The Free Press, Mankato, MN

Currents

February 8, 2013

Handmade history: Replica of Swedish warship Vasa on display at Gustavus library

ST PETER — In August 2012, Clayton Johnson put the finishing touch on the most important, and time-consuming, project of his artistic career.

After years of scratch-building a 1:50 scale model of the Vasa, an ornate 17th-century Swedish warship that sunk less than a nautical mile off shore during its maiden voyage, Johnson applied the sprit topsail yard.

Like every single one of the 700-plus pieces that Johnson fashioned for the miniature replica, the yard was handmade and researched for accuracy. And when he fixed it permanently, the act represented the culminating moment of a project that spanned nearly eight years.

“Finishing was kind of a bittersweet thing,” said the Albert Lea artist, who also produces woodcarvings and historic firearms.

Johnson’s bittersweet moment, however, is Gustavus Adolphus College’s gain as visitors to the Folke Bernadotte Memorial Library have been among the first in the world to see Johnson’s replica in finished form. The ship will remain on display at the library through March.

The Vasa was built for King Gustav II Adolf, the college’s namesake and a brilliant military commander and strategist. The 800-ton galleon set sail on Aug. 10, 1628, in full view of the king. After it had sailed out of the harbor, it was overturned by a gust of wind and water rushed into the lower gun ports, which were built too close to the water. One-quarter of the ship’s 200-person crew died.

The ship sank in 100 feet of water and was not exhumed until 1961. Now, it is housed in the Vasa Museum in Stockholm and remains the world’s only intact 17th-century warship.

Fred Stocker, director of the Vasa Museum, has said Johnson’s replica is the most accurate representation in the world. Johnson has also earned the attention of fellow hobby shipbuilders who have praised his attention to detail and exquisite craftmanship.

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