UnderCover: An interview with artist Margruite Krahn

In this edition of UnderCover, we chat with Margruite Krahn about the pattern featured on the cover of Andrew Unger's Once Removed.

Klien Stow small room Neuhorst MB. c 1880s 1. Can you please tell us a bit about yourself and your work as an artist?

I’m a visual artist, instructor, mentor, and curator. I work with and explore various paint and surface mediums including natural oxides from France and Zimbabwe, and eggs (from my chickens) and linseed oil as binders. I also enjoy collaborating with artists of different disciplines, and in particular musicians and composers. Though my work evolves in how it is expressed, it continues to reflect the importance of the everyday as witnessed by people and place.

 2. How did you get involved in restoring painted housebarn floors?

In 1996, my husband and I were in a book study in our local church in Winnipeg, and reading Wendell Berry’s book What Are People For? As a result of the discussion that ensued, a good friend in the book study enticed us along with another couple to visit her childhood home of Neubergthal, a Mennonite Street Village and National Historic Site. In 1998 we purchased a property with a 1929 Mennonite/British style barn on it. Our dream was to renovate this barn into our home. What we didn’t realize is that the garage on the property was the original village herdsman house and that at one time this was the communal property of the village. The herdsman house needed a lot of work and it was not initially on our radar to restore it. I did notice the painted squares on the floor, but paid little attention to it until I became actively involved in the Neubergthal Heritage Foundation in 2001. I became co chair of the Foundation in that same year, and one of my projects was overseeing the restoration of the Friesen Housebarn Interpretive Centre. As linoleum and carpet was removed from the floors, it revealed detailed hand painted patterns. My delight was not only this revelation, but racing back to the herdsman house on our property and taking a second look at the floors and then removing the second layer of wooden floors to discover detailed patterns on the first layer of flooring. At this same time Roland Sawatzky (Senior Curator, Manitoba Museum) was doing field research for his Phd on Mennonite Spaces. This included findings within the Mennonite housebarn. Our discussions lead to other housebarns with hand painted floors and an interview Roland had conducted with the woman who we purchased the property from and who had lived in the herdsman house until 1965.

SummerKitchenMennoniteHeritageVillageSteinbachBy 2006 I had documented most of the twelve patterns I had found and included several of them in a travelling art and photo exhibition on Neubergthal. I let this floor discovery sit for several years until the Neubergthal Heritage Foundation began another restoration project. The floor patterns again intrigued me as I made new discoveries while observing pattern, colour, and the effects of modern change within the Mennonite home.

In 2017 I exhibited a body of work including this research at the Gallery Shop, Winnipeg Art Gallery.  Thinking I had completed my documentation and research work on the Mennonite floor patterns only to find that at the book launch of Resurfacing: Mennonnite Floor Patterns, a Field Journal, more stories came to light from audience attendees. That, along with a local archivist from the Mennonite Heritage Centre who had come across a sentence in a book about sawdust and floors, opened up a much greater rabbit hole into this little known functional folk craft. Further research though on hold due to the pandemic, was to take me to Friesland, Belgium, and the Dansig area to seek out its origins.

3. Can you tell us a bit about the history of floor painting in Manitoba’s Mennonite housebarns?

Based on journal entries, and a visitor to an outdoor museum in Friesland, Netherlands, it appears that the Dutch painted their floors with yellow ochre and pattern. If this is its origin than as the Mennonite’s from Friesland and Flanders migrated to Prussia (Poland) and Russia, they continued the practice when they immigrated to North America in the 1870’s. Evidence of the painted floors is found not just in southern Manitoba and Saskatchewan, but in Kansas and Nebraska as well.

What we know is that these would have been from the Bergthal and Kliene Geminde Mennonites who left Russia in 1874 due to lack of land and increased government involvement. In a reference made by Mennonite reformer Johann Cornies c1846, he “neither painted nor strew with sand, as was so often the case in farm homes.”

From my interviews it appears that floor decoration was an important part of beauty in the home, particularly in the kitchen (kjaakj), front room (faar tuss), and great room (groote stow) The women not only participated in making the earthen floors of their settler homes, but they used sand and sawdust to create temporary patterns only to be replaced frequently. When permanent housebarns were built along with wooden floors, the ritual of handpainting floors continued and was undertaken in the summer when the kitchen activity could be moved into the summer kitchen. This was a task largely undertaken by the women in the home, although there is the odd story of boys running away from mom’s request to help. It is also likely that a father and son who were Fraktur artists living in Neubergthal, helped with floor pattern design and stencil making.

The floor patterns were also functional, and as new colours were introduced in Manitoba, they allowed for better opportunity to conceal wear and tear. With the introduction of linoleum handpainting the floors was left for those who could not afford this new product. The upside of this is that the linoleum was placed on top of the floors, thereby preserving many of them. Also, as linoleum wore away in high traffic areas, the linoleum would be painted with a base colour and a new design placed on top. The practice of handpainting floors continued  among some of the ladies in the local Naeferein (sewing circle) as they painted the concrete floors in the basements of their new 1960’s bungalows.

  • 4. How would housebarn floors have been originally painted?

Of the more than 35 patterns collected between circa 1880-1926 housebarns, evidence shows that most kjaajk (kitchen) and Groote Stow (great room) floors were first painted with a floral motif on a yellow ochre base. In the 1920s, new flooring called linoleum influenced geometric patterns and colour.

Women painted and sponged their designs on wood and linoleum floors using rolled rags, potatoes, rubber balls, tires, pails, and other at-hand objects, and made stencils from meat wrappers and cereal boxes. 

  • 5. Can you walk us through the restoration process?

Preserved under layers of carpet and linoleum I’ve found up to three layers of hand-painted patterns on the floor boards of older Mennonite houses. Once the carpet and linoleum is removed, staples and glue need to be carefully removed. At times removing the glue is not possible as it will degrade the pattern. I have also learned from historians and curators that leaving some of the glue adds to the story and character of the floor.

When I work with the pattern itself I first wash the floor with gentle soap and water. I find this reveals more detail as well as the possibility of several layers of patterns. I know that when I put the final four coats of polyurethane on the floors it will preserve and reveal what I see when the floor is wet. If the pattern is in relatively good shape I will not touch it up with paint. However, if there are areas that are significantly deteriorated and a touch up can be done to bring out the pattern I will use an acrylic floor paint as a touch up.

There are times when I will repaint a floor from the base colour to the pattern, such as in the village Herdsman House, as this is a highly used guest house and it becomes an interpretation and presentation of what it was like to live in these Mennonite Housebarns at the time. In such circumstances I will use colour analysis, create stencils or use potatoes or other authentic tools of the trade to recreate the patterns. All painting and patterns are handpainted and not using modern techniques. Increasingly I am making my own traditional paints and stains or purchasing traditional linseed paints from Sweden.

  • Floor cloths 216. Your artist portfolio also includes housebarn patterns replicated onto cloth. Can you tell us a bit about this collection?

Since 2001, I’ve worked on restoring and presenting 19th and 20th-century housebarns, as well as the material culture in Neubergthal, Manitoba, a Mennonite Street Village and National Historic Site. I’ve also spent a lot of time studying the hand-painted floors in these buildings, created by earlier generations of Mennonite women, and my research, documentation, and restoration of wooden floors and painted floor patterns have included recreating and interpreting them on cotton duck floor-cloths. This process has opened my imagination to a body of work addressing the inborn need for beauty observed in Mennonite culture. This collection of work pays tribute to the women who built, designed, and decorated the floors of their homes amid a male-led religious ideology and its economic restrictions.

  • 7. Can you tell us a bit about the particular pattern that appears on the cover of Andrew Unger’s Once Removed?

The pattern on the cover of Andrew Unger’s book Once Removed was inspired by a floor pattern possibly painted by Sara Janzen of Neuhorst, Manitoba. Sara and her husband Jakob came from Russia in the 1920’s. This pattern still exists and can be found in the Kleine Stow( small bedroom) of this late 1800s housebarn.

  • 8. Is there a particular time of day during which you work best?

I suppose if I had my druthers it would be in the morning. It takes me a long time to get going and I seem to paint under pressure and in winter.

  • 9. What project(s) are you currently working on?

For me, research is ongoing as stories come to light through interviews, diary entries, renovations of former housebarns revealing surprises. Due to Covid19 my plans to travel to Friesland, Flanders, and the Dansig area to seek out the origins of this practice are on hold.

Artistically, aside from creating functional floor cloths, I continue to work with several musicians to visually interpret music by observing flight and behavior of birds as the subject matter.

 

Margruite KrahnMargruite Krahn, whose work has been exhibited nationally and internationally, has lived and worked in her barn and studio in Neubergthal, Manitoba since 1998...she immediately became interested in the history and roots of that small Mennonite community and has been actively involved in restoring its built heritage. A teacher, she studied both fine art and commercial art with chosen mentors. Observant of the people and life around her, Krahn portrays the depths of personal relationships in community life as she witnesses them. Her interest in people and their affinity with the land, each other, and their history permeates these large works.

Find her at http://www.herdsmanhouse.com/http://www.herdsmanhouse.com/