The Nona Bymark Soderlind archival collection consists solely of one scrapbook, yet its contents provide an intriguing glimpse of the woman to which it is dedicated. In doing so, it also illuminates a brief but prolific period in the history of the Academy of Art and reveals a personal side to one of Cranbrook’s most celebrated Artists-in-Residence, the sculptor Carl Milles.
Born Eleanora Maria Bymark on July 16, 1900 in a small Swedish immigrant community just outside of Minneapolis, Minnesota, Nona attended the Minneapolis School of Art (1920-1922) on a full scholarship, where she studied sculpture under Charles S. Wells. She later attended the University of Minnesota where she studied under the painter Samuel Chatwood Burton. In 1927 Nona returned for a semester at the School of Art, around the time she had her first child with husband Dr. Ragnar Soderlind. The Soderlinds had three young boys (two, eight, and nine years of age) when in 1936 Nona boarded a train to Detroit to study under Carl Milles.
A February 13th letter from Richard Raseman, Academy of Art Executive Secretary, confirms Soderlind’s visit to campus and includes details of associated tuition and living costs required for the minimum period of study with Milles. Cross-referenced with items in her Academy student file, it is evident she had been invited by Milles to study for a month and arrived on the 18th. Perhaps it was Milles’ 1936 commission for Vision of Peace, in St. Paul, Minnesota that had first brought them in touch with each other?
In any case, we know Soderlind had left by March 26th, as confirmed by a letter from Milles in which he talks about her recent departure. For such a short stay, it appears to have made a profound impression on Soderlind. The scrapbook contains several photographs of Milles’ sculptures in situ, interiors of his studio, and the surrounding newly built Saarinen campus. These photo pages supplement images in the Cranbrook Photograph Collection, showing additional views, while also providing the only examples of Soderlind’s own work.
Carl’s letters are filled with names of mutual friends like the painter Axel Lindahl, sculptor Louise Belden, and Academy sculpture student Felix Weinburg, but intimate that Nona and Carl connected not only as fellow sculptors, but Swedish compatriots, Nona’s parents having emigrated from Sweden twenty years before her birth. Switching between English and Swedish, the letters reveal the affectionate bond the two shared. They mention almost nothing regarding their artistic careers and are instead full of all the sorts of daily happenings you would expect to find in letters between friends—health woes, travel plans, and domestic concerns. Carl even asks Nona if she knows of a good Swedish cook they could hire when their Canadian cook leaves them to marry a farmer!
There are several other letters in Nona’s scrapbook—letters like those from her children and husband during her Cranbrook stay, demonstrating what must have been a difficult month apart for the young family. They are full of emotion and truly endearing. In one letter, written two weeks into her study, Ragnar writes, “Since you have been gone I feel like half of my soul has disappeared.” Shortly thereafter he would spend a short visit with his wife at Cranbrook, where the couple bonded with Carl and his wife Olga. Carl’s fondness for Nona and Ragnar comes through in his letters—there are many expressions of warmth and repeated attempts to plan visits to Minnesota. In one, he writes, “We promise you to spare a night for you when we next come up to St. Paul.” It appears they never made the trip, but the last letter in the scrapbook, dated September 1941, does reference a visit of Nona and Ragnar to Cranbrook.
Nona Bymark Soderlind’s sculptures won several local awards over three decades (1920s-1940s) at both the Minnesota State Fair and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts’ Local Artists Exhibitions. She enjoyed a rich artistic, family, and community life in Minneapolis until she passed away in 1952, one year after the Milles’ return to Sweden.
—Deborah Rice, Head Archivist, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research
Editors Note: To learn more about Cranbrook’s Swedish Connections, join us for the May 22nd A Global House Party at Cranbrook and Millesgården! A fundraiser benefitting Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research, including Cranbrook Archives, highlights include the premier of a film produced exclusively for the event. This transatlantic, behind-the-scenes cinematic production uses spectacular footage of Cranbrook and Millesgården Museum (Milles’s home, studio, and sculpture park near Stockholm, Sweden), alongside historic images from Cranbrook Archives and Millesgården, to tell the story of Carl Milles and Cranbrook as never before.