The Iowan

In The Studio With Barbara Lund

By Susan K. Elliot

Among Barbara Lund’s most avid collectors, her artworks normally go on display for just a few short weeks each year before disappearing back into storage in attics and closets. This truth might discourage most artists, but not Lund. For almost a quarter of a century, Lund has been designing pieces for Dickens’ Village, New England Village, Alpine Village, and the North Pole, playing a vital role in family decorating traditions all over America. She had a background in book publishing before joining her father, Neilan Lund, in 1989 to design some of the first and most popular lighted collectible Villages for Department 56 (now part of the Enesco family of brands). 

Her father’s contributions to the Villages began in 1984 when he and his first wife, Ruth, took his concept for Dickens’ Village to Department 56. Lund approached the company to turn his drawings into paper products and cards when the Minnesota firm was already known for its Snow Village of American houses and shops. Management decided his designs should become a porcelain village and Dickens’ Village was born.

Neilan Lund died in 2009 at age 88, leaving daughter Barbara to carry on designing the various popular villages. She travels regularly to meet collectors around the country, both giving and taking inspiration from those she meets. In a recent interview, the Minnesota artist described her working style.

What project are you currently working on?

“As I write to you this week of Christmas, maybe it is a bit of a coincidence that I am finishing a toyshop. No matter the Village, toyshops are always popular. There are many examples of toys being found in architectural digs the world over. I think knowing that we have made these small amusements for tens of centuries speaks to our humanity and need for whimsy. In many ways, the Villages themselves are whimsy, and so a Village building housing toys has great charm.”

Where is your studio?

“My studio is on the second floor of my home. I still draw on a drawing board my father gave me in college. All those years ago, I used it as more of a standard desk and wrote papers on it. I doubt he imagined I would ever use it for its intended purpose. I also still have his board, though in another room. It is a beautiful, old piece and even predates his years with Department 56. I believe it was made in the 1920s and was used at a newspaper in Hayward, Wisc. I have also been lucky enough to inherit most of his tools and do use them. Obviously, the old German and British mechanical pencils (and other items) are far superior to anything available today.”

What is your studio like?

“My room is about 12 by 12 feet and also houses several bookcases and a taboret [a storage cabinet] holding my tools and papers. I do have a standard desk for writing and to do computer work. When we began this business, we did most of our research through travel, books, and visiting libraries. The computer has freed us from much of that legwork and makes certain aspects of research possible that would have been nearly impossible before. For instance, last year I needed to verify some facts about a particular church that had long since been destroyed. Fairly easily, I was able to find the right folks at the right institutions and within 24 hours I had lovely responses from each of them. Those answers were an enormous help to me and once may have taken weeks or months to confirm.

“Obviously, many pursuits in art or writing are, by their nature, solitary. I suppose when writing it might not be helpful to have media distracting you from your thoughts. Drawing does not make that demand on you so I often have NPR on or perhaps may listen to something streaming through the computer. My father used to talk about things like the ‘authority of detail.’ What he meant by that is that people, for the most, understand how something is supposed to look even if they could not render it themselves, so anything we can do to make things authentic is the goal. I feel that if I can listen to something that may inform me, I’ll have a broader base of knowledge from which to draw.”

What is your favorite part of the studio?

“Isn’t looking out the window a time-honored habit, even from our first years in school? I am lucky in having the most wonderful view from my office. Behind our home, there is a hill actually belonging to a large, city park. In the summer the trees create a field of green that suggest living much further in the country than we do. In the fall and winter, houses just past the hill are barely visible, but we are able to see myriad deer and turkeys. Once in a great while there may be a fox or opossum. Eagles, hawks and owls come through to hunt. I suppose I have come to think of these animals almost as friends and their hijinks are great fun. If ever I am stuck by a roof corner or chimney or bit of railing, a look out the window is just what the doctor ordered.”

What are you looking forward to this year?

“Travel is a great inspiration for most people. Sometimes we are lucky enough to also use our travel in a way that might be helpful to our jobs. When I travel for Department 56, I always learn things from collectors and this is always helpful. Later this year, I am returning to England. I was last there two years ago and I feel if I spent 10 years there, I would not exhaust everything I want to see. My mother was a great lover of British history and I suppose we all inherited that. I feel so blessed to realize that traveling in a country I just happen to love is also very advantageous to my work. Maybe ironically, I also love our own East Coast so spend a good deal of time there trying to absorb what I can. Now, I have to admit, I am stymied by the thought of traveling to the North Pole, so we are just going to have to wing that part of my job.”

What is the best part of your life right now?

“It isn’t lost on me how lucky I am. I work in a business that is, in many ways, the legacy of my parents, and it is a good business. How many jobs are there, really, that make people so happy?

“Just a few days ago, I was at a Christmas dinner party and a younger woman asked me what I did. I often still stumble a bit on this question, never being sure if people will know what I am talking about. Of course, people usually do. Once I had answered, she grabbed both of my arms and said, “You have no idea. You are Christmas to us!” I was instantly humbled and maybe a bit embarrassed, but this is not the first time something like this has happened. Each time it does, I remember how lucky I am to have played some part in peoples’ traditions. So if I have ended up spending my days creating something that makes people so happy, that is a pretty good part of my life.”

If you were not an artist, what career might you have pursued?

“I suppose it might be more intriguing if I were to offer a career that may be really outside the box; say, creating bike travel through forgotten parts of the world or making the perfect salad dressing and offering vast proceeds to a charity. Ah, someone has done that. 

“Decades ago, schools offered numerous aptitude tests to help people decide in which careers they may best succeed. Probably, this is still done, though I bet the listings are humorous to compare now. The world has become so much more sophisticated. Still, there may be some merit in these old tests that reveal pieces of the adults we are to become. Each time I took one of these tests, the ‘best fit’ answer I received told me that I should consider being a museum curator. I’m sure I followed that with the appropriate amount of 14-year-old eye rolling.

“But here is the truth I know now as a woman who has lived half her life: In the history of the world, after all the conflict and discourse, each time there has been a war, when we brushed away the ashes, what we found was art. It is art that had been hidden in caves or cellars or moved by train or wagon to a safer place. It is art that is considered so priceless that it was and still is the thing that moves through the centuries as the most precious expression of who we are. Like music and great literature, art reveals who we have been and is, by any means, both coveted and protected.

“Certainly, we know that great art has been stolen and held by cartels as a means of currency. We know that the world has become much more complicated in trying to determine provenance of beautiful things and where they came from and who really ‘owns’ them. Today, great museums struggle with these challenges and many more because the cultural value of these things is irrefutable. Yes, I completely believe this, so maybe those old aptitude tests did know who I would become and what was dear in a corner of my heart.”

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