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
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.
|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
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;
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,