Strokes Of Home

Keeping Norsk traditions alive: Participants embracing Norwegian heritage through Rosemaling workshop at Bosque Arts Center

CLIFTON – After adding her Bunad and the apron her mother had embroidered, Marte laid her hand on the travel trunk that held her dearest belongings. The ceremonial dress and its jewelry, her bible, her daughter’s doll, some linens, a notebook with family recipes and some Rosemaling supplies were all in there. Her father, a Rosemaling guild member, had painted it specifically for her in the traditional ox-blood red and seaweed blues from their valley, teaching Marte the strokes and designs as he worked on it.

Marte and her Quaker family were among the first of over 800,000 Norwegians that immigrated to America between 1825 and 1925 in a migration fueled by the desire to escape poverty, as well as religious persecution. The ornamental trunk and its contents were the only thing she could take on this new adventure her husband wanted for their family in a new land. She realized it would also serve as a comfort for when she would become homesick.

With these first immigrants to the United States,  the decorative folk art painting known as Norwegian Rosemaling made its was way westward over the Atlantic.

In the days leading up the Bosque County Norwegian Christmas tour on the first week of December, Rosemaling artist Peg Piltingsrud offered a two-day Rosemaling workshop at the Bosque Arts Center in Clifton to a group of 10 enthusiastic novices in the Norwegian folk art painting. The most important thing Piltingsrud hoped for the participants of the workshop is that they had fun with learning the new techniques, get a bit of history and culture, do a bit of painting and go home with a finished piece.

Piltingsrud has been painting Norwegian Rosemaling for over 42 years, with a bit of practice in the Swedish, Danish, and German folk arts.

“The essence of appeal lies in its [folk art] inevitable imperfection and character,” Piltingsrud said.

During her workshop she informed the participants on the history of the distinct Norwegian folk art many stylized flowers and scroll forms; combining blended colors and fine outlines on a plain background color. Traditional paint colors were derived from local raw materials, like rust red came from red iron oxide in the ground. Brushes were made of hairs from a squirrel’s tail or a cow’s ear.

With the Vikings bringing culture and influences back from Normandy, Belgium and the Celts, the first primitive folk art evolved from decorative, geometric chalk designs in the Vikings’ multi purpose rooms, to floral décor on chests, other furniture and wood carved plates. As religion became more established in Medieval times, the wooden Stave church ceilings were decorated with brilliant colors. Finally with the Baroque and Rococo, the C- and S-shaped brush strokes became the mainstay of Rosemaling – adding to the organic, natural feel of the style.

The traditional folk painting developed further in the 1750s throughout the Norwegian valleys, separated by high mountains. The three main styles are Telemark, Hallingdal and Rogaland, named for the regions where they formed. The painters – who were part of a guild – traveled between counties, painting churches, rooms in houses and furniture. While the original style focused on flower motifs and geometric shapes, artists also incorporated people and animals, landscapes and biblical scenes. The name Rosemaling is derived from the words ros, which is flowered and mal, which is to paint. The rosemaling motifs stem from earlier European decorative painting, but local variations developed uniquely in Norway’s isolated rural communities.

“The slow absorption of new ideas in the rural Norwegian regions due to the geographical isolation kept the Rosemaling identifiable,” Piltingsrud said.

From a region located in central southern Norway, Telemark rosemaling is known for its graceful, flowing, typically asymmetrical design made of scrolls and fantasy flowers. The style is elegant, with much focus on the color. It is the style Piltigsrud paints in most.

Hallingdal is a valley located in the eastern portion of Norway. Hallingdal rosemaling is known for its symmetrical design made up of flowers, leaves, and scrolls. Hallingdal style is known for its bold designs and colors of flowers and scrolls that are round and robust in form with prevalent heavy black details.

Located in the southwest corner of Norway, the Rogaland-style (aka Ryfylke) is known for its symmetrical design of flowers, scrolls and limited color palette. The designs sometimes have a cartouche in the center with a symmetrical design around it. In the United States, the American Rogaland evolved, which is very symmetrical and precise.

Trondelag is located on the northern edge of central Norway. The Rosemaling designs from that area often include floral designs with vases and decoration. It can also be very geometric in design.

Valdres – located on the eastern side of Norway – has a very distinctive style, made up primarily of identifiable flowers and landscapes. It is more like the Swedish Rosemaling.

The Os region of Norway is located on the western edge (near Bergen). It is one of the later developed styles of Rosemaling, and known for its bright floral designs, often with identifiable flowers. It might include pinks and purples – colors not found in traditional Rosemaling designs.

Vest Agder is located in the southern end of Norway. This style is simple, yet striking, with its symmetrical floral designs and teardrops. It should not be confused with the Aust Agder style. The regions are separated by the Setesdal.

And as farming techniques improved, farmers had more time for artisan crafts like wood carving and Rosemaling for some extra income. Rural folk would often imitate Rosemaling, but not having been taught in an urban guild, the art became spontaneous and expressive, and also included smaller objects such as drinking vessels and boxes. It was primarily a men’s pastime. The wives and daughters stuck to weaving.

Besides the history, Piltingsrud offered many practical pointers, work methods, and wood prep. She supplied design stencils and aided in color choice in the BAC workroom, filled with the smell of linseed oil and paints.

Some of the basics were: there is always flow in Rosemaling, no angles. By the way – the Norwegian word for curve is swing, which seems totally appropriate in Rosemaling. Use regular chalk to draw the basic design. Place the object on a lazy Susan to aid with the flow of the brush strokes. Everything grows out of a V or the center, working towards your self. The whole arm should be used, using different pressure to change the thickness of the stroke. Everything is two-dimensional, except through the adding of color to give some depth.

Like all skills, learning to master Rosemaling is all about practice, practice and more practice.

Piltingsrud’s passion for Rosemaling came when her husband Tom was stationed in Norway for the NATO in 1987. Tom, as their surname reveals, is of Norwegian descent. In the four and a half years in Norway, she taught for the Asker Husflidslag school and was commissioned to paint a staircase in the U.S. Ambassador’s residence in Oslo and the entrance to the NATO War Headquarters at Kolsaas. A trunk for General Colin Powell and multiple items for the U.S. Ambassador to Norway are among her many commissions. During her time in Norway, Piltingsrud collected folk sayings that she found written on walls, furniture, and objects, which she has put into book form.

During the Norwegian Country Christmas Tour, Piltingsrud offered Rosemaling demonstrations at the 219 Artisan’s Market in Clifton. She was joined by her husband Tom, who sat making wood carvings as she spoke. Together they have a company in Penrose, CO called “Brush and Chisel.”

There are more than 4.5 million Norwegian Americans, according to U.S. census reports. Most most live in the Upper Midwest and on the West Coast of the United State. Norwegian Americans are currently the 10th-largest European ancestry group in the United States.

Let us say that Marte’s journey from rural Norway to the New World took her to different area in the United States, to a rural area in Central Texas – the region where Cleng Peerson, Ole Canuteson, and Carl Quæstad walked the Bosque River and led the first few Norwegians into the new Bosque County in 1854.

West of Waco, the community of Norse was for a time the largest concentration of Norwegians in Texas, defining the main town Clifton as the Norwegian Capital of Texas. The area remains home to many families today who are descendants of the Norwegian arrivals. The church community has maintained one custom into recent years, an annual smörgåsbord held at Our Savior's Lutheran Church. And the Bosque Museum has Norwegian Rosemaling items in its collection, as well as Bunad’s and Peerson’s rocking chair.

In recent years, there has been a Norwegian heritage revival, and Piltingsrud’s workshops are very popular in keeping the Norsk traditions alive. Besides the BAC workshops planned for Spring 2022, Piltingsrud offers workshops at the John C. Campbell folk school, NC and the Norwegian- American Folk art school Vesterheim in Decorah, Iowa.

Photos by SIMONE WICHERS-VOSS

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