When artist Margruite Krahn and her family moved to the southern Manitoba village of Neubergthal in 1998, she had no idea she was about to become the lead detective in unravelling a Mennonite mystery.
A couple of years after moving, Krahn became involved in the Neubergthal Heritage Foundation.
The Neubergthal Street Village is a national heritage site and is considered one of the best-preserved single street Mennonite villages in North America. The village was founded in 1876 by Mennonites who came from Prussia.
It was through foundation work that Krahn began unravelling the mystery, literally hidden beneath her feet.
While overseeing the foundation’s first restoration project, which was the Friesen Housebarn Interpretive Centre, she discovered hand-painted oxide yellow and grey floors with floral and geometric designs after the carpet and layers of linoleum were stripped off.
"I felt like an archeologist unveiling a significant piece of art and history," Krahn writes in an email. "I couldn’t help but start asking questions of the locals, investigating other housebarns… I have long considered my paintings a form of storytelling, so a new subject matter and the stories it could tell seemed like a gift that fell into my lap."
Krahn was fortunate there were enough of the older generation around to recall their mothers and grandmothers painting floors, but few were familiar with how prevalent the Mennonite practice was at one time.
There was clearly an evolution of colour and patterns, she discovered. Floral design were prominent pre-1920, while linoleum-influenced geogmetric designs were more common post-1920.
The painting was primarily carried out by women. The floral patterns would have been influenced by the flowers they grew while the floorboards acted as a guide to create the straight lines and rows between the patterns, much like their garden vegetable rows, Krahn says.
The discovery of the little-known folk art has led her to produce canvas floor cloths, an art exhibit and now a book — Resurfacing: Mennonite Floor Patterns, A Field Journal. A book launch was held on Jan. 12 at the Winnipeg Art Gallery.