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Rejoicing in rosemaling: Traditional painting method makes colorful splash at fair

A traditional painting method with many variations based on the different regions in Norway is alive and well at the Crow Wing County Fair.

Woman hand painting a t-shirt
Painting with the Sons of Norway at the Crow Wing County Fair on Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2022, Barb Morgan is using a Valdres-style rosemaling technique on a t-shirt.
Tim Speier / Brainerd Dispatch
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BRAINERD — Tucked away in a building at the fair, a woman meticulously planned each of her brush strokes as she explained each of the different styles of her craft.

The decorative work was rosemaling, and it represented a region of Norway where the style originated hundreds of years ago.

Losing herself while painting at the Crow Wing County Fair on Wednesday, Aug. 3, in the back of Industrial Building 5 with the Sons of Norway, Barb Morgan was more than happy to talk to anyone who wandered by with a question.

Woman hand painting a t-shirt
Painting with the Sons of Norway at the Crow Wing County Fair on Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2022, Barb Morgan is using a Valdres-style rosemaling technique on a t-shirt.
Tim Speier / Brainerd Dispatch

“I lose track of time when I paint,” Morgan said as she explained how she was using both “C” and “S” strokes while painting a Valdres style rosemaling on a T-shirt to a curious passerby.

Painting and drawing ever since she could hold a pencil and crayon, Morgan said she always wanted to be an artist. She then smiled — she had done just that. With her first love being painting horses and deer out in the woods, Morgan kept learning and doing more.

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“I was hired to paint nightstands at the state hospital in 1970,” Morgan said. “Nothing like what I’m painting now, but I was able to learn and practice different techniques while working there.”

Always wanting to learn more about her heritage, Morgan said she found a few books on rosemaling at her local craft store, fell in love with the beauty of it and began teaching herself how to paint in that style.

Morgan said men used to be the painters in Norwegian households as they had more time and often would paint rosemaling in the gathering place at a house or for a celebration, to brighten the room up.

After developing her technique, she started selling her artwork in 1976 and still remembers her favorite piece, a picture of her best friend in high school, Mery Mott.

“She enjoyed it so much and she appreciated that I would do that for her,” Morgan said. “She also had a great deal of patience to be my model.”

In 1995, back when the senior center was “kitty-corner from the post office,” Morgan said she started teaching people how to paint with a group of friends who called themselves GREAT, or Getting Real Enthusiastic Artists Together.

Bringing up the fact that Anna Mary Robertson Moses — better known as Grandma Moses, an American folk artist who didn't start painting until the age of 77 — Morgan said it's never too late to learn. She talked about teaching a rosemaling beginners class at The Center this September.

The Smithsonian American Art Museum said Moses started painting as a way “to keep busy and out of mischief” after her husband died and would often sell her paintings at county fairs, alongside her prize-winning pickles.

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Always willing to highlight those around her, Morgan pointed out Shari Nelson, who was sitting next to her spinning wool into yarn, had won a number of blue and purple ribbons at the fair this year for her rosemaling.

“Ah, well, I have a weird story,” Nelson said. “I started 40 years ago when my kids were babies. Painted for a couple of months (and then) put it away because I paint with oils. And little kids and oil paints don't go very well together.”

A painted square tray
A square tray Shari Nelson painted in the Viksdal style of rosemaling, a traditional Norwegen style of Painting, Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2022, at the Crow Wing County Fair.
Tim Speier / Brainerd Dispatch

Painting with oils, Nelson explained, is far different than painting with acrylics as they need to be left for days or weeks to dry. This also makes oil painting far more tedious as one needs to wait for a layer to dry before continuing to paint. Also not easy to do when little hands are grabbing everything, she said.

Nelson said she would take classes every few years but after retiring almost two years ago, she jumped back into the swing of things and has been working on her technique and style since.

“I think everyone should try painting but I would tell people to keep an open mind because they often feel defeated if they try it once and they can't do it perfectly,” Nelson said. “It's a skill that can be taught and can be learned, some quicker than others. It all depends on if you've held a brush before, if you're using acrylic as Barb uses, or I use oil. They're the same strokes but a little bit different in technique because they feel different.”

Using oil to paint because that is what she learned on, Nelson said the medium is up to the artist. She, however, likes the finish achieved when using oils and the colors are easier to blend together. Nelson paints at least once a week now and her prize-winning technique has come through in her art. When painting with oils, she prefers to mix them in traditional Norwegian colors that often vary based on the technique.

One of the most recognizable styles is Telemark rosemaling, known for a classic asymmetrical look with its varied placement of leaves and flowers.

A painted round plate
A round plate Shari Nelson painted in the Os style of rosemaling, a traditional Norwegen style of Painting, Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2022, at the Crow Wing County Fair.
Tim Speier / Brainerd Dispatch

“Os (style) tend to be brighter in color,” Nelson said. “And if you go in the Fine Arts Building, there’s a round plate that I painted. That's Os and you'll be able to tell the difference in style and in colors between that one and then there's a door crown that's Hallingdal style. And you'll see the difference in my colors.”

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One of the other projects Nelson entered into the fair was a try at painting in the Viksdal rosemaling technique. Viksdal has only recently come back into style, she said, though one of her favorite styles is Vest Agder with its simple yet vibrant floral designs.

Both Nelson and Morgan recommend anyone thinking of learning to paint to go in with an open mind and to remember everyone's style and abilities are different. They said it’s never too late to learn something new; take what you can and enjoy it.

“If I am upset about things, I can totally lose myself in what I'm painting,” Morgan said.

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Upon arrival, fire crews found flames and smoke coming out the windows.

TIM SPEIER, staff writer, can be reached on Twitter @timmy2thyme , call 218-855-5859 or email tim.speier@brainerddispatch.com .

Related Topics: CROW WING COUNTY FAIRBRAINERD
Tim Speier joined the Brainerd Dispatch in October 2021, covering Public Safety.
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