Those who stop at the Decorah Visitor Center will be surprised to find eight new custom works of art in the public restrooms: Norwegian nisse. Each nisse, or gnome, measures eight inches in height and is depicted doing an activity or exploring. One nisse hands you a towel to dry your hands, another floats down from the ceiling holding a mayapple leaf as an umbrella, and one peeks out from behind the mirror. Artist Thomas Agran of Iowa City imagined and painted the works with inspiration from Wil Huygen’s 1976 book Nisseboken.
The art is part of the Decorah Area Chamber’s upgrade to the restrooms which serve not just the town’s regular visitors, but also the very large crowds for Nordic Fest.
Chamber Executive Director Jessica Rilling says the idea stemmed from another artist’s unique approach to public art. “I loved graffiti artist Banksy’s 2020 work in a bathroom which was shared widely on social media. Rats were painted making trouble and it used the existing bathroom features incredibly well. It was fun and different and a great example of how art can be uplifting, unexpected, and memorable. We knew we needed to make functional improvements to better serve our visitors – especially those with children – and we saw it as an opportunity to add in something special. I’ve worked with Thomas in the past and knew he could execute this perfectly.”
In addition to the whimsical art, the bathroom remodel included ADA accessible hand towel dispensers, baby changing stations, new wallpaper, and step stools to help children wash their hands. The project was funded in part by a Winneshiek County Community Foundation grant, a contribution from the Nordic Fest Board, a Hotel/Motel Marketing Committee allocation, and private donations.
The Decorah Area Chamber of Commerce owns and manages the town’s visitor center at 507 West Water Street, across the street from the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum. The visitor center welcomes an average of 8,000 in-person guests each year and serves hundreds more by phone. Artist Thomas Agran has completed many public, high profile murals in the Cedar Rapids and Iowa City area including ones for New Pioneer Food Cooperative, Trumpet Blossom Cafe, and the alleyway outside MidWestOne Bank. His work is shared on www.thomasagran.com.