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Folk art painting connects descendants to old Norway

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A colorful array of paints created a graphic backdrop.
Karen Osen, of St. Paul, decorates plates and other art projects with traditional rosemaling.
Jim Gehrz for MPR News

Karen Osen never expected to take up a painting hobby, especially one that dates back to 18th century Norway. Even her direct connections to the country — her father was born there — didn't inspire her eventual interest in rosemaling, a form of decorative folk painting, recognizable for its curlicued flowers and flowing branches, leaves and stems. 

It was her marriage, or more specifically, her mother-in-law, that introduced her to the art form. When Osen first saw her "impressive" rosemaling, "I thought, 'wouldn't it be great to do this?'" she said.

Osen, now 60 and living in St. Paul, is part of small group of mostly women rosemalers who meet each week at Minnehaha Falls in Minneapolis. The natural beauty of their surroundings inspires them as they paint swirling blossoms on wooden plates and decorative boards. It's a pastime their ancestors embraced generations ago, to brighten the long, dark winters of Norway. 

For Osen and her friends, it's a chance to preserve a connection to their heritage.

Shirley Evenstad offers some suggestions to granddaughter, Savannah Silvia
Shirley Evenstad (right), offers some suggestions to granddaughter, Savannah, 13, in the traditional art of rosemaling as the pair painted individual projects.
Jim Gehrz for MPR News

Rosemaling first appeared in Norway in the 1700s. It was used primarily to decorate churches and homes, said folk arts educator Darlene Fossum-Martin. A century later Norwegian immigrants hauled their possessions across the Atlantic Ocean in intricately rosemaled trunks, and they decorated their new American homes with wooden bowls and trinket boxes depicting the highly stylized floral designs. 

The art form faded for a time as settlers adopted the decorating trends of their new country. But rosemaling was never out of fashion for long among Minnesota's Norwegian-American community. 

Fossum-Martin, who works at the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah, Iowa, says that by the early 1900s, a man name Per Lysne had brought the art of rosemaling back. 

"He was a wagon painter and when the Depression hit then he started painting (rosemaling designs on) wagons in Stoughton, Wis.," said Fossum-Martin. "That was the beginning of rosemaling in the U.S." 

The painting style has evolved over the past 100 years in the U.S. Many painters today don't adhere to the traditional muted color schemes and strict rules about shading said Fossum-Martin. Highly personalized painting styles have developed, with some painters even adding in bright pops of pink and purple to their work. 

Kathy Wendland and Karen VanLoan.
Kathy Wendland (foreground, left), of Chanhassen, and Karen VanLoan (foreground, right), of Apple Valley, were among a group of rosemaling artists who recently gathered at the Minnehaha Falls pavilion to work on art projects.
Jim Gehrz for MPR News

Others blend different regional painting styles to create a piece. Rosemaling purists don't necessarily endorse the trend. But many painters still teach the traditional methods and rosemaling classes have never been easier to find. 

Shirley Evenstad of Richfield teaches a rosemaling group through a community education program in her community. Most of her students developed an interest in rosemaling later in life. But she also teaches her 13-year-old granddaughter Savannah.  

"I just gave her something to paint one day and showed her what to do and she did it," said Evenstad. 

Savannah, whose parents asked that her last name not be used, has been rosemaling for several years now. She remembers tagging along to her grandmother's classes and thinking "it was cool and something you don't see every day," she said. 

Evenstad beams with pride as she shows off a small box that Savannah painted.

A Generation of Rosemalers
Shirley Evenstad, of Richfield, (hand, left) and her granddaughter, Savannah, 13, Bloomington, display a round, covered box that Savannah decorated with rosemaling.
Jim Gehrz for MPR News

"I just drew a little picture of the flower, said 'let's put some red on it,' then 'let's put some white around the edge, maybe some white dots around the center,' " said Evenstad. "And look at this beauty."

She doesn't want to put any pressure on her granddaughter, but she has a feeling that Savannah might be the next rosemaling teacher in the family. 

"Maybe she'll keep the next generation going. That would be wonderful," said Evenstad.