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Portrait is a tribute to Rosalie Wahl

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Leslie Bowman, Portrait Artist
Portrait painter Leslie Bowman, with photos of her subject, former Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Rosalie Wahl.
MPR Photo/Elizabeth Stawicki

Catherine Warrick met Rosalie Wahl about 25 years ago, when Warrick headed the Minnesota Women's Political Caucus.  The caucus was active in helping women get appointed to positions in public office, including the courts.  Over the years, Warrick's admiration for Wahl grew until she concluded that Wahl deserved her own portrait.

"I have always thought that portraiture was a way that people were honored, people that deserved to be noted and remembered. It seemed to me that in such a unique role that she had played, that would be a good thing to do," says Warrick.

Justice Rosalie Wahl
Justice Wahl says, "When I went to law school, I'd sit in the library and down at the end, they had a portrait. And the portrait was of John Sanborn who was maybe a graduate way back when. He was a judge of the 8th Circuit, I think. I never saw a woman judge. I never had a chance to practice in front of one."
Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

Warrick talked with Edina portrait artist Leslie Bowman about creating an oil painting of Wahl.  Bowman accepted. Bowman knew Wahl was a pioneer in Minnesota law but she didn't know much about Wahl the person.  That began to change as she and Wahl talked during the sittings.

"Part of me just wanted her to be this imposing woman who had this impressive career, and she wouldn't play that role," Bowman says.

Wahl came from Quaker roots in Kansas; her early life was punctuated by loss. At the age of 3, Wahl's mother died.  She and her younger brother went to live with her grandparents on a 160-acre farm of rolling pasture land. When she was 7, her grandfather and brother were killed by a train.  

To cope, Wahl threw herself into reading books and writing. She also became a staunch advocate for justice.  During the mid-1940s, while attending the University of Kansas, she co-founded an on-campus interracial housing co-op. 

Wahl married and moved to Minnesota, where she had four children.  During her late 30s, she enrolled at William Mitchell Law School.  She had a fifth child.

I have always thought that portraiture was a way that people were honored ... it seemed to me that in such a unique role that she had played that would be a good thing to do.

Wahl never saw a need to be commemorated in an oil painting, but she does not mind being a visible role model.

"When I went to law school, I'd sit in the library and down at the end, they had a portrait," says Wahl.  "And the portrait was of John Sanborn, who was maybe a graduate way back when.  He was a judge of the 8th Circuit, I think.  I never saw a woman judge.  I never had a chance to practice in front of one."

Nevertheless, Wahl graduated and worked in the public defender's office.  In 1977, Gov. Rudy Perpich appointed her to the state Supreme Court, where she served until 1994.  Wahl headed two task forces on gender discrimination and racial discrimination in Minnesota's courts.  

At 81, Wahl lives in Lake Elmo, surrounded by the land where she raised her children.  At one sitting with painter Leslie Bowman, Wahl looked out the window and said she loved trees. So Bowman suggested some outside photos.  Bowman says she was struck at how Wahl looked so comfortable on her land that she seemed to blend into the landscape.

"I could just feel her history, and her love of the land, that she had grown out of it -- and that her values were such a part of the Midwest and the prairie," Bowman says.

In the end, Bowman concluded that Wahl was too complex for one portrait. So she painted a formal one of the former justice wearing a suit. Even that painting is unusual, since Wahl is seated on a comfy green chair from her home.

The other portrait is of Wahl standing among her trees with a tall walking stick. Bowman viewed Wahl as regal, but when a guest looked at the informal painting, another side emerged.

"I've always thought that she has a lot of queen in her. And I said something about that and this person said, 'No, shepherd.' And there it is right there; she's both," says Bowman.

The Minnesota History Center will unveil the formal portrait on Sept. 17.  It will hang permanently at William Mitchell Law School where Wahl graduated, and later taught.