The Iowan

A View From The Top

Sculptor Kiri Namtvedt rises to every challenge that her
Department 56 projects bring.

By Steffie Lederman

At around age nine or 10, master sculptor Kiri Namtvedt decided to become a collector. She and her friends were all “horse crazy,” so it was only natural that they would adore buying the Breyer horse figures. It’s easy to see young girls ending up with a pasture’s worth of four-legged sculptures. However, her obsession with paper napkins was harder to explain. She and her friends would find and hoard different decorated and patterned paper napkins. Then they would trade and swap them. Today, Namtvedt laughs at that early “paper chasing,” but she well understands how people (including herself) can get caught up in the pursuit of a much-desired, much-anticipated “holy grail.”

“I have gone through various stages of collecting things. I think it comes quite naturally. It’s fun to look at a carefully selected collection,” Namtvedt observes. As a child growing up in America’s Midwest and overseas in Norway, she wasn’t exposed to Department 56 buildings or the like. “If I had seen them, I know I would have been fascinated when I was a kid!”

Always artistic since childhood, young Kiri was encouraged and mentored by her parents. “My dad’s artistic, but went into computer programming. My mom is a master knitter, and my sister has a master’s degree in fine arts. Art classes were always my favorite, and from an early age, I loved drawing and painting,” the 48-year-old affirms.

It wasn’t until she enrolled in college that she discovered her affinity for three-dimensional self-expression. “It was late in my college career that I got seriously into sculpting. Before that, I was focused on 2-D art,” she recalls. “After college, I did secretarial work for a while, and it was a hobby that got me back into sculpting.”

Kiri and her husband became involved with collecting fantasy wargaming figures, which are cast metal and stand about an inch high. Challenging herself, she sat down and tried her hand at creating one: “And then, serendipitously, I got hired as a sculptor at a product development and design company.”

When Namtvedt entered her mid-thirties, she began her career as a sculptor at Department 56. In 2013, she is celebrating her 14th year of happy, fulfilling employment. “My main job is sculpting buildings, but I do occasionally get to sculpt accessories and figures when we need a mock-up for photography. I enjoy the occasional non-building sculpting – it’s fun to do something more organic, with human figures! I’ve done a few Snowbabies™ things, too. I even sculpted a Snowbabies dog.”

The sculpting process for Department 56 begins with an illustration or a 2-D sketch that needs to be “brought to life.” No stranger to challenges—one of her favorite pastimes is, in fact, rock climbing—Namtvedt admits that her day-to-day work itinerary includes lots of decision-making and improvisations. 

“There are specific challenges to sculpting something to be cast in ceramic. It has to be sculpted 14 percent larger than the final size because it shrinks that much in the firing process. Also, the sides tend to sink in, so I actually have to sculpt the sides of buildings bowed outward slightly,” Namtvedt reveals.

Each of her sculptures takes about three to six weeks, depending upon the size and the complexity. Using her calculating skills, she estimates that means “roughly 12 pieces per year, or approximately 150 houses for me! It could actually be more.”

During her tenure at Department 56, she has been involved with every possible Village: “In the short-lived All Hallows’ Eve series in Dickens’ Village, I sculpted three of the four buildings. I really enjoyed those; they had great details. I think Dickens and the Christmas in the City (CIC) are my favorite. The most impressive—and difficult—ones I’ve done include ‘Central Synagogue’ (CIC), ‘Notre Dame’ (Cathedrals of the World), ‘St. Paul’s’ (CIC), and the church from The Sound of Music (Alpine Village).” It’s safe to say that the breathtaking landscape of the Rogers and Hammerstein musical—its dizzying aerial shots of snowcapped mountaintops, hills and valleys—appeals to the athletic climber. 

Of the more than 100 edifices she’s sculpted for Department 56, her personal favorite is the “Royal Staffordshire Porcelains” for the Dickens’ Village. “I’ve done pottery myself, so it was very fun to sculpt and paint this piece. I love the shape of the kilns attached to the house.”

When Kiri comes home after a day on the job, she does try to pursue her own artwork. “It can be hard, though, after sculpting all day at work! When I do my own artwork, I definitely put myself into it. I’ve always loved animals, and I have a number of sculptures I’ve done of them. I have two bronze horse sculptures and a limestone sculpture of my dog.”

She also enjoys kicking back and watching British TV shows with her spouse, exercising her “gigantic” canine companion, and then taking adventure into her own hands and climbing. “I’ve been rock climbing for longer than I’ve worked as a sculptor!” she declares.

Namtvedt’s life is filled with physical quests and creative ventures. Just as there is always another mountain to climb, there is always another cottage or church or domicile or diner to tackle. She is proud of her accomplishments for Department 56 and relishes the opportunity to share her talents. “Over the years, I’ve done some signings, and the collectors are so great, enthusiastic, and appreciative. I love telling them how things are made. I understand their collecting desire. It’s the appeal of customizing one’s own setup, and then the seasonal aspect. It’s great to be able to share it with family and friends.”

Beyond the holiday significance, the Villages also cast a spellbinding web year-round: “I think it’s the fascination of the miniature, and the appeal of the lights burning through the dark. It is alluring.”

Just as there is always a new rockface to climb for Kiri Namtvedt, there is also a new Department 56 project that needs her precision, her patience, and her passion. 

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