"Faith and Works"
"Faith and Works"

In My Own Words

This is a transcript of the second section of a tape Otto made for the Fergus Falls Historical Society in 1978, concerning his art.  I believe the tape can be heard in its entirety at the Historical Soceity's Museum in Fergus.  The web site for the Ottertail County Historical Society is www.otchs.org   (Joanne Tjaden Thompson)

                                                   PART II - MY ART


My present situation is something like this.  I am seventy one years old.  I am in fairly good health and because of Social Security and retirement income we are able to live comfortably in our home, which is paid for, and buy all the things we need without any problem.


I was never much of a “joiner.”  I don’t belong to any lodges or social clubs.  I used to like to hunt and fish when I was young but in my later years I have lost interest in these things.  I haven’t been working at my art very hard either these last few years.

My wife, Hilda, is of Swedish descent but never knew her parents as she was adopted at the age of 3 years by Mr. and Mrs. Lindberg.  She worked as a teacher and also put in 20 years working at the Fergus Falls State Hospital.

We have enjoyed reading good books from the public library and usually read from 50 to 75 books a year on a wide range of subjects.  Our way of doing this was that I read aloud to my wife while she would knit afghans, make quilts or design little projects for her patients at the hospital.  Once I read the entire King James Version of the Bible aloud to us both.  We have read nearly all the books we could get by Harry and Bonaro Overstreet.  We enjoy some of the later ones too like “I’m O.K. You’re O.K.”  I also enjoy books about emigrants from Sweden and Norway.  

We have 17 grandchildren in all; 9 girls and 8 boys and one great grandson.  Another of our granddaughters is expecting to present us with another great grandchild fairly soon.


I enjoy raising a garden and my wife still “cans” vegetables when they are ready.

About 5 weeks ago I did a real foolish thing.  While working on one of my lawn mowers I got my hands under the blade and took off the ends of two fingers on my left hand and the pad from my index finger on my right hand.  They are healing up real well and, thanks to the good work of Dr.Sanderson, they will be a lot better than I thought they would. be.




My earliest interest in “art” had to do with looking at the wonderful “funny papers” that came my way.  They had color, action and humor.  To a boy who saw no color t.v. or anything like that they opened up a world of new people and strange, happy situations -  Andy Gump, Happy Hooligan and those incomparable Katzenjammer Kids.  Of course the use of this word “art” in connection with my early life is not exactly correct, but for me, in those years, cartooning seemed the highest form of art.


When I started school the teachers tried very hard to make us appreciate color and form but I can’t remember any of my teachers who could draw or paint with even the most elementary skill.  My first introduction to using crayons was when our teacher gave us hectograph copies of pictures to color.  The little girls got “sun bonnet girls,” which were large sun bonnets with a triangular shaped dress.  The boys got “overall boys” which were a large a large hat above a pair of overalls.  I chose a bright green color and began to color the overalls with it. The teacher walked up and down the aisles between the seat rows and when she came to me she asked in a loud voice, “Class, what color are overalls?”  To my dismay, I heard them all say, “Blue, blue.”  Then she said, “Otto has decided to make them green!”


Another tricky art thing was to draw 4 rectangles on a piece of drawing paper, flood them with clear water and drop blobs of water color into them. The colors blended together and formed - of course - stained glass windows!


I can’t think of anyone who started me with art work.  I guess I was just fascinated with the use of pencil and crayon on paper and the desire to create my own little “funny guys” spurred me on to greater efforts along that line.  When I was 13 years old I spent the summer working on a farm in the hay fields.  When fall came I started to go to school again.  I had some money that I had earned and I asked my father if I could send for a correspondence course in cartooning.  He asked how much it would cost and I replied, “Twenty dollars.”  After he gave me a little talk about not neglecting my school studies to draw cartoons he gave his permission and I sent for the course.  It was with the Landon School and I felt like I was really “getting on” with my career as an artist.  


There were no art classes in the school I attended.  I have never had any training in art except for a few adult classes in oil painting much later which were taught by Charles Beck.  I tried to learn all I could from my cartoon course but I probably learned more “bad” things than good.  During those years I had to settle for the honor of having some of my work hung up around the mirror in the local pool hall and barber shop. 


In school I drew a poster for World War I which showed a large fruit jar with a sad looking little man enclosed and a large title which said “Can the Kaiser.”  This was intended to put “Kaiser Bill” in his place.


I also developed the ability to draw an American soldier (World War I vintage) in full uniform, putting each button in place and wrapped leggings and hat with the four dents in it.  I once drew this on the blackboard for one teacher as high as the top of the board.


I think I have to say that I was “self-taught,” but if I could have gone to art school at any time I would have felt like I was on “cloud 9.”


My early efforts, which I will loosely call art, were with the usual pencil and paper, crayon and a little with water color.  My jackknife led me into the exploration of sculptural forms.  My mother showed me how to make an old fashioned Norwegian “jigger-man” who had each joint fastened together with strings.  When he was held by a string over a long springy board so his shoes just touched and the board was pounded he would jig very merrily and we really enjoyed him.


I carved a head from a “sugar beet” for a man I was working for as a “topper” and he went into ecstasy over it.  


At the age of 16 I worked in Wolverton for Grandpa Pete and I was alone a lot of the time.  I dug some clay from the bank of the Red River on his place and started modeling - cowboys, cowgirls, heads, animals.  I suppose this was when I really found what sculpting could be like.  I did not follow this up however at this time.  I went back to school.  Even there at Bethel College in St. Paul there was no art taught.

After I got married Hilda and I lived upstairs in two rooms with the Lindbergs.  I was working on WPA and I wished I could do some kind of art work.  We decided that I should take a correspondence course in sign painting which would cost me $90.00.  Now I could work with paints, colors, try triangles and learn to do designing and lettering.  I really worked hard at this and very soon I was getting jobs lettering trucks, show cards, signs etc.  I stayed at this kind of work the rest of my life and it was while following this trade, building my own house, and trying to provide a living for our 5 children and my wife, that I thought about doing sculpture.

I don’t really know why I had the “audacity” to assume that I could do sculpture without any training but I simply tried as many new things as I could and although I was very busy making a living, I tried one material after another.  I carved some stone, hammered lead and copper, did wood carving, welding, clay and many more.  As I worked into a new material I bought tools to work with and I have stone and wood chisels, a vise stand, a welding outfit and a kiln.  I enjoy working with any of these materials but if I had it to do over again I would concentrate on one or two and maybe do them better.  Each has its limitations and its advantages.  One can do very accurate detailed work with clay, but never get the beauty of wood grain with it.  He can carve solid pieces in marble but in this medium he could never get the effects of welded metal.




Charles Beck or “Chuck” as we always called him. was a kid who played with my younger brothers. They made model airplanes together and I didn’t know him very well until he came home from the service in WWII and planned to go to Iowa and study art.  He was the first “artist” I had ever met.  He also wanted to paint signs We became good friends and I feel that he did more than anyone else in my life to help me to understand that art was different from doing cartoons or painting signs.

He introduced me to people like Cy (Cyrus) Running, Dean Bowman and many others whom I would never have met on my own.  I went with him on many trips to the Cities.  I learned what an art gallery was, what an art show was, and we saw many shows of good sculptors during that time.  The long talks we had going back and forth began to help me to understand that art was also more than accurate drawing or carving.


I began with a new desire to produce art in 3 dimensions and carved wood and tried many new things.  I also began to buy and study good books on sculpture any time I could. Some of them were not easy reading for me and I remember the difficulty with which I plowed through my first reading of “The Principles of Art” by R.A. Collingwood.


Because of my “tight” little way of working (I never used models or worked very much from nature) I realized how much Chuck went to the trees, fields and all of nature to get the beauty I never seemed able to find.  How valuable it is to one who wants to follow art to get the proper start while he is still young.


I began to realize that an artist is more than just a machine to produce artifacts.  I learned from Cy Ronning who had a combination of humor, compassion and a true Christian faith that the man behind the art was even more than the art.

I think I was influenced by any kind of art I saw and even though I couldn’t understand what some artists were trying to say, I tried very hard to respond to the work.  There were some artists from New York, etc. who did things to try to create new “schools” of art or try too hard just to attract attention, who sort of left me “cold,” but I always felt that maybe I just didn’t know enough to be a judge.

I always enjoyed the Walker Art Center and we spent many hours on trips down to the Cities at both Walker and the Minneapolis Institute of Art.  I have never met very many artists of great importance.  Except for trips to the Cities with Chuck and several up to Fargo and Moorhead, I never got around to big galleries or saw much art in other places.




To describe my work I think the best way would be to try to pick a few representative pieces and say a few words to explain what I tried to do.


My largest piece is the one I made for Mr. Rufer for the law firm when they remodeled and furnished their offices in the old Sons of Norway Hall above the former First National Bank.  I called this piece “Antonyms” (words that have opposite meanings such as good/evil, strong/weak etc.)  This is a piece made of welded metal and I think it is about 3 x 6 ft.  The two parts are a strong line of bronze going in a purposeful direction, surrounded by burned black steel in the chaos that results from lack of purpose and direction.  It was not my intention to moralize to the lawyers but I thought it illustrated the power of words to either do good or their antonym, evil.  This piece really took a lot of hard work and not long after I had it hung I had a coronary; not as a result of my work, but I just mention it as part of my history.  I was in the hospital for two weeks and it took some time before I could do much work.


I made a piece for the Hillcrest Academy to put above a fireplace in the new men’s dorm.  I think it was about 2 x 3 ft. and I called it “Faith and Works.”  The background was made to resemble the frame work of a temple or building.  It was oak and carved to add to the design.  In front of this was a sort of candlestick design of welded metal, with the tips of the candles made like curling flames. The vertical lines of welded bronze with the tips of flame I meant to illustrate “Faith” and the framework of oak behind represented “Works.”  My thought was that the students might learn from this how important it is to have a burning faith and back it up with hard, solid work.


I won the Merit Award at the Rural Art Show with a black walnut head of a young girl which I called “Smoldering.” I later gave this piece to my oldest daughter who has it in their home on the shores of Turtle Lake.


Mrs. Sam Adams has a piece of carved redwood which I somehow like very much.  I called it “Growth.”  She also has a little marble fish which she says she likes.

When I start to tell about these pieces I begin to realize that during those years I had a lot of people who were my real friends and who bought pieces of my work because they liked them and they had no reason to believe that I would ever become famous.  And I didn’t!


Other pieces are “Sorrow,” which was a carved head of Redwood and “West Running Brook.”  This piece was a large wave-like piece of welded bronze, based on the poem by Robert Frost.  I gave it to my son, Hilding.   My daughter, Joanne, in Madison, Wisconsin has a piece of welded metal about 3 ft. high which I called “Genesis.”

Don Dybdal has the only piece of fieldstone I ever tried to carve.  I called it “Acquainted with Grief” and the stone needed very little carving to bring out what I felt might be like the head of Christ.  


To describe all the  pieces I have made would take too much space and since I never kept very good records of my stuff I’d have to do an awful lot of research to find all of them.  Some pieces I don’t remember and others are gone far away and I doubt that I will ever see them again.


I’d like to say here that I developed a few other interests, such as photography and I took a lot of color slides of my work.  I showed them at PTAs and art classes in schools.  I no longer do this because my memory is not so good and I could find myself in an embarrassing position of not being able to remember the titles of my own pieces.


I also made an effort to sell cartoons and made a study of how to mail them out, how to think up the jokes etc.  I sold some, especially to “trade” papers and my “Signs of the Times” which is the trade journal of sign painting.  It was lots of fun but I realized that it was not a good way to make a lot of money in a hurry.

I also had a HiFi which I had Ruben Bjorklund make for me by remodeling the amplifier from a big Wurlitzer Juke Box.  I got quite a collection of operas, classical music and spoken word albums.  I have never had any training in music but I learned to feel the sound and could work at sculpture best when my HiFi was turned up loud enough to drown out the sound of mallet and chisel.  I also bought many records of poetry and enjoy most of it a great deal.  I like Dylan Thomas but I also enjoy Robert Frost; from “Under Milkwood” to “Death of the Hired Man.”


One of the first pieces I made and sold was a marble female torso which I think was about 2 feet tall.  It was carved from a tombstone, one of many I salvaged from being thrown into the cement foundation of a caretaker’s building at Oak Grove Cemetery.  I’d better explain.  One day I got the idea of going over to the Monument Company and asking if they ever had any “old” gravestones that they threw away.  The manager said, “We just gave Roy Drake, the caretaker at the cemetery, 2 or 3 truck loads and he is going to throw them into the cement when he pours the footing for his building.  Go out and see him.  I’m sure he will let you have all you want.”  I got 3 loads with my old Dodge automobile and still have some left.


The torso I carved was in an art show I had up at Concordia College in Moorhead.  Dr. Donat, a teacher at the school bought it and I really felt a big thrill when I got his check.


You ask about my famous “Bull.”  I have made two bulls, one Paul Anderson has, called “Minotaur,” but I think you are referring to the one at the gallery of the University of Minnesota Extension at Morris, MN.  I made this one not so much as a realistic animal but rather using the planes and angles that might suggest Placid Strength and the shape of a barn or large haystack.  I cut pieces from an old truck box that had burned and rusted.  I welded them together.  To me he suggests quiet strength and acceptance of his role in life.


My ways of working at sculpture varies with the materials I use.  For wood carving I have made a box-like stand with a large vise on top.  It’s really like 2 boxes, one inside the other.  It is on heavy casters and can be rolled around on the shop floor.  Inside the boxes is a big “bumper Jack” which makes it adjustable up and down.

I do my clay pieces in a corner in my basement rooms and fire them in a kiln which has a fire box 16 inches square by 15 inches deep.  I have a corner up in my “shop” where I have my welding tools and when I do welded pieces I have to work for shorter periods at a time because of the fumes from the torch and the metals.

I still have quite a bit of my sign shop equipment set up and spend time in my shop fixing my mowers, garden tools, making bird houses and repairing anything around here that needs it.  There is also a request for a sign now and then and I don’t think I’ll ever find a time when there isn’t some job beckoning to me.


The one thing that makes me hesitate to make a tape about my work and my life is that I might be tempted to pretend to a “greatness” I don’t really deserve.  I’m not an educated man as far as schooling goes and my work has not made a really great impression on the “art world.”  The art hobby has never become a profession.  It was always a sort of side-line, and I could never have lived on the income from my art.

I taught sculpture for one semester at the Junior College and it was a wonderful experience.  I worked very hard and even built some of the furniture (tables) that are still in use out there.  I used a 4 x 8 pegboard panel to hang up hand-lettered cards and small pieces of clay, stone, wire and so forth to help the students understand what I meant.  I would have enjoyed continuing the next Fall but I had some sort of problem connected with my heart and had to give it up.  I shall always remember the fine people I associated with at the school and the kind treatment I received.  The College also bought several pieces of my work.


For several years I was given the use of a large basement area which Chuck, Bob and I made into a little art gallery under the Davenport Stationery Store.  They were kind enough to let me show my work free of charge and many people went through to look at our work.


I think that if a certain time would be a “hey-day” in art it would vary with artists and I would say that for me it would naturally be the time when I was working hardest at carving, modeling, welding etc., producing my best work in the greatest volume.  Along with this was taking trips to the art galleries, seeing shows of other artist’s work and showing work at booths on the street, trying in a humble way to teach a few others about my work.  I suppose for younger artists at this time they are having their “hey-day.”


When we first came to Fergus the idea of any kind of art show was almost unheard of.  There was a Mr. Andreason who used to come to town and set up in the drug store and do a lot of little “knockout” oil paintings.  I thought they were really nice, but any interest in real art seemed not to exist.  I feel that my following the work of sculpture came from a sort of natural inventiveness and an ability to use tools, combined with a feeling for poetry, music, color and design.


I wish I could have become better oriented to what art was all about in my early years when I might have profited so much from good training and advice of the proper kind.  I hung around the old sign painter Syver Ronning and watched his every move. He too was very kind and helpful in my effort to learn the trade.  I brought some of my drawings to Mr. Whitehead and he gave me advice on some of my “still lifes” in pencil.


So, I can’t help but feel how many good people have given me help in my “learning to do,” and how many of my friends and local fellow artists even bought pieces of my work, when $50.00 looked like a real big hunk of cash.  


If any of you are listening to this tape let me just say “Thank you so much,” Chuck, Geneva, Julia, Bob, Dabby, Mr. Olson, Don Dybhal, Mrs. Adams, my wife Hilda, and many, many more who in so many ways helped me to enjoy my work and to feel like a real artist.



Found among Otto’s papers.  


                             THOUGHTS ABOUT SCULPTURE (ART)
                                              By Otto Tjaden

I have a deep-down feeling that sculpture, somehow, may not be a work that is important enough to the world to merit my working at it full time.  I have felt that the impact of art in general is not really very great.


Certain people, it is true, go to see works of art; of that group quite a few are more aware of their tired feet than they are of anything else.  Of the rest, only an occasional one would consider the purchase of a piece of sculpture, for instance, if they could buy a fancy new lamp or chair for the same price.


It occurs to me that the chief reason I create sculpture in the first place is not because of its impact on someone else.  The reason I do this thing is to express myself; to relieve my own mind of the emotional tension that builds up and creates an anxiety until it can be given expression.


Spending my life (the rest of it) on only myself hardly seems worthwhile.  If my art is to be at all worthwhile it should have the power to influence - for good - at least part of the people.


Even if we grant that its impact is felt by only a few, it might be worthwhile if the result was their inspiration and edification.  This, of course, throws the responsibility back on me to create inspiring and edifying things and not repulsive or confusing things.  True art is not magic.  Its role is not that of medicine man or priest to promote religious beliefs or to ensure good crops.  It is not amusement, although much amusement-art is very popular today.  It is not a puzzle.

Art has been used to pull all of these carts, but they were art in spite of it - not because of it.




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© Gregg Thompson