A Style of Their Own: Upper Midwestern Rosemalers

Rosemaling is a painting tradition that originated in rural, eastern communities of Norway in the mid-1700s. Characterized by ornate curves, flowing scrollwork and floral designs, traditional styles are regionally distinctive and named for the region in Norway in which they first developed. Today, rosemaling is practiced around the world, with an especially strong presence in the Upper Midwest. This exhibition displays the work of several rosemalers interviewed for the Sustaining Scandinavian Folk Arts in the Upper Midwest project, detailing the characteristics of different styles and the development of a micro-regionalism in the Upper Midwest. For more background on the history of rosemaling’s development and spread to the Upper Midwest, visit our companion exhibition.

Traditional Styles and their Variations

The Telemark, Rogaland, and Hallingdal styles are all especially popular throughout the Upper Midwest. Philip Martin notes that an American style of rosemaling developed over the 1930s–1960s, characterized by floral motifs, bright colors, painting on woodenware pieces, and a preference for adding decorative touches like inventive borders and scrollwork (1989: 55). Martin also notes that a micro-regionalism has developed since the 1980s in the Upper Midwest around particular locations (though with individual variation):

  • Dane County in Wisconsin, and Stoughton in particular, is a center of Rogaland style and its American variations thanks especially to the work of Vi Thode and Gary Albrecht.
  • Milan, Minnesota, is known for American Telemark painting and its variants by Karen Jenson and Nancy Schneck.
  • The Twin Cities are known for the Hallingdal style and its variations, especially the work by John Gunderson, Shirley Evenstad, and Judith Nelson.

Many rosemalers consider painting from a pattern a necessity while others prefer to draw inspiration from traditional patterns before painting a piece freehand. Some artists choose to work in one style, developing enough skill to design their own patterns. Others work in one style for decades before deciding to branch out. Over time, many rosemalers develop a style that is all their own: whether an Americanized version of a traditional style or some other blending of traditional styles and preferred techniques. For some, rosemaling is their livelihood and for others it is a hobby they picked up later in life.

Upper Midwestern rosemalers have classically been categorized as “virtuosos” (often competing and working towards earning Vesterheim’s Gold Medal), or as “local” rosemalers (Nelson 1980; Martin 1989). Janet Gilmore shows that these categories do not fully capture the work and impact of many talented artists, such as Oljanna Venden Cunneen, whose work falls in between, or “on the edge,” of these categories (2008:27). Regardless of the categorization, the styles and techniques these rosemalers develop are the result of years of dedicated practice. The work of these artists sampled below showcases the range of styles being practiced and taught by dedicated practitioners in the Upper Midwest.

Karen Jenson

Karen Jenson is an acclaimed, Gold-Medalist rosemaler from Milan, Minnesota, known for her work in the transparent Telemark style. She recalls asking Sigmund Aarseth (a Norwegian rosemaler and teacher renowned for his fluid style), “How will I know when I’ve developed my own style?” He said “oh, you’ll know.” When asked, Jenson characterizes her style as very free. “Not brushed and worked a great deal. Spontaneous. And that’s what I like about transparent [Telemark] is that it’s spontaneous looking.” Jenson further discusses her career in this interview.

The Telemark is one of few asymmetrical rosemaling styles, characterized by scrolls and branches spanning out from a root center. In addition to this spontaneity, the transparent Telemark style is characterized by the thinness of the paint layers–thin enough to see through in some places. The American Telemark can be considered a combination, “characterized by wet-on-wet application of paint and whiplash movements of the brush” (Martin 1989:55).

A green and orange design with light brushstrokes showing the transparent Telemark style.
Karen Jenson painted this in the transparent Telemark style, named so because the paint is thin enough to see through. Photo by Johanna Weissing (2018).

Jenson’s home is filled with rosemaling on the furniture, doors, and walls and she often rented the bedrooms out to students taking classes at the Milan Village Arts School. Jenson often incorporates scenes of people and even self-portraits with her two dogs into her work–another element of her own style.

One of Jenson’s former students, Dean Vigeland, comments on how she painted free-hand, without a pattern, and “was something else to watch,” creating beautiful pieces that inspired him to learn to rosemal. Visit our companion exhibit for more on Vigeland’s rosemaling,

Karen Jenson, an older woman wearing an orange shirt and blue vest stands next to a grandfather clock that she rosemaled.
Karen Jenson has been rosemaling for over 50 years. She painted this clock in 2016 in her classic variation of the transparent Telemark style. Photo by Johanna Weissing (2018).
A door Jenson painted with a rosemaled design on the lower half and a winter scene including a snowman, child, and dog on the top half.
Jenson’s home in Milan, Minnesota, is covered in rosemaling and other artwork, including this bedroom door. Photo by Johanna Weissing (2018).
A painted image with rosemaling on the top, an older woman sitting on the ground on the right, and a small dog on the left.
Jenson’s self-portrait with two of her dogs can be found on one of the doors in her home. Photo by Johanna Weissing (2018).

Ken Magnusson

Ken Magnusson began rosemaling in 1975, but it wasn’t until retiring that he began investing a lot of time into painting and teaching. He has taught across the country and painted pieces in a number of styles, especially in Hallingdal and Rogaland, earning his Gold Medal from Vesterheim in 2003. He says that Hallingdal is distinctive for its bolder colors and the opaqueness of the paint. Typically a symmetrical design of baroque scrolls and acanthus leaves are arranged around a central flower.

Ken Magnusson, an older man wearing a light blue collared shirt, kneels in front of a blue table he rosemaled in the Hallingdal style.
Ken Magnusson earned his Gold Medal from Vesterheim for his work in the Hallingdal style and has rosemaled many pieces in the style, including this table. Photo by Jared Schmidt (2019).
A blue table Magnusson painted in blue with a Hallingdal design in yellow and red. A small figurine of an elephant, giraffe, and a third sit on top of the table.
Magnusson painted this table in the Hallingdal using traditional colors of blue, yellow, and red. Photo by Jared Schmidt (2019).
A large wooden plate with a Hallingdal design painted on top in red, yellow, and blue, rests on a white wall.
Magnusson received this round board from a friend that “needed some rosemaling.” He then painted this piece in the Hallingdal style. It was originally a clock, until the hands became tangled, so he opted to keep it as a wall hanging. Photo by Jared Schmidt (2019).
A chest painted in a Vest Agder design in blue, red, yellow, and green.
Magnusson painted this chest in the Vest Agder style, typically symmetrical and known for its robust usage of teardrops. Photo by Jared Schmidt (2019).

Ed Rosencrantz

Ed Rosencrantz of Rochester, Minnesota, liked carving as a kid and kept it up throughout his adulthood. He especially liked carving ducks and wanted to learn how to paint them. The only painting class he could find was a rosemaling class through community ed and he figured, “At least I’ll learn how to mix paints and learn what a medium is.” He realized that he really enjoyed rosemaling and has since taken several classes at Vesterheim and purchased four different rosemaling books with patterns. Rosencrantz paints in a few styles, especially Rogaland. He likes the sense of accomplishment and satisfaction he gets from finishing a piece. “And while I’m doing it, I really enjoy seeing the picture take shape, you know, put all of the curly-q’s on it, and it relaxes me.”

Ed Rosencrantz, an older man wearing a grey t-shirt, holds up a flat piece of wood that he rosemaled, painted in black, red, white, and blue.
Ed Rosencrantz has taken several classes at Vesterheim since he started painting in 1980. This is one of several pieces he has completed. Photo by Jared Schmidt (2019).

For the Rogaland style, flowers are more prominent than scrolls; leaves with stylized roses, tulips, and daisies accompanied by dots and teardrop-shaped decoration on dark backgrounds commonly characterize the style.

A black plate with decorative edging and a Rogaland design painted in red, blue, and white.
Ed Rosencrantz has painted four of these Rogaland plates which hang on his living room wall with slight variations in color and pattern. Photo by Jared Schmidt (2019).
A "Nordic Tree" sits on the edge of a table. The tree is made of wooden dowels and four layers of branches over a base painted in a Rogaland design.
Rosencrantz makes “Nordic Trees” for ornaments like the one pictured here. To make them he buys a base, paints it, drills a hole, and then puts dowel rods together to create the tree. Photo by Jared Schmidt (2019).

Clarice Dieter

When asked about her rosemaling, Clarice Dieter says, “I guess I’m a professional, but it’s a wonderful hobby.” She has been rosemaling since her first class in 1977, teaching classes and doing commissioned work for the last 30 years. She often offers classes in Milan, Minnesota, and the surrounding area. When teaching beginners, she always starts with Telemark, so that they can get used to the scrollwork, as she says. She painted in the Telemark style for the first 20 years and then “decided that [she] needed to branch out and paint some of the other styles.” These jewelry boxes are painted in the Valdres style, but combined with a chinoiserie scene and scrollwork. The Valdres style is distinctive for its bouquet or garland of realistic looking flowers, usually on a blue landscape.

A blue jewelry box painted with flowers in the Valdres style in white, red, yellow, and green.
Clarice Dieter painted this jewelry box in the Valdres style. The style is distinctive for its bouquet or garland of realistic looking flowers. Photo by Johanna Weissing (2018).
The inside of a jewelry box shows jewelry in a tray and the inside lid has a chinoiserie mountain and tree scene and scrollwork.
The inside of the same jewelry box features a chinoiserie scene and scrollwork on the inside of the lid. Photo by Johanna Weissing (2018).
Clarice Dieter, an older woman wearing a pink shirt, stands in a studio surrounded by lamps, paints, and wooden blanks.
Clarice Dieter of Morris, Minnesota, regularly offers classes in rosemaling out of her home studio. Photo by Johanna Weissing (2018).
A blue, upright jewelry box with a floral Valdres design on the lid painted in red, green, and blue.
An upright jewelry box also painted by Clarice Dieter in the Valdres style. Photo by Johanna Weissing (2018).
A light blue wall clock with a wooden base painted in the Telemark style in red, blue, and yellow. Below the Telemark design is a small mountain scene with log cabins at the bottom.
Dieter painted this wall clock in the Telemark style, adding a small mountain scene with log cabins at the bottom. Incorporating small scenes into the pieces she rosemals is one of the many elements of Dieter’s own style. Photo by Johanna Weissing (2018).

Jane Haukoos

Jane Haukoos of Alden, Minnesota, learned rosemaling through community ed classes and she now teaches classes herself. She has been rosemaling for about 40 years and has taught hundreds of students. When painting, she prefers to work from a pattern rather than trying anything freehand and most often paints in the American Rogaland style. The closest she has come to trying Telemark style is on a plate she painted using a Telerogaland pattern–a combination of Telemark and Rogaland styles. She likes how it isn’t as symmetrical, giving it a more free-style look despite being made with a flowered-pattern.

Haukoos, a woman with brown hair and a red and orange patterned shirt, holds a wall clock she painted with a rosemaled design around the edge.
Haukoos shows a wall clock that she rosemaled. Photo by Jared Schmidt (2019).
A wooden plate rosemaled in a Telerogaland pattern in black, tan, red, and white.
This plate painted by Jane Haukoos with a Telerogaland pattern is one of her favorite pieces. Photo by Jared Schmidt (2019).
A rosemaled plate laying on top of a sequined background. The plate is painted in blues, reds, and yellows.
Haukoos painted this plate more in more traditional colors: blues, reds, and yellows. However she sometimes creates non-traditional pieces that might have pink or purple hues. Photo by Jared Schmidt (2019).

Lisa Severance

Lisa Severance of Utica, Minnesota, has been rosemaling for about 30 years. She never took a class, rather learned some of the basics from a book and looks up styles and ideas on Pinterest. She says, “I’ve never quite tried to figure out what type of style mine is exactly. I think its closer to the Rogaland style which is very symmetrical. I guess it’s more Americanized.” Severance prefers to do a freehand design and usually starts by painting a basecoat of the background color before using a chalk pencil to outline her design. She paints with acrylic paints because of an allergy to the oil paints and has done several locally commissioned pieces. She prefers to paint on wooden plates but has also painted clay flower pots, wooden chairs, and other objects. As she says, “Basically if I can paint on it, I’ll try it.”

A rosemaled plate lies on top of a checkered tablecloth. The plate is painted in back, blue, red, white, and green.
Severance often uses bright colors in her pieces and creates freehand designs. Photo by Johanna Weissing (2018).
A wooden plate rosemaled in purple, black, green, and white. The plate is laying on a table on top of a blue and white checkered tablecloth.
On this plate, Severance painted two different styles of flower. Photo by Johanna Weissing (2018).
Three miniature flowerpots sit on top of a checkered table cloth. The flowerpots have rosemaled flowers in white, red, and blue.
Severance prefers to paint on wooden plates but has also painted clay flower pots like those pictured here. Photo by Johanna Weissing (2018).

One of the more unique items she has painted are Adirondack chairs. She has rosemaled a chair for each of the last few years for a local windsurfing regatta fundraising auction. A couple of the chairs are now as far away as Florida and North Carolina. Lisa explains that “each one of those chairs is a little piece of me” because she created the designs herself.

An adirondack chair with the back rosemaled in black, red, blue, and yellow.
Lisa Severance has rosemaled Adirondack chairs like this one for a local windsurfing regatta fundraising auction for each of the last few years. Photo by Johanna Weissing (2018).

Mary Koehler

Mary Koehler first learned to paint in the Rogaland style by reading and re-reading Vi Thode’s Rosemaling–and lots of practice. She has since expanded her repertoire to include Telemark, Gubrandsdal, Valdres, Romsdahl, Oos, and Vest Agder styles. She prefers to stick to traditional colors and paints, usually following a pattern, but occasionally adding her own changes and touches. She started showing pieces and vendoring in 2005 and now rosemals (competing, selling, and teaching) for a living. She established her own business, Norwegian Brush, in 2007 and continues traveling to shows and selling her pieces to Scandinavian gift shops.

A blue mangle board with four rosemaled flowers in red, blue, yellow, and green.
Mary Koehler finds painting mangle boards like the one pictured here to be very fun and different from other kinds of pieces. Photo by Jared Schmidt (2019).
Mary Koehler, a woman with brown hair and wearing a bunad, holds a plate she rosemaled in red, tan, and green with a small elf painted at the center.
Taken at Nordic Fest in Decorah, Iowa, here Koehler holds a plate featuring a Nisse at the center. Photo courtesy of Mary Koehler.
A black trunk with rosemaling design in blue, red, and yellow sits on top of a wooden bench.
Koehler painted this larger chest for a friend. Photo courtesy of Mary Koehler.
A miniature rolling pin in blue with blue and white rosemaled flowers rests on top of a white crocheted doily. A green rosemaled candleholder stands behind it.
Koehler notes that a lot of Scandinavian shops prefer pieces with blue backgrounds, so many of her pieces have a blue basecoat. Photo by Jared Schmidt (2019).
Koehler, wearing a bunad, holds a wooden dove ornament painted with a rosemaled decoration and the word peace.
Koehler often adds touches of rosemaling to ornaments and other smaller pieces, like the bird pictured here. Photo by Jared Schmidt (2019).

Learn More

To learn more about rosemaling and its practitioners in the Upper Midwest, visit our companion exhibition or one of several other online exhibitions through Recollection Wisconsin, the Stoughton Historical Society, and Wisconsin Folks.

Interested in learning to rosemal? A number of folk schools offer rosemaling classes such as the Milan Village Arts School in Milan, Minnesota; the Vesterheim Folk Art School in Decorah, Iowa; North House Folk School in Grand Marais, Minnesota; and the Duluth Folk School in Duluth, Minnesota. The Wisconsin State Rosemaling Association was founded in Stoughton, Wisconsin, in 1967 and also offers classes and resources, as does the Illinois Norsk Rosemalers’ Association.

Gilmore, Janet. “Mount Horeb’s Oljanna Venden Cunneen. A Norwegian-American Rosemaler ‘on the Edge.’ ARV Nordic Year of Folklore,  2009(65): 25-48.
Martin, Philip N. (1989). Rosemaling in the Upper Midwest: A Story of Region & Revival. Mt. Horeb: Wisconsin Folk Museum.
Nelson, Marion John. (1980). “The Material Culture and Folk Arts of the Norwegians in America.” Perspectives on American Folk Art. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

Curated by Mirva Johnson