by Dennis Dalman
Entering the home of Jack and Suzanne Toftey in Sartell is a bit like entering an enchanting storybook world that causes visitors to smile and sometimes chuckle and laugh with wonderment.
Everywhere on display are whimsical bowls, plates, paintings and wood-carved figures, and each one of them evokes the magical delights of Norwegian folk scenes: children in traditional costumes with baked goodies, goats cavorting, rustic cottage homes nestled beneath mountains, a peasant man playing an accordion as his dog howls a tune. The man-with-dog is bound to bring a smile.
And what almost never fails to cause a knowing chuckle is a painting of a Norwegian boy, his nose crinkled from the pungent smell of the bucket of lutefisk he’s holding. Most Minnesotans have at least tasted that odiferous traditional Norwegian fish dish, but others – repelled by the smell – wouldn’t take a nibble at the end of a 10-foot fork.
In many of the artworks are little Norwegian elves, peeking and peering in on the scenes, giving looks of approval, surprise, pleasure or – in some cases – mischievous grins.
The Tofteys’ artworks instantly indicate their lifetime togetherness in creating artworks – Suzanne as a painter, Jack as a whittler-carver. Each perfectly complements the other.
Suzanne is an award-winning master of rosemaling whose artworks are cherished by collectors in many countries. Rosemaling, pronounced “rose-mahling,” is a form of decorative Norwegian folk-art painting – usually on wooden objects – that is comprised of stylized flowers, scrollwork and other elements expressed colorfully in flowing, vine-like, swirling curlicues.
Norwegian to the core
Both Jack and Suzanne are Norwegian to the core, direct descendants of Norwegians. She was born in New Ulm and grew up in Fairfax. He was born in Duluth and grew up in Grand Marais.
They met while both were students at St. Olaf College where she was studying home economics, and he was majoring in physical education. After marriage, they lived in a number of places, including Osakis and St. Cloud, where Jack taught at South Junior High School and later at Tech High School where he was named activities director. After Jack retired, they moved to Isle, then back to the St. Cloud-Sartell area to be closer to their children – Jeff, Jenni and Jill. They have eight grandchildren and one great-granddaughter.
In college, Jack took many classes to learn Norwegian. Suzanne, too, had always been fascinated and drawn to all things Norwegian, including its colorful folk art. Those fascinations, for both, led to their long-time hobby and profession of creating artworks.
One day in the 1970s, the Tofteys’ front door needed refinishing. A light bulb of an idea lit up in Suzanne’s mind. She had just read an article with photos about rosemaling in a magazine. Wouldn’t it be neat, she wondered, if she could do some rosemaling on the door, a cheerful welcome for visitors?
And so she did. It turned out fine, but she realized she wanted to learn more, to paint better. She tried to teach herself. Later, she heard about classes at Terrace Mill, an arts-and-crafts center near Glenwood that hosts Scandinavian festivals. It’s a place where actual rosemaling artists directly from Norway would teach the art. Suzanne took classes with Inga Bjorg, who didn’t speak a word of English. But it didn’t matter. She and her students communicated very well through their art efforts: color, line, patterns and brush strokes.
In time, Suzanne became so adept at the art of rosemaling she began to enter contests, winning praise and prizes for her works. She had the singular honor of having some of her creations displayed in the world-famous Vesterheim Museum in Decorah, Iowa, which is a kind of mecca for Norwegian art in America. She continued her learning at Vesterheim.
Suzanne has painted a variety of wooden objects, such as plates, bowls, serving platters, trunks, decorative tiles and, at times, even folk-type Biblical scenes in churches. One of her largest creations was a 52-inch wooden plate featuring an old-barn scene with a grandfather, grandmother, lots of children and lots of goats – a swirl of family activity on a Norwegian farm. Many of her artworks were created for commissions by admiring customers.
After Jack retired, the Tofteys kept hearing from admirers of their artworks that they should start a business, which they did, calling it “Suzanne’s Nordic Images.”
They began going to many Scandinavian festivals, selling their works, signing autographs and meeting people enthralled by their art.
In Cloquet, Suzanne sold her designs to Berry Bergquist Imports, including her paintings, which were reproduced on ceramic tiles. Eventually, she signed a contract with a man in Norway, who also used her rosemaling designs and paintings.
Earlier, right after retirement, the Tofteys moved to Isle, by Mille Lacs, where they started a mail-order business, but it proved to be extremely hectic and time-consuming – taking orders, packing orders, sending orders from the post office.
“I think Jack was spending more time at the post office than he was at home,” said Suzanne, laughing. “It was so much work – the mail-order business.”
They were able to end it, thanks to the demand for the art through the two companies that buy the works and that send royalty checks.
Suzanne believes her Norwegian heritage and her art skills were tailor-made and fit together like a glove.
Her father loved to cut silhouettes of horses free-hand with scissors from pieces of paper. Her brother is an art teacher and one of her daughters is an art teacher in Dodge Center, Minnesota. Many of her nieces and nephews are majoring in art while in college.
“I would have loved to be an art teacher,” she said.
The Tofteys have enjoyed two trips to Norway. Because they are happy about their Norwegian heritage, both are sticklers for detail in their art.
“All of it’s in my head,” Suzanne said. “All the scenes, all the baked foods in the scenes, the stories, it’s all because of my Norwegian heritage. And I’m very particular, a stickler for detail, right down to the kinds of regional costumes I paint on my characters. Everything, even the farm scenes, have to be completely authentic.”
And that partly explains why the Tofteys’ works delight so many people. One glance at them, and you know the work is the genuine article, perfection personified.