Growing up in New Jersey not too far from historic Philadelphia, Olaf Jansson had a passion for the past and an affinity for art. What he didn’t fully appreciate, however, was the connection between the two.
“I can remember going to France when I was in high school, and I probably spent about 45 minutes in the Louvre and that was it,” said Jansson. “I remember the ‘Mona Lisa’ and ‘Winged Victory’ and I couldn’t be bothered with the other stuff. I could kick myself around the block now.”
These days, he revels in art and the history surrounding it. Along with teaching art history at Fulton-Montgomery Community College, he is well-known in re-enactment circles around the state as an 18th century tinsmith with a remarkable ability to create historically accurate 18th century items.
This weekend at the Mabee Farm’s French and Indian War Re-enactment and Market Fair, Jansson will be in period costume demonstrating his craft. In the two-day event also commemorating Schenectady County’s bicentennial, activities will begin at 10 a.m. Saturday and continue until 4 p.m. Sunday.
Jansson, who now lives on Route 29 just a few miles east of Johnstown, was immersed in the 18th century at an early age, thanks to a mother who was an enthusiastic antiques collector.
French & Indian War Re-Enactment and Market Fair
WHERE: The Mabee Farm, 1080 Main St., Rotterdam Junction
WHEN: 10 a.m. Saturday and Sunday
HOW MUCH: Free
MORE INFO: 887-5073 or mabeefarm.org
“My mother was a big influence on me, and we lived in the Philadelphia area not too far from Independence Hall,” said Jansson. “Antiques were always in my family, and it seemed like most of them were from the 18th century. I’m interested in other time periods, too, but I always had the biggest connection to the 18th century. That’s the one I feel closest to.”
After four years at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey, Jansson got a master’s degree in fine arts from the University at Albany.
“I wanted to be an artist and to teach college-level art classes,” he said, “but fate kind of dictated things differently. I got into a number of fields that were sort of connected to my early association with antiques, and then about 12 or 13 years ago they needed somebody to teach art history at Fulton-Montgomery, so I kind of fell into this job.”
Earlier, he was an exhibit curator at the Albany Institute of History and Art. He also worked on sets, props and costumes for the New York State Theatre Institute, and worked closely with the New York State Museum refurbishing perhaps its most popular artifact.
“I did a few free-lance jobs for the museum and one of them was working on the Cohoes Mastodon,” he said. “It required a massive blacksmithing job a while ago, and then they hired me again to rework it and tweak it a little bit. It’s an icon of the State Museum and the old state education building. I would think just about everybody in this area has seen it.”
That kind of work helped prepare him for what he does now at various re-enactments all over the state — selling historical reproductions of 18th century items.
“I really got into re-enacting, and for me that meant a total immersion,” said Jansson, who is mostly Swedish and part Norwegian. “I’d go up around Lake George and spend a week in the woods, trying to simulate all the things that 18th century soldiers experienced, right down to the same miserable food they had to eat.
“Now, I’ve become sort of a jack of all trades as a result of fulfilling a need for some sort of material culture. When it became hard to find things, I decided I would attempt to figure out how to make it on my own. My father grew up a poor Depression-era kid who would make everything for fun and I think he instilled some of that in me. I had this obsession with the process of how things were made, and so I’ve become pretty good at duplicating or making reproductions of all this so-called early American stuff.”
One of the items he has been working on recently is an 18th century automatic candle extinguisher.
“Like any kind of hand trade, tinsmiths often come up with their own design for things,” he said, “and in the real world or the re-enactment world automatic candle extinguishers can be real practical. You’re out camping on a cold night and you’re done reading your book, and you might have a candle hanging off the reach pole of a tent. You don’t want to have to get up to blow out the candle. With this extinguisher, when the flame gets down to a point, the thing drops and puts it out. They really had these things back in the 18th century, but they’re very hard to find.”
While he enjoys tinsmithing the most, Jansson is also skilled at blacksmithing and working with silver.
“The more you delve into 18th century items and the history surrounding them, things just keep on getting broader and broader and you end up with more questions than answers,” he said. “Now here I am with this chaotic pile of equipment, still learning about process and how to make things. I find it a lot of fun.”
Cannon and cavalry
Along with Jansson’s tinsmithing booth and dozens of other Colonial craftsmen at the Market Fair, visitors will be able to see a cavalry charge at 1 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday, and a cannon-firing demonstration at 2 on the grounds of the Mabee Farm. Owned and operated by the Schenectady County Historical Society, the farm is reputedly the oldest standing structure west of Schenectady, having been built around 1705.
Cliff Mealy will reprise his role as Jack, the Mabee family’s slave from the early 18th century, while other events will include a musket drill, boat rides, a Punch and Judy puppet show and a barn dance on Saturday night.