What kind of tradition?
Traditional arts are rich with meanings. Some traditional arts have meanings connected to a community or a family. For Lois, rosemaling connects with both!
From Norway to Wisconsin
Rosemaling began in Norway but spread to the United States during the great Norwegian migrations of the 1840s and 1910s. Since then, the art has had two revivals. A revival is when people become interested again in something that was nearly forgotten or was taken for granted.
The first rosemaling revival was in the 1930s in Stoughton, Wisconsin thanks to Norwegian immigrant Per Lysne. Newspapers and magazines began writing articles about Per and his traditional painting style. He created a rosemaled smorgasbord plate with a message that translates to, “The table is now set. Please help yourself.” He sold many of these. Even though round, flat plates were not traditional Norwegian items to rosemal, they became his most popular and profitable item.
Per’s fame and commercial success sparked a huge interest in rosemaling among the people of southern Wisconsin, many of whom had Norwegian ancestry. Many people stopped by Per’s studio to watch him paint. Many of those people went on to be great rosemalers too.
The second revival came in the late 1960s thanks to the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah, Iowa. The museum offers many classes and exhibits in rosemaling and other traditional Norwegian arts. It has large collections of Norwegian and Norwegian-American folk art. It sponsors a national competition each July in traditional Norwegian rosemaling, woodcarving, weaving, and knifemaking. Through these activities, Vesterheim has helped to build enthusiasm for rosemaling in the Upper Midwest and beyond.
Rosemaling in Wisconsin
Rosemaling started as a Norwegian folk art, but people in other places fell in love with it, too. It has become very popular in Japan and in Wisconsin, towns like Stoughton, Coon Valley and Westby have especially strong rosemaling traditions. Go to these towns and you’ll find public and private buildings and many craft items decorated with rosemaling. This is the community’s way of saying that rosemaling represents their cultural heritage.
Do you have to be Norwegian-American to have rosemaling as a cultural symbol? No! If you live in a town that uses rosemaling to represent its cultural identity, then rosemaling is part of your identity too. That’s how Lois became involved in rosemaling. It was an important art form in the community of Black Earth where her parents lived.
A family affair
Rosemaling has become a family tradition for Lois as well. Her mother rosemaled, and her husband, son and daughter-in-law are involved too.
Husband Ron Mueller makes much of the unfinished woodenware and etched glass on which Lois paints. Son Chris Mueller and his wife Vicki make woodenware for other rosemalers to paint on. They make bowls, plates, mangle boards, and round trunks. These wooden plates are examples of their work.
This display will show you some of the woodenware that Lois has painted. Tines are bentwood boxes that come with lids held down by wooden clamps. “I like to think it was their answer to Tupperware,” she says. A favorite piece of furniture to rosemal is the three-legged chair with a bentwood back. Why only three legs? Lois offers a theory: “My husband said, ‘Three legs, it doesn’t rock. If you have a fourth one and your floor is uneven, it rocks.’”
Lois Mueller connects with rosemaling through family and community traditions. Others in Wisconsin connect through their Norwegian ancestry. Are there any rosemalers in your community? Find out what their connections to the tradition are.
In Your Community
There are lots of rosemalers in Wisconsin! Check with a local Sons of Norway lodge or with one of the many rosemaling associations in the state. Resources for Students has a link to these and other ways to connect with a rosemaler in your own community!