Folk objects brought to the United States by immigrants from Norway have cultural significance, but so too do the works of folk art created by the first and later generations of Norwegians in American. The McFarland Historical Society museum collection contains examples of these objects, evincing the cultural regeneration of Norwegian American heritage and illustrating the link between folk arts created in Norway during the 19th century and the uniquely Norwegian American folk arts created in Wisconsin during the 20th and 21st centuries. Earlier in the summer I spent two full days photographing and writing notes about some of these objects, which I've selected to add to the digital collection started by last year's Summer Service Learner, Katie Dreps.
One aspect of folk art from the McFarland collection in which we see a clear progression and transformation in style across generations of Norwegian Americans is rosemaling, a traditional form of painting with variations in style throughout the regions of Norway. Many examples of rosemaling, mostly functional objects like boxes, drinking bowls or trunks for the passage across the Atlantic, were brought to south central Wisconsin when Norwegian immigrants settled here in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Per Lysne, an artist from Sogn, Norway who immigrated to Stoughton, Wisconsin in 1907, helped popularize rosemaling in the United States. He gained special recognition when some of his pieces were featured in a 1933 issue of Vogue magazine. Lysne’s smorgasbord plate, which he produced and sold many copies of and which was intended to be hung on a wall, became his trademark piece. Lysne’s style closely mirrors the regional style from the Sogn area, but his pieces were meant to decorate the modern American home.
Per Lysne, Smorgasbord plate, 1944. 15 ¾” diameter. Stoughton, Wisconsin. McFarland Historical Society.
Thanks to artists like Per Lysne, rosemaling saw a renaissance in the mid late 1960s and 70s as a way for later generations of Norwegian-Americans to discover their identity and celebrate their ethnic pride. Successors of Lysne, like Ethel Kvalheim of Stoughton, Clarice Christensen of Oregon, and many others throughout the upper Midwest represent the revival of Norwegian folk arts in the United States. Much like the development of regional variations in style that occurred in 19th century folk art in Norway, Norwegian American rosemaling developed a distinct flavor independent of the Norwegian style.
Clarice Christensen, Rosemaled wooden spoon. ½” high, 10” long, 2 ¾” wide (bowl). Oregon, Wisconsin. McFarland Historical Society.
Smorgasbord (after Per Lysne) from Dave Beck on Vimeo. Used with permission of the artist.
I’m currently at the research stage for these objects, gathering information and details into short descriptions that will accompany the photos in the digital collection. Looking back on my research, I realize that rosemaling is just one example of the Norwegian heritage kept alive by the generations of Norwegian-Americans. We see this revival in other areas of artistic expression and elsewhere such as in the reinterpretation of traditions such as Syttende Mai festivals, lutefisk dinners and Norwegian heritage organizations throughout United States. Working closely with the objects in the collection at the McFarland Historical Society–both those created in Norway and those created by Norwegian Americans–and researching both the Norwegian immigrant experience in the United States and the experience of their descendants has allowed me to see the progression of culture, identity and ethnic pride in the Norwegian American heritage that is so prevalent throughout southern Wisconsin.
Lovoll, Odd S. The Promise of America: A History of the Norwegian-American People. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999.
Martin, Philip. Rosemaling in the Upper Midwest. Mount Horeb: Wisconsin Folk Museum, 1989.
Nelson, Marion, ed. Norwegian Folk Art: The Migration of a Tradition. New York: Abbeville Press, 1995.