Like most Mennonites, Margruite Krahn knew women on southern Manitoba farms once hand-painted their homes with lively and colourful designs.
But it wasn’t until the Neubergthal artist became involved with a local housebarn preservation that she began to truly see these floors for herself.
That was several years ago, while serving as chair of the Neubergthal Heritage Foundation and working with others on the restoration of the village’s Friesen Housebarn Interpretive Centre.
They’d begun to strip off old carpet and layers of linoleum and underneath found floors painted oxide yellow and grey and emblazoned with floral and geometric designs.
The painted floors astonished Krahn. They had a story to tell about Mennonite life and culture she’d been largely unaware of.
Here was Mennonite folk art much like that of the Polish and Ukrainians, she said.
Evidently, Mennonites had a far more colourful side than most thought. Vibrant-coloured aprons and quilts were other signs of it.
“We think of the black clothes… that was Sunday only,” said Krahn.
“I realized I didn’t know a lot about my history,” she adds.
Her fascination with the hand-painted floors has also led to a long exploration of floor designs and how each was chosen and created.
She and her husband Paul have, since 2002, been restoring The Herdsman’s House, a Neubergthal property built in 1890 where she’s reproduced hand-painted floor patterns in it.
She’s also visited housebarns in other villages in southern Manitoba documenting floor patterns found there.
For the most part, floor painting was done by women and it was a form of interior decoration that lasted from the earliest settlements of the 1870s right through to the 1940s, explains Krahn. (After that time many of these floors were covered over by linoleum.)
Earliest designs were flowers, laid in precise rows using the floor boards to guide their placement. Later geometric designs were inspired by the early linoleum patterns.
This was folk art created using everyday items from around the farm, from ropes and twisted rags, even corncobs and other vegetables, said Krahn.
And it was art created as a winter pastime, when these women had more time to take up creative expression with less to do outside.
“Winter was a time to brighten up their place, and to focus on craft, whether it was sewing or painting or quilting,” she said. “I can only imagine that for some women they loved this time of the year.”
Primarily kitchen and living room floors were painted. The practice didn’t entirely disappear even as linoleum took its place.
People have since told Krahn they recall grandmothers still painting floors even in the 1960s.
“It would have been in basements,” she said. “People tell stories of their grandmothers painting the concrete floors in bungalows on farms.”
Krahn’s study of floor patterns also led to eventually create some of them herself.
Last month she launched Resurfacing: Mennonite Floor Patterns – A Field Journal.
The slim volume doesn’t contain historic information nor tell the stories of painted floors. That’s for a future book now in the works, said Krahn. Rather it’s a journal, containing blank pages for putting down one’s own artistic aspirations but also with sample images of original floor designs she found in housebarns in Neubergthal, Neuhorst, Grunthal and Sommerfeld.
Krahn has recreated those designs herself on floor cloths of cotton canvas using latex paint, polyurethane and epoxy-fortifed enamel.
It’s art you can hang on your wall — but it really belongs on the floor, she said. And these floor cloths are extremely durable, adds the artist.
“You shouldn’t be afraid to walk on it,” she said.
These floor patterns remind us of something else we shouldn’t fear, she said. We should stay curious and creative, and never be afraid to express both, said Krahn.
“Don’t paint your whole house beige and think that painting the door burgundy is daring,” she said. “We need to live colourful lives.”