trail. Framing the tapestry on either side are totem poles, a characteristic Native American symbol of the Pacific Northwest. The head of a huge bald eagle is shown watching lumberjacks stretching their arms around giant redwood trees. Chief Seattle resides at the top of the tapestry. Below, the Industrial Workers of the World are shown striking. Trains and cars are "going west."

Going West concludes the more than 350-year history of the emigration of Swedes to the United States. Almost 5 million people living in the U.S. today are of Swedish heritage. The last three tapestries focus on the contributions of three groups: The Artists, Inventors - Inventions - Entrepreneurs, and Today's Emigrants (woven by Lija Rage, Aiva Zurina, and Elina Lusis-Grinberga, respectively).

The Artists (detail below), 6.6 by 12 feet. Woven by Lija Rage.

The Artists reflects the glamour of Hollywood, a feast for the eye and the ear, depicted in the upper left corner. Soprano Jenny Lind, known as the Swedish Nightingale, is descending on a staircase. Film star Gloria Swanson is standing near. Greta Garbo with director Maurice Stiller and Anna Q. Nilsson are prominently featured. A vignette recalls the heart-throbbing classic movie Casablanca, with Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart. The names of many, many singers, actors, songwriters, and performers of classical music are at bottom right.

Inventors - Inventions - Entrepreneurs, 6.5 by 13 feet. Woven by Aiva Zurina.

The Inventors - Inventions - Entrepreneurs tapestry pays tribute to the Swedish builders, architects, designers, and engineers who invented new technology and marketed their innovations with great success. To mention a few, Alexander Samuelsson designed the Coca - Cola bottle (featured on the right). Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, holding the U.S. flag, was the second astronaut to land on the moon. Charles A. Lindbergh made the first nonstop flight across the Atlantic from Paris. In New York, Oscar Lindquist revolutionized the system for elevator transport in tall buildings. Carl Edvard Johansson standardized the measuring system. The top left circle reflects Philip Johnson becoming the head of Boeing Aircraft in 1930. Matson Steamship Lines established the first passenger and cargo service. Chemical formulas reflect the accomplishments of Glen Seaborg. Chester Carlson founded the Xerox Corporation.

Today's Emigrants (detail below), 6.6 by 12.3 feet. Woven by Elina Lusis-Gringberga.

The Today's Emigrants tapestry shows on the right side a sculpture in front of the United Nations Building in New York: a pillar with a blue stone ball on top dedicated to Raoul Wallenberg, who rescued thousands of Jews from the Nazis. Standing in the midst of text that dominates the right side of the tapestry is the famous Wagnerian soprano Birgit Nilsson performing Isolde and Tristan. Astrid Lindgren's children's character Pippi Longstocking is carrying the white spotted horse. The left side of the tapestry is dedicated to sports (for example, tennis player Björn Borg, boxer Ingemar Johansson, and figures representing Swedish ice-hockey and golf players), popular culture (such as the rock group Roxette), and international Swedish companies (such as Saab and Volvo, IKEA, Absolut Vodka, and Skanska).

Leaving the museum and facing a gust of Chicago's chilling wind, I thanked Gideon Sundbäck for inventing the zipper. I hummed Abba's "Mama Mia!" all the way to the bus stop. I thought of Alfred Nobel, who established the Peace Prize as one of the six Nobel Prize categories. Peace, in my view, is all about harmonious international relations. How do we achieve this on an individual level? By having friends from all over the world, because we will not fight with our friends. By working together, because we have to become a team to achieve a common goal. By living together, because we share the same space. "They Yearned for America" has these attributes, and I see it as a tribute to world peace. Something so small each of us can do on our own.

Helga Berry is a tapestry artist and writer who lives in Anchorage, Alaska.

The information in this essay was extracted from a large-format color catalogue with essays, poems, and trifold photographs. For ordering information, see Resources on page 70.

They Yearned for America (detail below), 6.6 by 12.25 feet. Woven by Zinta Beimane.
This tapestry sets the stage for the emigration history. Queen Christina opens the curtain on the right, depicting the Swedish flag. The curtain on the left resembles the flag of the United States, held by the Statue of Liberty. The relations between the two countries are illustrated by flora and fauna; for example, a bird in a Swedish apple tree on the right converses with a bird in an American redwood tree on the left. The Swedish twinflower (Linnaean borealis) at the bottom right is balanced with a squirrel on the American side. The prized possessions of the emigrants, such as a decorated 1846 chest stuffed with memories of families and relatives, are taken to the journey of their dreams and to the unknown. Karl Oskar, the hero of Vilhelm Moberg's four-part novel, dismayed about so many rocks in the soil of Sweden, is shown holding a big rock and is surrounded by rocks. His wife is featured below. From right to left, metaphorically from East to West, we see illustrations of the Kalmar Nyckel vessel with Swedish flags on top of the masts; sea life; the chief of the Lenape Indian tribe; Johan Printz, the leader of the New Sweden colony; navigational tools; homesteading; cowboys; and watchful Indians. In a half circle on top is a scene symbolic of around-the-clock homesteading, with sun and moon and migrating birds.
New Sweden, 6.6 by 12.25 feet. Woven by Skaidritte Leimane.
On the top of this tapestry, a banner reads (translated) "1638 New Sweden: Or the Swedish Territory in the West Indies 1655." [We look at geography differently today and think of the West Indies to be located further south.] The tapestry is bordered by 17th-century maps of the then-Swedish Territory on the right, which included part of the Baltic. Designer Åsa Bengtsson gives tribute to the weavers (by putting Riga, Latvia, on the map) and to Carl-Axel Valén, the instigator of this project (by featuring him with a spyglass, always on the lookout for something new). The queen and her father, Gustav II Adolf, are shown below. Fort Christina is situated in a parklike setting with linearly planted trees. On the left, the map shows the Delaware coast, New Amsterdam, and the Bronx (referring to Jonas Bronck, a native Swede who moved to Holland, became a sea captain, and settled in the Netherlands in 1639; today's New York City borough is named after him). Paradise Point was where the Swedes first set foot in America. Axel Oxenstierna is facing tobacco plants. A scene of traditional native American life depicts weaving, stretching hides, fishing, and trading. Elsewhere we see fragments of then-common maps, coats of arms, compasses, fish, and ships going in both directions, along with an angel blowing favorable winds.
Bishop Hill, 6.6 by 12.25 feet. Woven by Lija Rage.
The third tapestry in the series was woven by Lija Rage, who also was the coordinator for the weavers. This lively image contains religious references, which include a huge dove and a magnified Roman numeral clock symbolizing God's eye. The imposing pastor Erik Jansson, the prophet of Biskopskulla who fled from religious persecution, founded Bishop Hill with his followers. "Here is the place," as illustrated in the bottom left corner of the tapestry; the emigrants are shown establishing a community and cultivating their land. The farmers are either tending to the land with oxen or are seen harvesting rye, wheat, barley, corn, and flax. Carpenters and masons are building houses, schools, grain mills, sawmills, and churches. Tanners, shoemakers, tailors, spinners, and weavers are establishing everyday-life rudiments. Olof Krans, a self-taught artist, is shown; he captured many scenes from the colony lifestyle on his canvases and inspired some of Åsa Bengtsson's designs. Musicians on the top left are playing from a decorated carriage drawn by horses. Smoke escapes from the chimneys of the log houses.
The Bishop Hill colony thrived for a while, with many ships bringing new settlers. It grew to a 12,000-acre settlement with 20 large buildings, of which 12 were made of brick. But with growth also came hardships - two vessels were lost at sea, and many died of diseases. Bishop Hill turned into a ghost town by 1868. Many emigrants had moved further West to seek better opportunities. In 1946, it was declared a historic site by the state of Illinois.
Minnesota, 6.6 by 15.9 feet. Woven by Anita Celma; detail below.
This tapestry illustrates a lively scene of homesteading among the local flora and fauna. Much of the right side next to and below the Statue of Liberty is dominated by a letter a father (bottom right) is reading from his daughter (lower left) describing how the grasshoppers ruined the whole crop. Signs are encouraging settlers to move to Minnesota, offering them $30 a month. This tapestry reflects the lush, green environment of Minnesota, the logging of trees, and the transportation of the logs by means of waterways or horses. It is said that six stout horses, rendered in this image from a photograph, hauled the largest load of lumber ever - more than 50,000 feet of lumber weighing 250 tons - for about 12 miles. Other activities depicted include the building of railroads and log houses and families keeping livestock or oxen for plowing the fields. Hjalmar Peterson plays the accordion; another fellow sings. On the left third of the tapestry at the top, designer Åsa Bengtsson features Vilhelm Moberg, the author of the four-part novel that served as research material for the tapestries, as a serious man who spent three years cycling through Minnesota. Above him one can see a vehicle with the initials SAP (Svenska Amerikanska Posten), the largest Swedish-language newspaper, owned by Swan Johan Turnblad. On the left, an apprehensive Indian chief, Manpiua Lua (alias Red Cloud), watches the encroachment by the white man amidst roaming buffalos on land now laid out in a grid. Two native Americans are seen canoeing the river and the lake systems. The upper left corner is dedicated to successful Swedish Americans: the founder of the Greyhound bus line, Carl Erick Wickman; Curtis Carlson, founder of the Gold Bond trading stamp and the Radisson Hotel chain; and Charles A. Lindbergh, seen playing with a toy airplane at his birthplace in Little Falls, Minnesota.

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Jan/Feb 2004


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