Folk art is made new at Vesterheim

The museum’s Folk Art School has a new director, a new apprentice program and a new goal of connecting traditional Norwegian arts with their contemporary descendants

Jim Dietz-Kilen
Des Moines, Iowa

Folk Art School

Photo courtesy of Vesterheim
Vesterheim’s Folk Art School offers everything from rosemaling to jewelry making and metalwork.

The Folk Art School at Vesterheim, the National Norwegian-American Museum and Cultural Center, has been offering formal classes and other educational experiences for more than 50 years. Located in Decorah, Iowa, the museum’s history is inextricably linked to Norwegian folk arts, going back considerably further than a half-century.

Vesterheim was founded in 1877 as the Norwegian-American History Museum, part of Luther College. Norwegian folk art objects were, from the beginning, well represented in the museum’s collections. In 1964, Luther hired art historian Marion Nelson to catalog those collections, and three years later Vesterheim was incorporated as a separate nonprofit entity, with Nelson as its first director. “Nelson was passionate about folk art and saw the collection’s potential to educate artists interested in Norwegian folk art,” says the latest director of folk art education for Vesterheim, Lea Donhowe Lovelace.

During Vesterheim’s first year as a stand-alone museum, Nelson brought Sigmund Arseth from Valdres, Norway, to teach rosemaling in the Telemark style and asked local expert Carola Schmidt to teach Hardanger embroidery. Since then, Vesterheim has hosted nearly 100 instructors from Norway, along with more than 150 instructors from various parts of the United States. Today, they offer close to 100 classes in fiber arts, woodworking, rosemaling, food traditions, music, jewelry and wirework, metalworking, and knifemaking to about 900 students annually, many of whom come to Decorah for the experience.

“Decorah is a wonderful community for visitors,” says Lovelace, who became director of the Folk Art School in December 2018. “We have several great hotels and other lodging options within walking distance of Vesterheim and our main downtown area. We also have a list of folks who open their homes to Vesterheim folk art students seeking a home stay rather than other accommodations. There are terrific restaurants, a thriving food co-op, coffee shops, yoga studios, an independent bookstore, and even a juice bar. We are a college town and our area bike and hiking trails, riverfront scenery, and local breweries make us a tourist destination as well.”

Vesterheim also offers classes for local youth (ages 8-18) in folk arts, as well as in Norwegian language and culture. Other offerings include immersive folk art study tours to Norway and an annual exhibition of Norwegian-American folk art by contemporary artists living and creating in the United States. All of these educational offerings are informed by and draw from the museum’s vast collection of historic and contemporary folk art objects.

Folk Art School

Photo courtesy of Vesterheim
Lea Donhowe Lovelace is Vesterheim’s new director of folk art education.

A new initiative this year, funded through an anonymous grant, is Vesterheim’s Folk Art Apprentice Program. Artists practicing in any of the categories represented in the National Norwegian American Folk Art Exhibition (weaving, wood carving, metalworking, knifemaking, or rosemaling) have been invited to apply for one of six apprenticeships (applications were due Sept. 1). Each apprentice will have a weekend of training, followed by the opportunity to take three classes (two in their current discipline and one in an new area of study), accompanied by mentorship and pedagogical exploration with established faculty and the other apprentices. “One of our goals is to think about how to continue to engage folks in carrying these traditions forward and to cultivate instructors who are passionate about these folk art traditions, helping them find their own individual voices as instructors,” Lovelace says.

Another goal for Lovelace is to make connections with contemporary Norwegian arts. “When you walk into a Husfliden in Norway today, which is their premier location to support artists of Norwegian handcraft,” Lovelace says, “you see everything from traditional sølje pins for adorning a bunad to more modern design jewelry fashioned from glass or enamel. The same is true with the contrast between the geometric patterned knit sweaters seen in our museum collection and the upcoming line of sweaters from Oleana. While vastly different, both are recognized as iconically Norwegian.”

As the arts change in Norway, some traditional arts are dying out. In recent conversations with staff from Rauland Academy in Telemark, in fact, it was suggested that teachers from Vesterheim might be sent to Norway to teach some of the older folk art traditions that are scarcely found these days in Norway. “I think it is important for Vesterheim to be a place where we can nurture and carry some of these traditions forward, especially since we seem to be (in some ways) the keepers of these arts,” Lovelace says. “At the same time, we are also charged with showcasing contemporary Norwegian folk artists who are without debate inspired by transitions of the past but carrying these forward in new innovative ways to keep them thriving.”

Class listings and registration information for 2020 will be released in both printed form and online in November, with registration beginning in December. To receive regular updates on the Folk Art School and other news from Vesterheim, subscribe to its e-newsletter, Vesterheim Current, at

Jim Dietz-Kilen is Chief Development Officer for Living History Farms, a 500-acre outdoor history museum near Des Moines, Iowa. His great-grandfather and great-great-grandparents emigrated to America in 1860 from a Nissedal farm. In his free time, he writes on the history of Norwegian emigration and other subjects related to the Norwegian-American experience.

To read more about Vesterheim, see also:

This article originally appeared in the September 6, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American.

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The Norwegian American

The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.