An artistic calling and a life’s work

Mary Jo Thorsheim connects Norwegian Americans with their roots through art

Mary Jo Thorsheim

Photo: Lori Ann Reinhall
Dr. Mary Jo Thorsheim stands against a selection of paintings from Bergen and Western Norway at her Norway Art gallery at Norway House in Minneapolis.

Lori Ann Reinhall
The Norwegian American

Dr. Mary Jo Thorsheim has been interested in art all of her life. She started drawing at age 3, and as she was growing up in Minneapolis, each Saturday she looked forward to attending a special program for children at the famous Walker Art Center. Later at St. Olaf College and at the University of Minnesota, she continued to study art and kept on top of which exhibits were coming and going, as her knowledge and interest grew.

But as with many creative people, young Thorsheim was multi-talented, and in college she chose to major in occupational therapy. She landed at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., where she eventually directed the department. She loved research and went on to obtain a master’s in public health with a minor in educational psychology, which led to a contract with the Minneapolis schools.

There was no stopping Thorsheim, and she decided to pursue a doctorate in her field. She also managed to squeeze in a trip to Norway in 1979, as wheels for a new venture—in art—were set in motion. Looking back, she reminisces: “I just simply had to do it.”

At that time, prints of Norwegian art were not available to the general public, neither in Norway nor the United States, and the American saw an opportunity. Thorsheim located the proper sources for the prints in Oslo and started to set up export arrangements—and thus Norway Art® was born.

Norway Art

Image: Wikimedia Commons
Erik Werenskiöld’s famous painting “The Girls of Telemark” is the perennial art print favorite at Norway Art.

Even though Thorsheim was still in graduate school, she ran the business parallel to her studies, and it immediately took off. She advertised in the Sons of Norway’s Viking magazine, and soon orders poured in from all over the country. People were interested in learning about their heritage through art, and initially she focused on paintings with regional motifs. To this day, an all-time favorite is “The Girls of Telemark” by Erik Werenskiöld (1855-1938) with its idyllic portrayal of two Norwegian farm girls.

Thorsheim’s parentage is 100% Norwegian, with roots going back to Bergen and Stavanger, so it is natural that Norwegian and Scandinavian art would evolve as her special area of interest. When I visited her gallery housed at Norway House in Minneapolis, she told me the stories of her grandparents’ emigration. Her family name traces back to Thorsheim north of Bergen, and she has made the pilgrimage there. Today her relatives are scattered around western Norway, and they have stayed in close contact.

Over the years, Norway Art has established a reputation for its extensive collection of original fine art. When you enter the gallery, you are greeted by scenes from Nordland, Vestland, Sørlandet, Østlandet, and many places in-between: fjords, mountains, bucolic farmsteads, and dynamic cityscapes. While the majority of works are from Norway, Thorsheim has also obtained pieces from Denmark, Sweden, and Finland. Important Norwegian-American artists are also represented at Norway Art, including the greats Jonas Lie (1880-1940) and Svend Rasmussen Svendsen (1864-1945).

These days, the subject matter of the paintings is more varied, the collection spanning across multiple genres. Having my own connections to Bergen, Jakob Weidemann’s (1923-2001) depiction of “Old Bergen in 1944” caught my eye, as well as an antique painting of bunad-clad peasants on the fjord in peacefully muted colors by the famous Norwegian artist Hans Dahl (1849-1937). There was also an original lithograph in striking bold colors by contemporary Trondheim artist Elling Reitan (born 1949) with the motif “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” which is No. 1 on my wish list.

Norway Art

Photo: Lori Ann Reinhall
Currently Antonio Jacobsen’s oil painting of the Hekla is the crown jewel of the collection at Norway Art.

But without a doubt, the crown jewel of the current collection is an oil painting Thorsheim has dubbed “Steaming toward America” by Danish-American maritime artist Antonio Jacobsen (1850-1921), known as the “Audubon of Steam Vessels.” Painted in 1899, it depicts the Hekla, a passenger ship that made six voyages between Kristiania (Oslo) and New York. Not only a magnificent work of art, it is also an important piece of history, which would be a meaningful addition to a Norwegian-American home, or even a Scandinavian-American museum.

Dr. Thorsheim keeps close tabs on the art market in Norway and is a recognized appraiser in the field (she consults frequently with Vesterheim Museum in Decorah, Iowa). The condition of a painting, shipping costs, taxes, and customs, and even the frames figure in when pricing items. Another factor is name recognition, which may be different in the United States than in Norway. Taking all this into consideration, Thorsheim always strives to keep her prices fair and reasonable, and her reputation in the art community is a testimonial to her credibility.

Norway Art

Photo courtesy of Norway Art
These days Norway Art also offers sculpture and other art collectibles. Pictured is a sculpture of a female athlete by Knut Skinnarland.

These days, the bulk of Norway Art’s business is in fine art. Thorsheim also offers special collectible items of interest to Norwegian Americans. Currently these include a heavily carved mangle from 1789, a Hardanger fiddle, and a bronze figure of a female athlete by famous Norwegian sculptor Knut Skinnarland (1909-1993). And of course, the art prints that got it all started are still available to order, as well as selection of books on Norwegian art. One of my favorites is They Painted Norway: Glimpses of Norwegian nature and Norwegian artists by Arvid Bryne (translated by Jean Aase). Like Thorsheim and Norway Art, it offers unique insights into Norwegian heritage with the magnificent landscapes of Norway in photos of paintings with insightful, detailed descriptions.

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

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Lori Ann Reinhall

Lori Ann Reinhall, editor-in-chief of The Norwegian American, is a multilingual journalist and cultural ambassador based in Seattle. She is the president of the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association, and she serves on the boards of several Nordic organizations.