A sense of place

Eric Iversen. (Photo courtesy of Eric Iversen)

Eric Iversen. (Photo courtesy of Eric Iversen)

by Dan Roblee

With the exception of one winter as a teenager, Eric Iversen has never been a Copper Country resident. But it’s the home of his Finnish-Norwegian family’s roots as Americans, the setting for the black-and-white family photographs he treasures, and the site of childhood family vacations on the shores of Portage Lake that have kept him coming back.

When Iversen’s retirement career as a painter took off, he wanted to give something back. The Copper Country seemed a good place to start. And when he met Calumet Art Center Executive Director Ed Gray, discovered the artistic and cultural passions they shared, and learned how Gray was passing those passions on to kids, he knew he’d found the place.

A painting by Iversen, hanging in the Calumet Art Center, depicts a young Sami boy in traditional clothing. (Photo by Dan Roblee)

A painting by Iversen, hanging in the Calumet Art Center, depicts a young Sami boy in traditional clothing. (Photo by Dan Roblee)

“I like to share what’s exciting to me about my sense of location and place,” Iversen said during a recent visit. “My roots are here. My great-grandmother and great-grandfather came here.”

For several years, Iversen has been donating paintings to the art center to display and sell, with all proceeds benefitting the center’s youth programs. There are currently about a dozen on display.

The kids’ programs cost the center thousands of dollars annually, Gray said, and despite its best efforts getting grants, the center has to charge fees for most programs. Without fundraising and scholarships, he said, “there are a lot of kids that can’t come here on their own.”

Iversen, a Presbyterian minister and counselor for troubled youth before retiring, sees the need for art education from both those and personal perspectives.

Iversen has fond memories of vacations at the Kangas family lake lot (his mother's family) on Portage Lake, where he painted this canvas of the family sauna. (Image courtesy of Eric Iversen)

Iversen has fond memories of vacations at the Kangas family lake lot (his mother’s family) on Portage Lake, where he painted this canvas of the family sauna. (Image courtesy of Eric Iversen)

“My parents were these kids,” he said. “My dad’s mother died when he was 3. He was raised by his grandparents. My mother’s father died when she was 3. She was raised by her grandparents, then lived with her sisters.”

One factor that led to Iversen’s and Gray’s meeting of the minds is a fascination with indigenous people and cultures worldwide.

Gray, a Native American originally from the Traverse City area, teaches Native copper-working as part of the Art Center curriculum and works to incorporate influences from around the world into kids’ classes.

Gray said he believes that it’s important for local youth to learn about other cultures.

“We have someone working in the clay studio now from Australia who brought us in this pelt from a kangaroo,” Gray said. “These are things very few people get a chance to see, and to know that most of these countries have indigenous people, it’s a very strong message.”

An Iversen painting of a Native American dancing at a Pow-Wow. (Photo by Dan Roblee)

An Iversen painting of a Native American dancing at a Pow-Wow. (Photo by Dan Roblee)

Iversen said he’s been inspired by indigenous art wherever’s he’s traveled. A great-grandmother was Sami—one of the nomadic reindeer herders who populate northern Finland, Sweden, Norway and Russia.

Recently, Iversen made a trip to the northern European Arctic to visit his grandmother’s hometown, and saw a 3,000- to 4,000-year-old rock carving believed to be the earliest known depiction of animals in a corral.

The trip was an inspiration for his own painting of a reindeer, now hanging in Calumet. There’s also a canvas depicting a young Sami boy in traditional clothing, hung near one of a Native American dancing at a Powwow.

Other paintings return to the theme of place, from unpeopled islands to his family’s homestead on the shore of Portage Lake. There’s also a watercolor of the Jacobsville Lighthouse painted by his mother, Ingrid Anna (Kangas) Iversen, also an accomplished artist.

Iversen’s Art Center paintings sell from around $200 to $500—hopefully priced to move, he said, noting that another piece recently sold privately for $800.

Iversen’s path to artistic success isn’t a traditional one. While he didn’t study painting formally until retirement, he’d always dabbled in watercolor and pen and ink. But while it was teacher Mary Neely who turned him to oil painting, his parents were still his most important influences, he said, both in artistic ability and in how they viewed the world.

Iversen is pictured with Calumet Art Center Executive Director Ed Gray, standing by a wall of his donated paintings that are for sale at the center (Photo by Dan Roblee).

Iversen is pictured with Calumet Art Center Executive Director Ed Gray, standing by a wall of his donated paintings that are for sale at the center (Photo by Dan Roblee).

His father, Bjorn, was a tooling designer and draftsman, Iversen said, and from earliest childhood he was fascinated with Dad’s graphite pencils. He was always impressed with the freedom of the vocation, he said—just pack up the pencils and go.

“Art is very portable skill,” he said. “I always wanted to do something where I didn’t have to take lots of junk.”

Bjorn also inspired Eric’s sense of wonder at the beauty of nature, he said, with tales of riding to Isle Royale with commercial fishermen long before it became a national park. The current Calumet Art Center exhibit includes a painting of his father from a family photo, hiking at Lake of the Clouds in what is now Porcupine Mountains State Park.

The reindeer in his painting appears for the first time in stories of a grandfather who certified reindeer for export from Norway to Alaska, saving Yukon gold miners from starvation, before his own emigration to America.

Mom Ingrid, he said, led by example as a post-retirement successful artist. But even before that, he said, she was the family’s amateur historian, the one who linked brief Copper Country vacations to generations of Copper Country family history going back to the 1880s.

Ingrid—who edited the Suomi College yearbook in her senior year in the ’30s, and had wanted to be a doctor before her own father had decreed it an unsuitable career for a woman—made sure he knew about the hardworking Finns and Norwegians that had come before them.

There was her own father, who’d worked his way though Suomi by toiling in the copper mines on his brother-in-law’s crew. And there was Jacobsville, the Finnish community that grew around its famous sandstone quarries and nurtured the family destined for American success.

It all came into focus on the childhood summer vacations, and the one winter he spent on Portage Lake with his grandparents.

“In those days, we’d live in Seattle, take four days to get to Portage Lake, four days at Portage Lake, and four days back,” Iversen remembered. “I can still sing Jesus Loves Me in Finnish from Bible school summers as a kid.”

The Copper Country may not by his physical home, he said, “but it kind of brings me back to my center, to my history.”

It’s also now home to some of his most impressive artistic works.

The Calumet Art Center is at 57055 5th St., Calumet. For more information, call  934-2228 or check online at calumetartcenter.com.

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