National Craft Month is the perfect opportunity to celebrate an artist who honors folk art traditions, both through her connection to the craft and her dedication to teaching others. Julie Anderson has worked with various forms of decorative painting since the late 1980s; in addition to Rosemaling (a tradition based in Norway), she also works the style of dalamalning/kurbits (originating from Sweden) and bauernmalerei (German). She has studied with master American, Norwegian and Swedish artists including mentors Ann Nilsson, Judy Kjenstad and Shirley Evenstad. Julie teaches classes regularly at Wet Paint, an art supply store in St. Paul, MN, as well as Community Education. She has also taught at the Vesterheim Museum’s Folk Art School.
A Craft Rooted in Culture
Before we learn more about Julie’s work and relationship with Wet Paint: what exactly is Rosemaling? Rosemaling is a traditional form of decorative folk art with an artisanal background that originated in the rural valleys of Norway, featuring stylized designs inspired by metalwork, carving and embroidery. Key elements include flowing patterns of curves, lines and swirls that often incorporate natural elements like flowers or landscapes. As early as 1750, rural folk decorated everyday objects with the classic S lines, C lines, flowers and stems, transforming dark, interior spaces into colorful works of art. Surfaces they painted on included hope chests, clocks, corner cabinets, walls and ceilings and chairs.
Julie first discovered the craft (or as she puts it, the craft “adopted” her) in the late 1980s when her friend Ann was going to start teaching a Rosemaling community education class. Ann needed one more student to enroll in the class, and she asked Julie to join. Julie hadn’t done any art since high school, but had always loved art; she took the class, and her relationship with the craft began.
What got you hooked?
“Part of what I love is the history of the craft. It requires study of historical artwork, to understand the structure of the design. It’s also very challenging: you can’t just sit down and do it, it takes practice and diligence. I really enjoy that kind of challenge.
What is something unique to Rosemaling artists?
“We really pay attention to the objects we paint. There is the connection between the wood, brush and the materials. The wood piece will often influence the design work. For example, the way the piece is structured or the way a bowl is turned will impact the design. Sometimes woodenware (a wooden object) will sit in my studio, un-painted as I’m still bonding with it and deciding what would work best. How will different design elements work best on the object? What components do I want in the different spaces? If you have a trunk, a corner cupboard. Each aspect of the piece needs to be considered in designing and executing the painting.”
What are some of your favorite pieces you’ve done?
“There are a couple of pieces that I am really connected to. A tankard (or pitcher) that was constructed by Dick Enstad and designed by Shirley Evenstad. I painted it in her class. Another one is a piece I painted with Torun Rod Frasund when she came in from Norway to teach at Vesterheim, Norwegian American Museum, she is the fifth generation Rosmaler from the Bergen area. I have a plate that I painted with her in my kitchen…I would do a better job of it now, but it’s one of those things that is so bright, so cheery, it makes me happy.”
Talking to Julie about her love of Rosemaling, the role of community is apparent. Not only does she quote her mentors and reference the influence of history, when she describes a current project she is working on it is clear that the practice inspires connection. Her daughter loves to cook; so she designed a cookbook holder, had it built by woodworker Mike Lusk, and she’s painting it right now. An intricate process, from the designer, the woodworker, the painter and the person it is created for, infuses individual objects with a collective meaning.
What is the most rewarding aspect of your work?
“People tend to underestimate how they use creativity in their lives. Teaching and being able to share what I know gives me an opportunity to show others their creativity. I get to talk about color theory, art, design, history, heritage. Someone always has a fun story about their connection to the craft. There is something really wonderful about seeing that connection.”
What are typical challenges your students discover?
“There are a lot of people who will come in, take a class or two and think, ‘I’m going to paint a chest for every grandchild’ or ‘I am going to decorate my kitchen.’ And then they realize, ‘Oh, this is going to be more challenging than I thought.’
Rosemaling looks simple, but it is quite complicated. Eye-hand coordination is very important. When your painting is done, the linework is what really brings it all together. You end up with three major layers: the surface that has been prepared in a color, the initial design and the linework.”
How do you help students navigate that initial hurdle?
“One of my mentors, Judy Kjenstad always says, when someone looks at a piece, first we see color, then design, then technique. People want to jump to the technique. But if you got a great design and colors you love, you are doing okay! A few imprecise strokes actually make it more handmade. The imperfection is appealing.”
Retailer’s Role: Educational Programs That Connect with Community
“When I was starting up the program of classes at Wet Paint, I was listening to what customers asked for,” says Virginia McBride, Programming Manager at Wet Paint. “I would occasionally hear a customer say they were looking for Rosemaling classes and not finding them. I didn’t know anyone who did Rosemaling but I had a feeling it was something worth pursuing.” Beth Bergman, the owner of Wet Paint at the time, suggested Virginia reach out to the Vesterheim Norwegian American Museum in Decorah, Iowa. They gave her the name of one of their instructors; she wasn’t available but gave her Julie’s name. The connection was made.
Virginia and Julie both point out that Wet Paint class has been really conducive—not just for painting (the supplies are right there!), but for networking and building community. People who come to the store’s classes regularly already have an interest in handicraft; students range from dabblers and hobbyists to watercolorists and puppeteers. There are the core people who come every time, including people with Scandinavian heritage. “I’ve learned since we’ve started offering Rosemaling classes that a significant number of people around here have some family connection to Rosemaling,” Virginia says. “A memory of a grandmother or aunt painting, or a cherished heirloom. People are hungry for creative pursuits that connect them to community and connect them to their heritage.”
Julie tells me more about the connection people have to heritage when it comes to this craft:
“It’s not uncommon for me at all to have students who have Rosemaling in their home and have family members who painted it. Students will have had a piece that came in with their family from immigration, or they had a family member who actually painted. But that’s not always the case, I mean, I don’t have Norwegain or Swedish heritage, I like to say I’ve just been adopted…but because folk art is so prevalent in every country, we all have a feel for it.
What is the wider Rosemaling community like?
“In classes there are opportunities for a little conversation here and there, getting to know each other personally, what is working right or could be changed in the painting, practicing and demonstrating. In the broader community, we’ve got people all over the nation.
People are very open to sharing their expertise…there isn’t a lot of ‘territory,’ because individuals develop their own signature and style and you can usually can tell who painted a piece.”
What’s your signature, then?
“Fairly precise. I want it to be representative of original work. There are times where I do like to totally break tradition. One example was when I decorated Virginia’s Sorel boots at Wet Paint!”
What is your studio practice like, outside of teaching?
“I work full-time so I’ll snatch an hour here and there. I have a dedicated studio space in my basement. If I have it set up I’m more likely to go and paint. I almost always give an ornament to family members each year. They make for a very elegant gift. The ornament classes at Wet Paint are actually very appealing to all kinds of students as I believe they find them approachable and a great way to give Rosemaling a try.”
Okay, now I’m itching to try it! What do people need to get started?
- Wooden surface, though other options can be used
- 2 round brushes: a good strokework brush 4 or 6 and liner brush
- Palette and palette knife
- 7 essential colors of paint: Titanium White, Yellow Ochre (or Oxide, either is fine), Raw Umber, Mars Black, Prussian Blue, Burnt Sienna and Red Oxide (Venetian Red or English Red any toned red will work). For green mixes, add Cadmium Yellow Light, Hansa Yellow Light or another Cadmium Yellow substitute.
- Paper towels
- Background paint and background painting brush
- Acrylic medium if working with acrylic, boiled linseed oil if working with oil paint
- Cleaner for brushes, water for acrylic and solvent for oil
Living Traditions & Folk Art Your Community Values
What hidden opportunities to connect with craft, specifically Folk Art, are embedded in your community? You may be surprised to discover opportunities in the form of:
- A local historical society
- A Meetup or Facebook group in your region
- A community group with a craft-related interest or folk art practice
- Teachers at community centers, specialized art programs, events held at your public library…
Virginia made this connection all because she listened acutely to her customers’ needs. And like Julie clarified: Rosemaling is not just for people with Norwegian heritage. The urge to imprint a creative touch on our surroundings is part of being human; Folk Art traditions are present in cultures all over the world. Help your customers understand that they don’t need an art degree or the ability to draw realistically. It’s actually these qualities that make them a great fit for classes like Julie’s:
- The love of a challenge
- Appreciation for history
- Curiosity and and appreciation for heritage and culture
- A connection to a specific material or kind of object
- An interest in giving meaningful gifts
- A need to slow down
- An interest in meeting new people
So de-mystify art-making, do some digging and discover what niche groups are in your region: our industry is in a unique position to connect people to living traditions, whether or not they have an ancestral tie to it.