Artist Jerry Carlson hopes a blend of curiosity and delight stops people in their tracks as they come across his Elf House along the Purgatory Creek Park trail in Eden Prairie.
There is something whimsical about Carlson’s tiny structure that crouches low to the ground across the water from the park. Amid the wetlands and the trees, this is the perfect natural setting for an immersive art exhibit.
Carlson has a simple motive for its creation. “I hope it gives people something to smile about,” he said.
The Elf House
Carlson’s traditional Icelandic-style Elf House has taken up residence along the park trail since late May.
Hailing from Lindstrom, about an hour north of Eden Prairie, Carlson works as an emergency medical technician. Woodworking is his hobby and his passion, though.
“It’s kind of a way for me to get relaxed and have something fun to do,” he said.
He built the Elf House using reclaimed wood from a pine tree that had blown over and secondhand materials.
There are solar lights inside, giving the house a bit of a glow at night. It also features a small mailbox, should people wish to leave letters for the elves.
“They said Memorial Day was very busy over there, so hopefully I have a lot of mail,” he said.
In Iceland, according to Carlson, the elves are known as the Huldufolk. He said the Huldufolk are rumored to grant wishes to humans who ask politely (leaving treats for them helps). Many Icelanders build elaborate residences for any nearby elves.
However, humans who tease the elves might find themselves victims of a nasty trick, such as a troll booger in their bed. In Iceland, children are cautioned never to throw rocks because they might accidentally hit an elf.
While setting up the house, Carlson said he had some supportive reactions from passersby.
“There were two elderly ladies who came up and asked, ‘What is this all about?'” he said. “I explained to them. They said ‘Oh, I’m so happy I stopped. Now I can bring my grandkids up here.'”
City’s public art initiative
The Elf House is part of the City of Eden Prairie’s rotating public art initiative.
That was originally funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts as a rotating sculpture project.
Lori Brink, the city’s recreation services manager, said the initiative is now open to all types of public art mediums. Some proposals have ended up being permanent rather than rotating.
“With the Elf House in particular, we wanted to create curiosity by placing it in view from across the water – hoping people would wonder about it and explore the trails to view it,” Brink said. “Right now we’re in the curiosity phase, with plans for social media engagement in the coming weeks.”
She said the Elf House is on loan from Carlson for a year, “but don’t be surprised if it pops up in a new location in Eden Prairie for each season!”
The Will Ferrell connection
Two years ago, Carlson got the idea to build elf houses after watching a Will Ferrell movie on Netflix.
That 2020 movie is a comedy titled “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga.” It centers on two aspiring musicians (played by Ferrell and Rachel McAdams) given an opportunity to represent their country – Iceland – at the world’s biggest song competition.
One of the main characters goes to a tiny red elf house built into a hillside to ask for help in getting into the contest.
“My wife saw the house and said, ‘Oh, I like that.’ So I built one for her birthday,” Carlson said. “It’s sitting in my yard right now with a koi tank and a tulip garden behind it. She said, ‘Other people have to see this,’ encouraging me to build one for the (Art Shanty Projects festival on Lake Harriet last winter). That’s where it all started.”
His wife, Rachel Coyne, began looking for additional opportunities to display Carlson’s newfound skills in making elf houses. That’s when they learned of Eden Prairie’s rotating artist series.
Carlson wants to build more elf houses. So far, he’s constructed five. Because of his work schedule, he said it takes about 40 days to build one house.
He’s building one using reclaimed oak for Camp Ojiketa, a former Camp Fire Girls camp now a regional park owned and managed by the local community, Chisago City.
“I’m in the process of putting my logs out on the lawn and doing the layout for them,” Carlson said. “Hopefully, I’ll try to get a grant and go to a park service meeting in the county and put them on different trails around (Chisago County).”
Carlson has not been to Iceland but would like to someday. He applied for a grant to go there and learn about the culture of the hillside houses.
“I submitted that this is what I do in Minnesota,” he said. “I brought a part of Scandinavia back here, and hopefully, I can get a grant to go over there. They have culture classes so you go to the hillsides and they lecture on the hills and some of the folklore that is there.”
Plenty of smiles
A friend brought her young son to see the house, and he was mesmerized.
“She took pictures of him with it,” he said. “He was smiling, and looking in the windows, saying he saw stuff that really wasn’t in there.”
That’s precisely why he built the Elf House. Carlson wants to bring joy to people of all ages, even for just a moment. (At least from a safe distance; his elf houses are not made for climbing.)
It seems to be making quite the impression. A photo of the Elf House was posted in a Facebook group called Quirky Minnesota Places.
“When I was building it, a lady walked up to me and said, ‘Oh, I needed this in my life right now,'” he recalled. “It was so nice. This is what the world needs. We sat and talked about what she was going through for a while. It was pretty nice to hear that from her.”
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