By Tanner Kent
The Free Press
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.
For instance, the boat includes hundreds of hand-carved sculptures affixed to the hull. Just the process of finishing the hull, Johnson said, took four years of working every day. After the hull was completed, he waited nearly a year before beginning the rigging in order to get correct specifications from the Vasa Museum.
Along the way, Johnson remained steadfastly committed to accuracy. When he discovered his beakhead was too curved, he had to “tear apart” the front end of his hull to_re-do it.
“I didn’t really want to,” Johnson said, “but at the same time, the shape wasn’t right.”
Johnson developed his interest as a young boy, the son and grandson of Navy men. He said there were always nautical books around the Wrenshall farmhouse where he grew up — including one that contained a National Geographic article on the archaeology of the Vasa.
After Johnson started building model ships at age 10, the ship continued to hold his imagination.
“I’ve always liked history,” Johnson said. “Plus, I’m Scandinavian and all my family is from Norway, Sweden and Denmark.”