Posts Tagged ‘Vesterheim’

Norwegian Shingles

February 20, 2014

One of the many wonderful things about taking a folkart class at Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum is meeting fellow students. Last summer I met Lynn Sove Maxson, who told me about a wonderful project.

Lynn is an active volunteer at the Norsk Museum in Norway, Illinois. The community, founded in 1834, marks the first permanent Norwegian settlement in North America.

Pastor Elling Eielsen preached in a log cabin, which burned in 1841. The congregation built a second structure in 1846, which today houses the museum.

Norsk Museum

Norsk Museum photo.

Norsk Museum

Many of the original construction features are still visiible.  Norsk Museum photo.

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Marks made by the men who raised the building in 1846 are still visible on the old beams.  Norsk Museum photo.

When a modern roof was needed to protect the building, someone had the foresight to save those shingles hewn in the 1800s, and save them in a garage.

Lynn is a talented rosemaler. “While demonstrating Telemark rosemaling at the museum,” she wrote later, “I mentioned that it was difficult to find interesting wood to paint. Roald Berg, member of the board of directors, handed me an old dirty cedar shake roof shingle and asked if I could paint it.”  She began to paint, and to her surprise, people wanted to buy the shingles on the spot.

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Lynn, demonstrating the Norwegian art of rosemaling. Norsk Museum photo.

The Norsk Museum needs a new roof, and Lynn realized she had a great fundraising project. She and other volunteers began cleaning one hundred and sixty-seven years’ worth of dirt from the now-porous, warped, knot-holed shingles.

Then Lynn got in touch with some of her rosemaling friends. Would they be willing to paint a shingle or two, which would be sold to benefit the museum?

As you can see, the collective answer was Yes. Talented painters from far and wide are participating, including some Vesterheim Gold Medalists. As Lynn says, rosemalers began to “raise the roof.”

shingle

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Each painter was free to decide what to paint. Lynn’s only request was that knotholes, cracks, etc. be preserved. Such elements are part of the character of each individual shingle.

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painted shingle

Lynn shingle

Here’s Lynn with one of her works of art.

“The old shingles, which protected the church for so many years and through so much history, will now help the Museum and its Norwegian descendents in a new and original way,” Lynn said.

I think the original settlers would be pleased.

There is a limited number of shingles. All profits from the sale of the shingles will be used to repair the roof. Donations should be at least $25 per shingle. For more information, contact Lynn: sovmax <at> wowway.com

Shingles

Lefse

October 28, 2013

Since a lefse pin spattered with blood is on the cover of my latest Chloe Ellefson mystery, Heritage of Darkness, it’s not much of a spoiler to say that the murder weapon is. . . you guessed it, a lefse pin.

Heritage of Darkness 1

Which has led some readers to ask, What the heck is lefse, anyway?

Lefse is a round flatbread usually made with mashed potatoes (which used up old potatoes, and kept the bread soft) and baked on stovetop or griddle. It was a staple in the diet rural Norwegians and Norwegian-Americans in the 19th century.

LEFSE

This old stereocard image shows a Norwegian woman making lefse on an outdoor griddle. A lefse stick is used to turn the paper-thin round of dough.

I was introduced to lefse when I worked at Old World Wisconsin. Lefse was frequently made at the Fossebrekke cabin, home to young Norwegian immigrants.

KAE at Fossebrekke Web

That’s me at the 1845 Fossebrekke cabin in 1982.

potato masher

Hand-cranked potato masher, Fossebrekke cabin, Old World Wisconsin.

The heavy wooden pins used to roll the dough were deeply scored or grooved, which helped reduce air bubbles, pulverize any bits of unmashed potato, and keep the rounds of lefse quite thin and pliable.

lefse pins - Version 2

Two pins on exhibit at Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum.

lefse pin

This pin’s groove’s are nearly worn away. (Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum Exhibit)

In Norwegian-American communities it can still be found in local stores. . .

Schuberts Mount Horeb lefse

Schubert’s Diner and Bakery in Mount Horeb, WI.

. . .often folded into quarters and offered fresh or frozen.

lefse sale

Oneota Co-Op, Decorah, Iowa.

Although fewer and fewer people make lefse at home, it still holds a special place in good Norwegian-American hearts. Many people have memories of mom or grandma boiling Russet potatoes and making lefse on special occasions.

Last year my friend Martha invited me to the local Sons of Norway – Valdres Lodge Norwegian Constitution Day Dinner on May 15, held at the Washington Prairie Lutheran Church outside of town.  (Learn more here.)

On the way, she told me that when the church needed a new roof, several elderly members of the congregation made hundreds of lefse. They announced sales, to be held at a bank in town. Sales were brisk, and the money raised helped buy the new roof.

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A few weeks later at Nordic Fest, a celebration of Scandinavian heritage and pride held in Decorah each summer, another small army of  lefse bakers reported for duty.

lefse Nordic Fest - Version 2

Warm rounds of lefse are delivered from the griddle to eager buyers, who add whatever toppings they prefer.

lefse Nordic Fest

I’ve read that 10,000 lefse are served at Nordic Fest each year.

lefse Nordic Fest

Me, I love lefse spread with butter and brown sugar, then rolled up tight. Maybe a touch of cinnamon. Or lingonberry jam.

Decades ago, I bought a lefse pin at an antique store.  I don’t know how old it is, or who used it, but I liked to wonder. Who once used it to roll out a bit of home or heritage on a flour-dusted table?

lefse pin

My lefse pin is much larger than my regular rolling pin.  Heavier, too.

And one year, while working at Old World Wisconsin, the Norwegian-area interpreters gave me this lovely rosemaled lefse pin at the end of the season. While I treasure the stick, I must admit that I’ve never made lefse at home. After learning how on an antique stove in an 1845 cabin, it just wouldn’t feel the same.

lefse pin

This stick has had a place of honor in my kitchen for 25 years.

At the launch party for Heritage of Darkness held at Mystery To Me (in Madison, WI) I witnessed lefse’s popularity all over again.  My talented baker friend Alisha brought a gorgeous cake.  She also brought a plate of lefse made by Lutheran church ladies, and rolled up with butter and cinnamon and sugar—the combination she’d learned from her Norwegian grandmother.

People who’d never tried lefse were eager for a sample. People who had their own fond memories of lefse munched happily, reminiscing.

Alisha with lefse

This plate of lefse disappeared fast. Really fast.

I think the generations of long-gone lefse makers would be pleased.

Heritage of Darkness Launch Events!

September 8, 2013

Heritage of Darkness, the 4th Chloe Ellefson Historic Sites Mystery, will soon be published!  And I have some great launch events—including two special Chloe’s World Tours at Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum—planned for my wonderful readers.

For curator Chloe Ellefson, a family bonding trip to Decorah, Iowa for rosemaling classes seems like a great idea—until the drive begins. Chloe’s cop friend Roelke takes her mother’s talk of romantic customs good-naturedly, but it inflates Chloe’s emotional distress higher with each passing mile. After finally reaching Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum, Chloe’s resolve to remain positive is squashed when she and Roelke find Petra Lekstrom’s body in one of the antique immigrant trunks. Everyone is shaken by the instructor’s murder, and when Mom volunteers to take over the beginners’ class, Chloe is put in the hot seat of motherly criticism. As she investigates, Chloe uncovers dark family secrets that could be deadly for Mom . . . and even herself.

Heritage of Darkness 1

Here’s the calendar:

1.  Book Signing, Saturday, October 12, Noon – 5 PM;  Old World Wisconsin,  Eagle, WI.

The award-winning Chloe Ellefson Historic Sites mysteries feature protagonists who work at Old World Wisconsin and in the nearby Village of Eagle. I will be greeting visitors and signing books from Noon to 5 PM in the museum store, which will have copies of my mysteries for sale. Get an autographed copy of Heritage of Darkness, and then explore the locations at Old World where key scenes in the series take place. Free “Locations Guides” can be downloaded from the Old World Murder and The Heirloom Murders pages on my website. Note: while tickets are not needed to visit the store, there is a fee to explore the museum’s extensive grounds and buildings.

Old World Wisconsin – (262) 594-6301 – W372 S9727 Hwy 67, just south of Eagle, WI.

* * *

2.  Book Signing, Sunday, October 13, 10 AM – Noon;  Islandtime Books,  Washington Island, WI; 10 AM. 

I’ll be greeting guests and signing copies of Heritage of Darkness at this wonderful independent bookstore.  You can also get The Light Keeper’s Legacy, which is set on Rock and Washington Islands, and the first two books in the series.

Islandtime Books – (920) 847-2565 – 1885 Detroit Harbor Rd., Washington Island, WI.

* * *

3.  Launch Party, Tuesday, October 22, 6 – 7:30 PM;   Mystery To Me Bookstore,  Madison, WI. 

I’ll be introducing the latest Chloe adventure and signing books from 6 to 7:30 PM in Madison’s newest mystery bookstore, which will have copies of all the Chloe Ellefson Historic Sites mysteries for sale. There will be mementos for all guests, great door prizes, and another fabulous cake by Alisha Rapp.

Mystery To Me Bookstore – (608) 283-9332 – 1863 Monroe Street, Madison, WI.

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4. Book Signing,  Thursday, October 31, 5 – 7 PM; Vesterheim Museum,  Decorah, IA.

Heritage of Darkness is set in Decorah at Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum. I’ll be signing books from 5:00 to 7:00 PM, Thursday (Halloween Night) in the museum’s Bruening Visitor Center at the corner of West Water and Mechanic Streets.

Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum – (563) 382-9681 – 502 West Water St., Decorah, IA.

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5.  Ticketed Chloe’s World Tour, Wednesday, December 4, 5:30 – 8:30 PM; Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum, Decorah, Iowa.

This tour, which is limited to 25 participants, includes:

    • An after-hours Chloe’s World tour.  The tour will take readers through the museum, highlighting the locations featured in Heritage of Darkness.  Stops will include the Norwegian House, the rosemaling and woodworking exhibit galleries, the vault, and the Valdres House in the Open-Air Division.  The tour also includes a stop at one of the museum’s collections storage facilities for a peek at some hidden treasures.
    • A visit to the rosemaling classroom featured in the book, where participants will enjoy dinner with the author.  The meal will include the soup featured in Heritage of Darkness, salad, and drinks.
    • A sampling of Norwegian Christmas cookies and a book discussion in Vesterheim’s new Visitor’s Center.
    • Favors for all participants, plus special door prizes.

Tickets for this event cost $25.  Reservations are required and can be made by calling 563-382-9681 and asking for Jocelyn.

The tour will begin in the lobby of Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum, 502 W. Water Street, Decorah, Iowa. Please gather at 5:20 PM. Since the tour and discussion will include major plot points, guests are encouraged to read Heritage of Darkness in advance. Museum members and those registered for the ticketed tour who order the book through Vesterheim’s Museum Store will receive a 10% discount.

* * *

6. Free Chloe’s World Tour, Thursday, December 5, 10 AM – Noon; Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum.

The tour will take readers through the museum, highlighting the locations featured in Heritage of Darkness.  Stops will include the Norwegian House, the rosemaling and woodworking exhibit galleries, the vault, and the Valdres House in the Open-Air Division.  The tour also includes a stop at one of the museum’s collections storage facilities for a peek at some hidden treasures.

The tour will begin in the lobby of Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum, 502 W. Water Street, Decorah, Iowa.  Please gather at 9:50 AM. Since the tour will include discussion of major plot points, guests are encouraged to read Heritage of Darkness in advance.

Heritage of Darkness teaser 1

7.  Blog Tour
I’ll be visiting several blogs in coming weeks—and doing a Giveaway at each stop! Visit and leave a comment, and you’ll be eligible to win your choice of the Chloe Ellefson Historic Sites Mysteries.
Monday, September 16: http://sheilaboneham.blogspot.com/index.html
Wednesday, October 9:  http://bethgroundwater.blogspot.com/
Wednesday, October 23:  http://www.escapewithdollycas.com/
Saturday, November 23:  http://www.killercharacters.com/
More tour stops will be added, and posted on my Facebook Author Page.

Heritage of Darkness Teaser 2

There is nothing better than connecting with readers! I hope to see you, or hear from you, during one of these events.

Nålbinding, Part 2 – Getting Started

March 9, 2013

As I mentioned in a recent post, when I learned that Kate Martinson taught workshops in nålbinding at Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah, Iowa, I signed right up.

When the class began, I quickly learned that the trickiest part is getting started. Projects begin with a chain of stitches, and creating those first few stitches took some practice. Kate prepared a little started piece for each student so we could learn the basic stitch before having to start from scratch.

Kate demonstrating the basic stitch.

Kate demonstrating the basic stitch.

Here’s my first attempt at a chain. After a couple of mistakes (toward the right) I started getting the hang of it.

Kate brought a variety of nålbinding needles to class so we could experiment. She encouraged us to find just the right one, based on how it felt in our hands.

Examples of Nålbinding needles.  Kate urged us to try different kinds, and choose one that felt good in our hand.

Examples of Nålbinding needles.

Everyone made a small pouch for their first project. These let us try increasing and decreasing, and changing colors.

Nalbinding

Nalbinding

Once a project is completed, the next step is fulling. (Felting refers to manipulating raw fibers; fulling refers to manipulating fibers that have been spun, knit, crocheted, woven, etc.) The creator can decide whether to full their piece, and how much to full it.

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Here Kate is using a fulling board–similar to an old-fashioned scrub board–to help individual wool fibers catch with their neighbors.

Agitating

My pouch is in the bototm of this tub.  A simple potato masher helps with the agitation.

The next three photos show the procession. First, the completed pouch before any fulling.

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The individual stitches and overall stitch pattern are clearly visible.

Next, the piece in the middle of the fulling process.

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The wet fibers are easy to stretch at this point.

The wet piece is blocked and left to dry.

The pouch after it dried, with button ready to be sewn into place. I could have chosen to start the fulling process all over again, but I wanted to leave some of the stitching pattern visible.

After we made our pouches, each student began planning a project of his or her choice. Kate made sure we had a good grounding in all the fundamentals, such as yarn selection. (And we took a field trip to the wonderful yarn store, Blue Heron Knittery, down the street. )

Kate discussing types of fibers that do--and don't--work well for Nålbinding .

Kate discussing types of fibers that do—and don’t—work well for nålbinding .

She also brought lots of her own projects for inspiration.

Scarves, mittens, hats…

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mitts…

and bags.

The class was informative; it was also great fun. Kate reminded anyone who got frustrated about making a mistake (that would be me) that historically, women were working toward practicality and functionality, not perfection. And she would know—she’s studied nålbinding for years, and has even taught classes in Scandinavia.

In addition, it’s special to take a class at a world-class museum where original artifacts also provide inspiration.

Kate is offering her nålbinding workshop again this summer. I highly recommend it! For more information, visit the Vesterheim website.

Leaving Home

February 1, 2012

I’m in Decorah, Iowa this week, doing research at Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum. Vesterheim features a spectacular collection of artifacts. I’ve blogged before about their alebowls, and about my experiences taking rosemaling classes.

With so many tangible objects to grab attention, it would be easy to overlook a black-and-white exhibit panel. Yet this one captures my attention each time I visit.

Poignant words.

I began learning about and thinking about the immigrant experience while working at Old World Wisconsin. Later I considered the topic more broadly while scripting Cultural Horizons for public television. Questions of cultural identity have played a role in many of my books (including Trouble at Fort La Pointe, Betrayal at Cross Creek, The Runaway FriendHighland Fling, and Old World Murder).  The theme obviously resonates with me.

Immigrant letters sent back to loved ones in Europe provide some insight into the experience of 18th- and 19th-century arrivals in their new homes. More rare—at least for me—are written records of how people felt as they prepared to say good-by. Paintings of tearful farewells convey well  just how wrenching those departures from loved ones were.

Halvor Langslet’s farewell, though, was about saying good-bye to a place. He evidently felt a need to actually write something down—and not on paper, but on a building. I imagine that felt a bit more permanent.

I watched some kids experience the museum recently—kids who are well wired, able to Skype with distant cousins and use their phones to do almost anything. And that’s OK…but I’m glad that museums like Vesterheim continue to collect and share such rare reminders of what our ancestors experienced.

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!

Cabin Fever, Part II

February 12, 2011

Here’s another historical example of close quarters.

Mikkel and Hage Sinnes emigrated from Telemark, Norway, in 1849. In 1855, Mikkel constructed this building. It served as his blacksmith shop, but the couple also lived here for a year, until a home could be built. An infant was born during this time, but did not survive.

The building has been restored at Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah, Iowa.

Imagine spending a winter in this small cabin. Or delivering a baby here. Or tending a sick infant here.

The lower level held the shop; there was a small loft above.

If you’ve ever visited a working blacksmith shop, you know how pervasive the soot and smoke can be. Burning coal has a distinctive and lingering odor, too.

Visiting a place like this is humbling. Our ancestors experienced  a lot in their efforts to build a better life.  Remembering reminds me to appreciate my own warm, cozy house.

 

Cabin Fever

January 27, 2011

One of the reasons I love history is that it provides context and perspective for any irritation, frustration, or hardship that pops up in my own life. Case in point:  it’s that time of year when lots of people start feeling antzy. Shut-in. Claustrophobic. Bored.

Understandable, but let’s think back. One of my favorite buildings at Old World Wisconsin (Eagle, WI) is Fossebrekke, a cabin restored to its 1845 appearance.

That's me in warm weather, heading into Fossebrekke, 1983.

It’s so small that visitors sometimes mistake it for an outbuilding. On the occasions when I interpreted that building, I loved helping guests see it from the perspective of Knudt Fossebrekke. In 1839 Knudt had—like so many others—arrived America with almost nothing. He spent his first winter in a shelter of some sort dug from the side of the hill. After that, it must have felt wonderful to complete this sturdy little cabin!

Bea and Sandy in Fossebrekke, probably late 1980s.

Oral tradition also suggests that Knudt and his wife Gertrude opened their cabin to other immigrants who arrived as winter was bearing down. Some say seventeen people wintered in the tiny cabin one year, although it’s impossible to know now if that count includes people coming and going, or people there all at once. In any case, sharing the space—one room and a loft—was both  generous and, I imagine, very challenging.

We get a glimpse of the other side of frontier hospitality from Elizabeth Koren, a Norwegian pastor’s bride who accompanied him to Iowa in 1853. They arrived in winter; no handy parsonage was waiting. Erik and Helen Egge invited the Korens to stay with them, and their two young children, in this 14 x 16′ home.

The Egge-Koren home has been restored at Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah, Iowa.

Elizabeth, who had lived a genteel existence in Norway, found the close quarters noisy, smelly, and often challenging.

Both adult couples slept downstairs, with only a curtain to provide a facade of privacy. The children slept in the loft.

Tight quarters, with no space wasted. Reverend Koren wrote his sermons in this cabin.

Elizabeth dreamed in her diary about having a home of her own:   “That will be glorious!”

I imagine it was.

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.

Ale Bowls: Migration of a Tradition

March 28, 2010

When I was developing the plot for Old World Murder, I needed a Norwegian artifact for a major plot point.  I chose to feature an ale bowl.  These old tankards, which are often beautifully carved and painted, have appealed to me ever since my Old World Wisconsin days.

I knew the bowls were used historically to commemorate special occasions.  I could easily imagine them being passed from hand to hand in some long-ago smoky Norwegian cabin.  And honestly, that was about it.

Carol Hasvold worked from 19th-century accounts to understand drinking customs in Norway.

I recently went to Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum to learn more about ale bowls.  The visit began with a program given by former registrar Carol Hasvold, “Festive Events and Drinking Customs.”  In rural parts of old Norway, she said, ale was brewed to mark two kinds of events:  those tied to the annual cycle, such as harvest-time and Christmas, and those marking special personal events.

For example, ten or twelve barrels of ale might have been brewed for a wedding.  Strong ale implied that a family was prosperous, and their farm well managed.    The bride price was negotiated with ale.  After the ceremony itself, friends and family attended a reception at the newlyweds’ new home.  The bride was expected to throw a small bowl over her house!  If the bowl did not make it over the roof, she could expect bad luck.  As ale bowls were drained during the reception, guests tossed coins into the bowls as thanks for the celebration.

This bowl is tiny--perfect, perhaps, for tossing over a house?

Ale also played a part in funeral rituals.  After a death, neighbors and friends came to the home with gifts of food or ale.  They stood in a ring around the casket and sang three hymns, with ale passed around between each.  Then the mourners carried the casket outside, placed an ale bowl upon it, and drank a final toast to the deceased.

In each event, when the ale was gone, the bowl was put away.  We’re lucky that ale did not have a long shelf life in the 19th century!  Sporadic use meant that many of the bowls survived for generations.  When emigrants decided what to take to America, they sometimes packed ale bowls into their trunks.

After the program, Alison Dwyer (left) and I sampled home-made ale (strictly for research purposes, of course.).

After the program, Vesterheim staff member Alison Dwyer was kind enough to show me some of the bowls in their collection.  You can get a behind-the-scenes look too!  Just check out the video:

The first ale bowl I ever saw was a beautiful artifact on display in the Kvaale House, at Old World Wisconsin.  The Kvaale exhibit portrays a well-settled Norwegian-American family, and the ale bowl is one of a handful of artifacts used to suggest an assimilated family that nonetheless treasures mementos from the homeland.  Now I know an ale bowl likely held specific memories, too.  A man might recall when the bowl was used to toast his own marriage.  A woman might remember how it sat on her mother’s coffin.

We can’t ever know all the human stories represented by any particular ale bowl…but isn’t it intriguing to wonder?

This is one of my favorite bowls in Vesterheim's collection.

(Have a question about Vesterheim’s ale bowls?  You can email Alison at adwyer@vesterheim.org)