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The immigration museum that travelled 4,000 miles

And other joys of Radoy, Norway

28 June 2014

9:00 AM

28 June 2014

9:00 AM

The Immigrant Church at Sletta emigrated from North Dakota 18 years ago. Built on the prairie by Norwegian settlers in the 1900s, but latterly abandoned, it was deconstructed, transported and rebuilt on the island of Radøy, off Norway’s west coast. Now it presides over the West Norway Emigration Centre, a monument to the Norwegian diaspora, where it has since been joined by a jailhouse and four other buildings also salvaged from the American Midwest. This jumbled prairie scene surprises the unwitting visitor, accustomed to the red-or-white uniformity of the wooden houses of Radøy, each one equipped with a magnificent woodpile and a flagpole bearing a tricolor pennant.

The flagpole at the Radøy Kunstsenter, however, was flying the Lion Rampant — and in my honour! I was there as artist in residence: 15 days to explore, draw and paint the landscape (I return soon for a second trip). The Norwegians, who are indulgent towards artists, fund these expeditions through the local municipality. The Kunstsenter is a state-funded enterprise too, dedicated to bringing art to this region, which is fairly remote, though hardly by Norwegian standards.


Radøy, ‘The Green Isle’, is a low-altitude land of tiny farms and large forests. Fields, rarely bigger than an acre, are grazed by sheep wearing bells or cut for fodder using antiquated machines that look like rusting dragons. Silage matures in ubiquitous white plastic bales, know locally as ‘tractor eggs’.

Because Norwegians are also indulgent towards children, I was able to bring mine, as well as my husband. While I painted, they explored. A wet start to the stay revealed a lack of indoor activities, the Museum of Port Warehousing on the neighbouring island being closed and the Museum of Leprosy just a little too far into the mainland to justify visiting. The swimming pool was shut for the summer and the Museum of Wool proved less of a hit than you might imagine. Then suddenly the sun shone, and the family could occupy themselves avoiding the abundant adders during picnics up steep-sided hills with astounding views and collecting crabs from the clear, clean sea.

The sun also produced a remarkable quality of light, provoking blues and greens of astonishing intensity, the reason for which lies in latitudes and photons, or so I was told. I looked for this light in the works of the great Norwegian painters displayed in the galleries of Bergen, an hour to the south, where there is a whole street of public art museums.

Sure enough, the light was there, in the works of Nikolai Astrup and J.C. Dahl. One gallery, KunstLab, is designed for children; real art displayed at junior height plus fun (yes, really) interactive art experiences. This proved nearly as exciting for the kids as the stuffed polar bear which presides over the Bergen fish market. Set beside the Hanseatic splendor of the Bryggen waterfront, this is where you can scowl at whalemeat purveyors and gawp in astonishment at crab legs as long as a child’s arm.


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