Rosemaling in Vesterheim’s One-Room Schoolhouse

I took my first rosemaling class at Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in the summer of 2010. I thought it would be a one-time thing, done primarily to gain insight into one of the characters in my Chloe Ellefson mysteries—Chloe’s mom, who is a Gold Medalist in this style of folk-art painting. To my surprise, I discovered that I loved it! (Check out Rosemaling Through Time to see some examples.) I left that first class determined to do at least a little painting once I got home, just to keep my hand in.

Working on my first project, 2010.

Well, my life is crazy-busy and that didn’t happen. I returned to Vesterheim last July for my second five-day class having not held a paintbrush for a year. I’d signed up for the beginners’ Telemark class again, and was happy to see several students I’d met the previous year. I was also surprised to find several experienced painters in the class, including one Gold Medalist.

The experienced students’ work was impressive. Although some things did come back once we started painting, I was frustrated that I hadn’t been able to practice as I’d wanted to.

Beginning my first 2011 project, a bowl.

Then I had a chance to see some of the work being done by students in the other class being held at Vesterheim that week, “Freehand Halling Rosemaling.” That class was taught by Tove Ness, an expert who has her own studio in the mountains of Hallingdal, Norway. Not only did Tove’s students produce wonderful, unique works—they accomplished more in a day than I could imagine doing in…OK, more than I could imagine doing at all. Ever.

Several exquisite examples of the work done in the freehand class.

So for a couple of days my pleasure in being back in a class was tempered by a certain amount of intimidation. Between studying the works of old masters in the museum proper, admiring the pieces entered in the National Exhibition of Folk-Art in the Norwegian Tradition (which happened to coincide with my class), and seeing the amazing work being produced by more experienced students, I felt a bit overwhelmed.

Some of the rosemaled pieces in Vesterheim's collection.

A few of the pieces in the exhibition.

Then I happened to overhear my wonderful teacher, Joanne MacVey, talking with another student about her experiences attending a one-room schoolhouse.  She mentioned something I’ve heard and read many times:  that the younger students tended to advance quickly because they had the opportunity to listen to and observe older students working through their lessons.  Although those in primary grades were focused on their own lessons, they subconsciously absorbed some of what the more advanced students were working on.

Joanne, who is also a Gold Medalist.

And that made me realize I’d been looking at my situation all wrong. Instead of being intimidated, I should be grateful I had the opportunity to learn while surrounded by talented artists and great examples, old and new.

I may be a perpetual rosemaling beginner, since the writing life seems to preclude me finding the blocks of time needed to gain any real proficiency. But that really doesn’t matter. I love painting and its inherent traditions and heritage. I love the challenge of doing something visual instead of creating pictures with words. Taking classes at Vesterheim exposes me to all kinds of knowledge and expertise. It’s something I do for fun, I’ve made some wonderful friends, and stressing about it is really a bad idea.

The finished bowl. (Design by Joanne MacVey.)

So for the rest of the week, I let myself enjoy the process. We painted a bowl first, and then started a box. I didn’t have the box finished by the week’s end, and since I knew I wouldn’t have time to paint once I got home, I pulled an all-nighter in the hotel room after the final class.

My work station at the Decorah Super 8. (I was very careful, and didn't get even a dab of paint on anything!)

Last week I gave the finished box to my mom for Christmas. Big hit.

Box lid. (Design by Joanne MacVey.)

The complete box.

Diane Weston, former head of educational programming at Vesterheim, said that the student/artist community there is like a family.  That’s why a Gold Medalist would enroll in a beginner’s class.  There’s always something to learn, and most of all, it’s fun to spend time with other painters.

Joanne MacVey and Diane Weston, 2011

I also think that the global community (or one-room school, if you will) that practices and perpetuates any type of folk-art, such as rosemaling, forms it’s own family. If you’re at all interested in learning more about one of these old handicrafts, see what opportunities might exist in your area, or check out Vesterheim’s class offerings. Most of all, have fun!

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13 Responses to “Rosemaling in Vesterheim’s One-Room Schoolhouse”

  1. Dru Says:

    Your work is beautiful. I haven’t painted in several years since I took a watercolor class, but now seeing this, I may have to pick up a brush.

    Again, your work is beautiful.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Thanks, Dru! Do try painting again–I’m sure your quilting experience has provided you a good sense of color already. My mom did watercolors…one day I’d like to try taking a watercolor class as well.

  2. Irene Bennett Brown Says:

    Your lucky, lucky Mom, to receive such a beautful box, from your hand, finished at a Super 8 in the wee hours of night! In her place I’d cherish the box forever and I’m sure she will.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Thanks, Irene. When I’m painting, I get very close-focused. One of the things I love about rosemaling is sitting back at some point to get the whole picture. It helps to have a great teacher with wonderful designs!

  3. Meg Says:

    Speaking as a quilter, I think crafts of all kinds complement the writing life. And your craft is beautiful.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      I agree, Meg. I tend to spend so much time and energy focused on words and imagination that it’s hard to take a break unless I jump into a project that demands all my attention and uses different parts of the brain. And while we’re quilting or painting, the stories simmer away in our subconscious!

  4. Mary E. Trimble Says:

    This is so interesting, Kathleen. Although I’d seen this work, I had no idea of its significance. What a delightful hobby.

  5. Eunice Boeve Says:

    I’d never hear of rosemaling before, but I’ve seen lots of the finished product. A store in Sandpoint, Idaho has some beautiful examples for sale. They sell all norwegian art products and a few books and I love to browse among the beautiful selections. We visit Sandpoint each summer while in Montana. Interesting. Thanks.

  6. Heather Says:

    Your work is beautiful, Kathleen! While I do not paint, I do enjoy other crafts. I’ve always loved seeing the works on display or for sale at Stoughton’s Syttende Mai celebration, but have not gotten down there the last two years. Maybe this year…

    Did you get a chance to see the rosemaled cow during CowParade Wisconsin six years ago? Now THAT took a lot of work!

  7. Kathleen Ernst Says:

    Thanks, Heather, and–wow! I hadn’t seen that rosemaled cow. Perfect, but yes, quite a challenge. I have enough trouble with flat surfaces.

    I haven’t made it to Syttende Mai in quite a while either, and I really hope to get back…maybe this year.

  8. Forestwoodfolkart Says:

    Well, if that is your beginner efforts, you are on your way to becoming an excellent rosemaler. I love to paint this style too, am mostly self taught as I live “down under” and don’t have a lot of time, but I am so looking forward to meeting other Rosemalers and Tove Ness later this year. Good luck on your Rosemaling journey and if I can help with any tips etc. you will find me at Hilsen, Amanda

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Thanks for connecting, and for your kind comments! I’ve been lucky to take classes from wonderful teachers. My biggest challenge is not getting frustrated with myself. Like you, I don’t have much time, but I am signed up for another class this summer. I enjoyed visiting your blog, and hope that our paths might cross in person one day!

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