Found in a crawl space, 90-year-old painting by Moorhead artist looks for new life with HCSCC help

The Historical & Cultural Society of Clay County is raising funds to conserve painting by late Moorhead artist Erik Ahlberg.

ahlberg two figures cropped.jpg
A detail view of a painting by Erik Ahlberg. The Historic and Cultural Society of Clay County is seeking $3,500 to have the work conserved.

MOORHEAD — A nearly 90-year-old painting found under a historic Moorhead structure is looking to get some much needed repairs before it will be exhibited next year at the Historical & Cultural Society of Clay County.

The painting, by Swedish immigrant Erik Ahlberg, was found in the crawl space under the log cabin, the former home to the Moorhead Garden Club, after it had been moved from its perch above Woodlawn Park along Fourth Street South.

The city of Moorhead donated it to the HCSCC in 2017, a few years after the structure was moved.

“It’s in dire need of care,” says Maureen Kelly Jonason, executive director of the HCSCC, referring to mold on the surface and holes in the canvas from bugs or varmints.

Maureen Kelly Jonason
The office of Maureen Kelly Jonason, executive director of the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County, is home to many works of art, including prints, photographs and sculptures.
Forum file photo

Knowing it needs some work, Kelly Jonason applied for and received a $10,000 grant from the Minnesota Historical Society to help conserve the work. Still, the HCSCC needs $3,500 to cover the remainder of the process which will be undertaken by the Midwest Art Conservation Center.


“I’m grateful the Minnesota Historic Society recognized its historic significance,” Kelly Jonason says.

The roughly 40-by-60 inch painting depicts a white settler approaching an Indian. The settler is ahead of a covered wagon and waves with his left hand while a rifle is cradled in his right arm. The Indian appears to be wearing little more than a decorative fabric over his groin and has his arms folded. Behind him appear to be some other Indians keeping their distance.

Erik Ahlberg at work cropped.jpg
A photo of Erik Ahlberg painting circa 1917.

Ahlberg gave the painting to the Moorhead Garden Club, but if the painting ever had a name or a story behind it, they are both lost to time, but the HCSCC has some archived material about it.

In a 1934 story in the Moorhead Daily News about the Moorhead Garden Club’s cabin, an article referenced it as, “showing an American beside a covered wagon making peace with an Indian Chief.” That same year The Forum described the painting as, “picturing an early settler making peace with an Indian.”

In its own minutes from that year the Moorhead Garden Club thanked him “for the ‘covered wagon’ painting.”

Moorhead's historic log cabin
This log cabin once near Woodlawn Park was the home to the Moorhead Garden Club.
Forum file photo

Kelly Jonason points out there is no indication the Indian is a chief.

In a letter seeking donations for the painting’s conservation, she wrote, “While its depiction of a pioneer holding a gun when greeting an indigenous person is problematic from today’s lens, this 1934 painting holds historical value.”

“There are mixed messages and uncertain intentions” Kelly Jonason says of the work. “It instigated a good, lively discussion. It’s not for us to worry about the intention. All we look at is the impact on the audience today. It gives us the opportunity to discuss how attitudes have changed over time.”


She says when the HCSCC exhibits the painting in the future it will be accompanied by historical context.

Ahlberg Last Supper.jpg
Erik Ahlberg's version of da Vinci's "The Last Supper" is in the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County's collection.

The painting’s conservation also allows the HCSCC to explore the life and work of Ahlberg, who was born in Sweden and moved to America in 1914 at the age of 21. He settled in Moorhead and became a decorator.

“Decorators are the unsung originators of the art scene in a town like ours,” says HCSCC’s programming director, Markus Krueger.

Krueger has been doing his part to shed some light on the artist, including him in the 2018 HCSCC show, “Red River Masters: The Birth of the F-M Art Scene.” At an April talk at the Rourke Art Gallery + Museum about the roots of fine art in Moorhead, Krueger again included Ahlberg, who died in 1981.

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A painting of Thor from Erik Ahlberg's Moorhead home.

Some of Ahlberg’s work has been documented. His first wife, Cora, kept photos of his creativity.

Decorators, Krueger says, would do everything from paint houses, hang wallpaper, create murals and do lettering on signs. Decorating companies would often buy enough materials that they also doubled as the community's art supply store.

Because their work was often considered more decoration than fine art, not a lot of their creations remain in existence because styles changed with the times and their paintings were often covered.

“His great masterpiece was his house,” Krueger says, explaining that Ahlberg decorated the home, at 1215 3rd Ave. S., Moorhead, with landscapes on the walls, a Swedish crest painted on the ceiling, a Swedish wedding scene painted in a band around the kitchen, similar to Bonadsmålning, a type of storyboarding of historical events. There’s a painting of the Norse god Thor riding his chariot pulled by goats and a mural of mermaids above the bathtub.


Ahlberg Home tub.jpg
Erik Ahlberg filled his Moorhead home with paintings and murals.

“There was some wild artwork,” Krueger says.

Much of the work in the house has been painted over by new owners, but photos remain thanks to the family which documented the space before they sold the home.

Ahlberg died in 1981.

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For 20 years John Lamb has covered art, entertainment and lifestyle stories in the area for The Forum.
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