Carving into History

Originally published in the Alexandria Echo Press.

On Oct. 16, professional stone carver and author Janey Westin of Edina demonstrated her carving ability at the Runestone Museum, followed by a presentation on her 2012 book that dives into the possibility of Nordic presence in America hundreds of years before Columbus.

Professional stone carver and co-author of the 2012 book, The Last Kings of Norse America: Runestone Keys to a Lost Empire, Janey Westin, 64, of Edina, demonstrated her skills in stone carving at the Runestone Museum in Alexandria on Oct. 16.

Westin co-authored the book with her father, Robert G. Johnson — an adjunct professor in the earth sciences department at the University of Minnesota with a PHD. in physics who previously worked at Honeywell doing research lab work. The book is available for purchase at the Runestone Museum.

Westin was invited by Amanda Seim, executive director of the Runestone Museum, after Seim reached out to Westin to purchase more books for the museum. Westin informed her that she has more research following up from her book that she would like to add as a pamphlet to the books on display.

Seim asked if Westin would be available for an author talk, which Westin accepted and offered to bring her carving station to do a demonstration. It was the first public event the Runestone Museum has held in the last two years since COVID-19.

"I think it is really special to have someone of her caliber speaking to our museum members and community," said Seim, "We are looking forward to having more member events, especially new and upcoming exhibits."

This wasn't Westin's first visit to the Runestone Museum. She was here about 20 years ago and became convinced the stone is authentic.

In 2001, the Runestone Museum Board invited Westin and her father, Robert G. Johnson, to examine the Kensington Runestone due to her expertise in the techniques of stone letter carving and her dad's knowledge of history and paleo climate change.

"Not being familiar with ruins or the Norse language, I looked at the Kensington Runestone from a calligraphers perspective; how it was carved, the technique used, and the type of tools it was done with," said Westin.

They were allotted four hours to study the stone. In that time, they were able to determine the type of tools used and the time frame it would have been made based on weathering comparison from the stone's surface to the underneath layers that were presented due to chipping.

"It IS authentic. What my father and I saw when examining it convinced us that it was authentic. The differences in weathering on different locations of its surface — seen at a microscopic level — cannot be faked," stated Westin, "Understanding the carving process was crucial for understanding which surface areas to examine and compare."

Their examination would lead them on a journey of research and fieldwork across the U.S. and into Iceland that continues today. And to write a book — which Westin said took ten years for her and her father to complete — about the presence of Norsemen in North American hundreds of years before Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue. She even learned enough of the Norse language to translate runestones which helped her get the Spirit Pond Inscription stone translated — three runsetones found in Main back in 1971.

"I am still continuing on with additional research, examining medieval Icelandic and Scandinavian manuscripts, and more stone inscriptions- some on Iceland, as well as learning more details on the history of Iceland and Scandinavia," she said.

Westin started stone carving in 1985, but she started with calligraphy. She learned a little bit of calligraphy during her grammar school, then during a gap year between High School and College, Westin moved to Japan, where she picked up a little bit of Japanese calligraphy.

"I was always interested in art and just making stuff," said Westin.

After Westin moved back stateside, she started school at the University of Minnesota, majoring in Japanese. Still, she had the yearning to "make stuff," so she took on a night class that took a serious dive into the art of calligraphy.

"That is when I realized this is what I really wanted to do, so I joined the local calligraphy guild, and it just took off with it," said Westin, "I took every class on it I could possibly take, and I got good at it, quickly, and in a short time was working professionally as a calligrapher."

From there, Westin took on letter carving in slate at a caligrapher conference and soon started stone letter carving.

"Going from Calligraphy work and lettering design, to carving letters in stone, was basically learning how to use new tools in a different medium. All the layout and design work used for calligraphy still applies to stone. The permanence of stone was very appealing to me," said Westin. "It was by no means a straight line to become a stone carver. One thing just led to the next, to the next, to the next."

As her experience and notoriety grew, so did her resume. Westin has produced dozens of sculptures, most can be found in the metro, but some are located internationally. Her most proud is the "Saint Olaf Lion," located on the east side of Buntrock Commons at St. Olaf College and the "Bear & Bunny Bench," which can be found at The Edina Grandview Square Library. With years of stone sculpting and letter carving under her belt, Westin became an expert in the art, which led to an adventure through history.

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