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 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).
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,
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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