Much of Christmastime is about faith and miracles, pleasures that are unpurchasable, satisfactions unpredictable, pleasures unexpected – the joy in ribbons and music and kindnesses that outlast the common satisfactions of the season.
Among ours is the distinct pleasure and enduring memory of the Christmas tomte and the master who created him, the late Norman Malm. At special times, Norman held the franchise on wit and all things elfi n in the Smoky Valley; by late autumn his tomtes and their likenesses could be seen in store fronts, on street banners, in sculptures, on cards and in newspapers and magazines, among other places.
Sketcher, painter, wood carver, sculptor and cartoonist. Norman was all of these, brilliantly, and held regional and national honors but what he wanted most was the pleasure of creating art that brought on a smile. Norman died in 2011 at age 83, and Christmas hasn’t been the same since.
In the joyous years we looked forward to autumn and the holidays as much as Norman did, but he loathed the weather, the prospect of razor winds and raw chill. The antidote for winter’s barren freeze was his tomte, an eccentric caricature of the Tomtar of Swedish folklore, the popular creature in stories of household sprites. Norman’s tomtes, in every guise and on every mission, have added mischief and delight to holidays in the Smoky Valley.
To be with Norman as he worked was to join an excursion: He would cradle a carving tool in his hand, the bulb handle snug in the palm, the metal point poised over a block of wood. In the light falling over the table he cuts a slight grin at the visitor, an invitation to come along. Norman’s long fingers move the tip of the tool quickly down to the wood, and with a faint scrape a curl pops up, leaving the first thin trough.
We are on the way. More curls, more grooves, different tools, thinner points, wider blades, a chip here, and etch there. Shape and texture begin to emerge, A small tomte takes form, the squat, elfi n character that is Norman’s original, lovable oddball.
“I like to make tramps,” he was fond of saying, “you know, scruffy old characters kind of like me.”
The most talented artists are known for a style, a temper and pronouncement in their work that is at once intimate and recognized, a kind of signature. Norman’s was the tomte.
NORMAN’S passion in art didn’t begin with carving. In the early years, when he farmed near Lindsborg full-time, it was painting, or drawing.
“When I was out on the job, all I could think about was getting back to the shop,” he would say.
“And when I was back at the shop, all I’d start thinking about was how much I had to get done (on the farm).”
Norman said that his interest in carving began when he met Anton Pearson, father of Rosalie, the woman he would later marry. Pearson was a celebrated wood carver who welcomed Norman immediately to his studio for adventures in creativity.
NORMAN’S great stimulation, what moved his art, was his affection for people, the community around him. In 2004, his carvings were presented at a Swedish-American art exhibit in Minnesota. In February 2007, he was the recipient of the Lindsborg Arts Council’s Arts and Humanities Award, recognizing him for “contributing greatly and signify cantly to the advancement of the arts” in Lindsborg and the Smoky Valley. For many decades, he contributed his talents in countless ways to enliven the local scene. His work ‒ most notably, the lovable tomte ‒ could be seen indoors and out across Lindsborg and the Smoky Valley.
Often at Christmas during the seasonl artists’ open house, Norman’s studio on South Main was crowded with friends, admirers of his work, and the strangers who became friends after one chat with him. In later years, as Norman’s health began to desert him, Rosalie would try to keep them away but Norman would have none of it.
NORMAN worked in a back room, those years ago, and we can still see his cobalt eyes peer down through the light to the wood in his hand. The block had taken shape as something real, a small round shape with long white hair and a dangerous grin, a stocking cap pulled over his eyes, a form that threw off a kind of cheerful mischief. Piles of curls and shavings lay scattered over the table.
Norman continued to carve. The pleasure of this fl eetness seemed to him almost divine. Each time, at long last at the end of a work, like the end of a good long journey, he would fi nish, returning to a place with his little people and those who admire them and him ‒ a place where he is known and loved, where lamps burn in the rooms, and fi res beyond the hearth.
Norman would move his hands over the wood, now a little elfi n man, with a happy conviction that they were both on the way home. The work had taken on life. This was Norman at his best.
– JOHN MARSHALL