Margruite Krahn is a professional artist and mentor whose work reflects local culture, history, and day-to-day living. She and her husband live in Neubergthal, Manitoba, a living example of a Mennonite Street Village that has been designated as a National Historic Site. An exhibit of her work entitled Resurfacing: Mennonite Floor Patterns was recently featured at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. If you missed it there, you can catch Margruite at the MHV on May 6th, and see her exhibit at Altona’s Gallery in the Park June 7th-August 5th, 2018.
1. Do you remember the moment you first uncovered that first floor pattern? What was it like, what thoughts went through your head?
I think I do. What I remember is the contractor we (the Neubergthal Heritage Foundation) hired back in 2001 to restore and renovate the Friesen Housebarn Interpretive Centre called me over one day to see what was behind the gyproc wall. What was exposed was a removable wall, lovely shaped beams above a doorway, and original wall colours. From there I think we began removing the rug and linoleum on the floors. Our contractor was very sensitive to anything of interest and was in constant contact with me regarding not only floor patterns, but other discoveries. A home tells all sorts of stories, some you can talk about and some that reveal our hidden “sins”.
2. Mennonites are often thought of as dour folk, clothed largely in black, with no colour or artistic expression anywhere to be found. But these floor patterns seem to reveal a different narrative.
My neighbour in Neubergthal used to live in Mexico, and she tells of grey adobe-style homes with no outer attraction. You walk into the home and it is an amazing array of colour and designs. The old saying “don’t judge a book by its cover” resonates.
3. People are beginning to contact you, to come look at floor patterns in their housebarns. How far have you traveled, uncovering these patterns?
At this point in time, I have physically only entered homes in the region between Hwy 75 and the Pembina Hills. There are a lot more homes that I hope to document in this area, and not all of them are housebarns. I have been in contact with several people from the Rosthern, Hague, and Swift Current area of Saskatchewan, and plan to make a trip out west. A trip to the Dansig region, Germany, and Holland, are also in the planning stage. These patterns did not originate in Manitoba, and though they are most prevalent here, there is evidence in a museum in Holland that it was a practice dating back to my ancestors of the 16th century.
4. You’ve painted the floors in the Herdsman’s House and the Summer Kitchen at the MHV…at what point did you begin painting the floor canvases?
In 2005 I collaborated with the MHV on an exhibition called Neubergthal and the Art of Margruite Krahn. By this time I was actively involved as chair of the Neubergthal Heritage Foundation and was interested in visually expressing the stories of the people of Neubergthal. I am not from this village or area, and so I felt I could be somewhat objective in my observations. Included in this exhibition were several floor patterns. Because I work primarily with canvas, and typically stretch my own canvas, it seemed like the natural thing to do, to document these patterns on canvas. I am a practical thinker, and so I asked myself what would be a practical way to present these floor patterns. In doing some research, I found out that floor cloths dated back to 14th century France, and were known as the poor man’s carpet. The making of floor cloths was then adopted by the British who in turn brought the practice to the Eastern States. Canadians seem to be quite unfamiliar to this utilitarian art form.
5. You also create huge, gorgeous paintings in your Art Loft…I’ve been especially captured by your painting Coming From Julie’s, which is a scene infused with the sense of a warm summer rainstorm just past. I feel like the trees of Neubergthal often factor into your work…
Thank you for your generous compliment. It pleases me to know that specific pieces can draw the viewer in, and that they can identify what it is. Without trying to control the medium or the subject matter, I do think about what the viewer might experience, and my philosophy is this, if I am not drawn into the piece, if I cannot take the image I have painted with me after I have stopped looking at it, then my work isn’t finished. This is not about ego, but about responsibility to my craft. I think we all have this responsibility, it just plays out differently for each of us.
Trees- my formative years were spend in my back yard up on the hill in Riding Mountain near Dauphin. I am so at home among trees and bush. I can get lost in the bush and feel safe. I don’t like to follow trails when I am in the bush, but the light and openings that many trees present.
(feature image credit: Lorraine Stevenson/Manitoba Cooperator)