A Norwegian nisse may be living in the rosemaling classroom at the Lakes Area Senior Activity Center in Brainerd. The impish folklore character, more commonly described as a cross between a gnome and Santa Claus, has started to play tricks on the rosemalers in the class, probably because no rolls or cookies are left for the nisse when the class leaves after a three-hour painting session held every Wednesday morning. Barb Morgan, an accomplished rosemaler who has also taught classes, claims that it was the nisse who spilled her blue paint in the plastic caddy in which she stores her various colors. Pointing to the spillage in the caddy, she said with an impish smile, “I don’t know who would do this, so it must be the nisse that lives here.” Rosemaling (floral painting) is a Norwegian folk art that originated in Norway during the 18th century. The painting class is just one of many classes and activities offered at the Lakes Area Senior Center where senior citizens gather to learn, socialize, volunteer and continue to remain active in the life stream of today’s society. Jan Almquist, who has been rosemaling for 15 years, is the teacher for the current class with up to 12 seniors attending every week at a nominal fee of $6. “I don’t stand in front of everyone and show them how to paint a swirl” said Jan. “Everyone has their own style and pace at which they paint. The class is more one-on-one. If they need help, they ask me and I give pointers or ideas to help them.” There are many different styles of rosemaling that include scrolls, flowers, leaf designs and intricate borders. The most popular styles are Telemark and Rogaland. Each style represents a particular region in southern Norway. Other styles include Hallingdal, Numedal, Trondelag, Valdres, Osterdalen, Gudbrandsdalen, and more. The “dal” is valley in Norwegian of which there are many in the mountainous regions of the country. Jan noted that some rosemalers combine styles, but if they plan to enter their painting into a show, the rosemaled item must be only one style in order to be judged. Rosemalers may use a pattern or create the design free-hand. Some people believe they have to be artistic in order to learn the folk art, but Jan emphasized, “I truly believe that rosemaling is 10 percent talent and 90 percent practice.” Jan became interested by going to work at the Heritage Fest in Crosby. There were a lot of boxes under a table so she decided to use a plain table cloth to tack around the table to cover what was stored underneath. She painted some flowers and flourishes on the cloth and received many comments on her artistry that resembled rosemaling. “So I decided to take classes at the Concordia Language Village in Bemidji, and it started from there,” she said. Some of the class participants already know how to do rosemaling, but they attend the class to get new ideas and to make new friends who are interested in the same art. Bob Cooper, the only male in the group, has been painting for 10 years, but added that he’s still learning. He prefers the Telemark style that is asymmetrical and is based on C-scrolls, S-scrolls, floral designs and graceful line work. He became interested in rosemaling as a member of a wood carving club, another class that is offered at the senior center. “Wood carvers had to bring a wood cut-out so members could see it and also carve a similar one,” Bob explained. “One man brought a fjord horse carving (a smaller work horse bred in Norway) that was rosemaled, so I wanted to learn how to rosemal so that my horse would look the same.” Rosemalers use either acrylic or oil paints but Bob prefers oil as the colors are easier to blend. Rather than buying ready-made wood pieces to paint, Bob makes his own in his workshop. “Rosemaling is very relaxing, and there is a great group of people here,” he added. He has entered several shows, and recently sold over $1,000 of rosemaling at a show in North Dakota. Egil Dahle, an internationally known rosemaler from Bo, Norway, visits the class in Brainerd twice a year to share his creativity with the class in addition to visiting with other rosemalers throughout the United States. Jan recalls one of the first times she met Dahle in Brainerd. “I was painting a mantle clock but when Egil saw it, he took his hands and smeared the paint on it and told me start over,” she laughed, “so I did and it looked better!” The class agreed that everyone has started a project over either by sanding all the paint off and starting over or to just throwing the item away. Judy Anderson, the newest member of the class, has been rosemaling for one year. Jan’s husband, Jim, who is a retired minister, encouraged Judy to join the class. “I really enjoy this time,” she said. “It’s not only how to paint a flower, but how to handle the wood as well.” Judy, a pharmacist at the hospital in Brainerd, has given many of her pieces as gifts including wedding plates. Basswood is the typical wood used. Barb Morgan has been rosemaling for 40 years and has enjoyed drawing since she was in elementary school. She taught herself how to rosemal by reading books and taking lessons. She has taught rosemaling classes and does many programs on the folk art for organizations in the area. She’s also won many awards. Since Jan started teaching the class, she always reads a short story of Norwegian folklore midway through the session. The rosemalers enjoy a cup of coffee and pastries and chuckles are heard as she reads. During the 18th century, Norwegian farmers were inspired by painted church interiors and influenced by the Baroque and Rococo styles. The self-taught farmers decorated the interiors of farm houses and items such as trunks, bowls, tables and cabinets. Local raw materials were used to make the color; for example, rust red was made from red iron oxide in the ground. The farmers made their own brushes with hairs from a cow’s ear or a squirrel’s tail. During the winter, the farmers subsidized their income by rosemaling rooms or furniture for more successful farmers or other citizens. Many Norwegians immigrated to the states and packed their belongings in trunks that were rosemaled. Today, those same trunks can be found in antique stores and many of the trunks are identified with the family name and the year they immigrated. Per Lysne, a Norwegian farmer, immigrated to Stoughton, Wisconsin, and began rosemaling his new home and the homes of others. He created the smorgasbord plates that were sold in Marshall Field’s department stores in Chicago during the 1930s. The popularity of rosemaling increased throughout the U.S. as it was featured in many home decorating magazines. According to Jan, Decorah, Iowa is the hub of rosemaling in the U.S. The Vesterheim, the largest ethnic museum in the U.S., sponsored the first national competition in 1967. The popularity of the folk art has even spread to Japan and Korea. The first weekend in October, the rosemalers in the Brainerd area visit the Scandinavian Festival in Superior, WI. Egil Dahle also attends and instructs a class. The area rosemalers will also be showing off their talents at the Artist’s Show in the Westgate Mall in Brainerd on July 21, 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. This show is also open to folk painters, wood carvers, water color artists and the Model Railroad Club will also have a display. During the month of August, the rosemalers will be displaying their art at the Northland Arboretum in Brainerd. Jan plans to continue teaching rosemaling. “Actually, I think I make a better teacher than a rosemaler,” she admitted. “But if someone becomes a better rosemaler than me, that will make me happy!” Rosemaled furniture and décor can be found in every home of the class members and the canvas could be wood, textiles, glass, plastic, metal or whatever may have a good surface to paint on. Barb Morgan added, “I’ve even see rosemaling on a cell phone!” And perhaps when the class members arrive for their next Wednesday morning session, the mischievous nisse may greet the artists with more rosemaling of his own.
top of page
bottom of page