Posts Tagged ‘Rosemaling’

Rosemaling in Vesterheim’s One-Room Schoolhouse

January 2, 2012

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!

Rosemaling Through Time

July 24, 2010

The Norwegian folk art called rosemaling is a form of decorative painting that dates back to the early 18th century.  Styles varied from region to region in Norway, and was practiced largely by traveling painters in rural areas.  Many immigrants carried painted bowls or plates or boxes in their trunks when they crossed the Atlantic.

Many trunks were rosemaled too. Isn't this one spectacular? (Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum)

In the new world, the demands of starting new lives, and acculturation, led to a quick demise of the art.  Those painters who immigrated earned their living in other ways.  After some years, the painted pieces that made the trip took their place as treasured mementos of the old country… or perhaps were put to some mundane use, and eventually discarded.  By the 1870s, rosemaling had also faded from favor in Norway.

Ethnic pieces at the 1865 Kvaale House, at Old World Wisconsin, are relegated to a high shelf. By 1865, the Kvaale family had been in Wisconsin for some time.

A man named Per Lysne is credited with reviving the art in America.  Lysne learned the art from his father in Norway before immigrating to Stoughton, WI, with his wife in 1907.  Lysne went to work at a local wagon factory as a painter, and was soon adding decorative flourishes to the finished wagon boxes.

This wagon still shows the faded flourishes added during the period when Per Lysne worked for the Mandt Wagon Company in Stoughton. (Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum)

Here's a piece of agricultural equipment that was rosemaled.

When the Great Depression caused the factory to close, Lysne was able to earn a living with his paintbrushes.  He began by repainting some of the old and faded pieces brought to Wisconsin by his neighbors.  Soon his work became popular in its own right.

Per Lysne became famous for platters featuring bright designs on a cream or white background. (Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum)

I was introduced to the folk art when I went to work at Old World Wisconsin in 1982.  I was fascinated by the lovely painting.  When I wrote Old World Murder, I chose to make a missing rosemaled bowl the heart of the mystery.

My protagonist is a Norwegian-American museum curator named Chloe Ellefson.  Chloe’s mom is an expert rosemaler. Knowing that this art will be touched on again in future books in the series, I decided I needed to learn more about it.  That’s how I found myself in a beginner’s rosemaling class last week at Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah, Iowa.

I had not held a paint brush since I was in middle school, when my art teacher made it clear (and not politely, either) that I had no business taking an art class.  I signed up for the rosemaling class because I wanted to learn more about the art, but I had low expectations of what I could actually accomplish.

The class was taught by Joanne MacVey, an expert who earned her Gold Medal in rosemaling (which is not easy to do) in 2001. She is a lovely person, and a calm and encouraging instructor.  She had us begin by practicing basic strokes.

My practice work. Note the many wobbles.

Then we mixed paint for our projects.  That part was kind of fun.

I did learn that my eye for color needs developing.

Joanne soon had us moving on to our wooden project piece, a bentwood tray.  (I was dubious.  Shouldn’t we spend more time practicing?)  Making that first stroke was the hardest.

Joanne demonstrated each step of the project...

and she made it look easy.

That's me, working on my own piece. Bit by bit, the pattern came together. Much to my surprise, it was recognizable.

My very first rosemaled project.

The beginner class was three days.  I opted to stay two extra days for an advanced beginner course.  For that, we painted a mangletree.  Mangles, as they are often called, were historically used to smooth wrinkles from cloth.  They were also created and offered as betrothal gifts.

My mangle, with just the first few scrolls painted.

Here (two photos below) is my finished mangletree.   I was astonished with (and proud of) what we were able to accomplish in such a short time.  I credit that to having a superb instructor.

Vesterheim is the perfect place to take a class in one of the traditional folkarts.  The museum’s extensive collections are made available to students for study and inspiration.   I was also lucky enough to be there during the annual National Exhibition of Folk Art in the Norwegian Tradition.  Artists who are awarded ribbons in the show earn points; enough points accumulated over the years earn the coveted Gold Medal.

Some of the stunning pieces entered in this year's exhibition.

I went to Decorah to learn about rosemaling; I discovered that I loved doing it.  I will never become an expert rosemaler, but I like to think that my tentative brushstrokes have become part of the continuum, helping to keep this vibrant art alive.