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Rosemaling inspires local women

Jill Willems, of Iola, shown working on a rosemaling project. Emily Conroy Photo

Group celebrates Norwegian art form

By Emily Conroy

Their friendship was forged in a mutual love for a Norwegian art form.

Members of a local rosemaling group celebrate their passion for painting and grow as artists together.

The group consists of local art teacher Jill Willems, along with Chris Aasen, Peg Beilfuss, Susan Zielke, Tracy Johnson, Lisa Anderson and Juel Krueger.

Rosemaling started in churches as far back as the mid-1700s, when only guilds were allowed to paint in churches. Eventually, the restrictions lifted and the art form continued to blossom as new styles were created in different regions, Willems said.

Rosemaling refers to decorative painting.

Styles can range from Hallingdal which is known for its symetrical designs 0f, flowers, leaves and scrolls, to Valdres, which consists of more realistic flowers and landscapes. The most well known and traditional region is the Telemark style.

“If there was a national style that encompassed all of Norway, [Telemark] is the one that when most people think of rosemaling … would be the most well known,” Willems said.

Anderson said, the Telemark region was a poor area of Norway and and that the people in the region had a difficult life.

“The Norwegians had very long winters, of course, and in the regions like Telemark where it was mountainous you didn’t leave, so they painted their walls … because it was so dark and they livened up their homes,” Aasen said.

Rosemaling techniques emphasize brush strokes and paint colors.

“Because people were poor when it first started a lot of it had to do with what colors were readily available and inexpensive,” Willems said.

The art form made its way to the United States from immigrants who had to limit what they brought over, most notably were their chests and ale bowls, which was a bowl that sat in the middle of the table that everyone drank from. Willems said it was a status symbol to have these things painted beautifully.

It was also these rosemaled items that introduced the art form to the United States.

Women began rosemaling for a variety of reasons, most notably being introduced to the art form by parents and grandparents.

“I just so love and want to know about my Norwegian heritage for one thing, and also I knew my grandpa did and my mother-in-law did … it was always something I wanted to do then finally I talked some friends into doing it and here we are,” Aasen said.

Willems has loved art since she was a child, so when Aasen wanted to attend a rosemaling class taught by Krueger, Willems saw it as an excellent way to have a ladies night out.

“We were totally virgins in the rosemaling world,” Aasen said. “It was a whole community … that we didn’t know existed and these people were just amazing.”

Beilfuss, who had no previous art experience and had never taken an art class before was excited to learn the art form.

“This was on my bucket list,” Beilfuss said. “It was something I wanted to learn how to do.”

Outside of Willems and Johnson, the rest of the women did not have an art background. They learned their rosemaling skills in classes throughout the Midwest, most notably in Stoughton with teacher, Andrea Herkert.

Beilfuss emphasized the emergence of Zoom classes as she is unable to leave her house often due to her husband’s disability.

“During the pandemic that was my lifeline, it was such a down time that I didn’t even pick up a paint brush for months,” she said.

Aasen also highlighted the therapeutic effect rosemaling has in her life.

“When you are having a tough time … once you get in the groove of things it really does calm you,” she said.

Anderson has pieces featured at the Vesterheim museum in Decorah, Iowa, a museum that features Norwegian-American history and art. She has also won multiple awards for her work.

Willems said in finding rosemaling, she found her passion. She talks of having her own classes one day as she continues to cultivate her friendships in the rosemaling community.

The women agreed that finding this art form has changed their lives and they look forward to growing in the art form.

The LittleWolf Gallery, 180 North Main St., Iola, will feature a rosemaling demonstration Saturday, Feb. 3, during the Iola Winter Carnival. They will also host music by Vintage Jazz starting at 4 p.m.

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