Shaped by Norway
An interview with Norwegian-American painter Lois Tonnessen Andersen
It’s always wonderful to discover a new Norwegian-American artist. So it was with great pleasure that I was introduced to the work of Lois Tonnessen Andersen of Massachusetts. New England is a part of the country that has a substantial Norwegian population and history but that we hear little about in publications.
Andersen’s recent works are of Lofoten Islands. In these her palette is richer and moodier, with tenser contradictions, than the earlier works I saw in her portfolio. So I was interested to know how her visit to the Lofotens inspired and transformed her creative process. The results are stellar.
Victoria Hofmo: Tell us a little about your Norwegian background.
Lois Tonnessen Andersen: My father was born in Farsund, Norway, in the Spind area, to Hanna and Theodor Tønnessen. My mother’s parents came from Oslo and Hamar. Both my husband, Bob Andersen, and I were born in Brooklyn, N.Y., into the Norwegian community so vibrant in Bay Ridge during the late 1800s through the early 20th century. Our churches had Norwegian and English services. We could find Norwegian foods from delis, bakeries, and butchers.
The Norwegian culture was celebrated and cherished, and very much a part of our identity growing up. At that time in Brooklyn, though NYC is a “melting pot,” there were distinct neighborhoods where Norwegians, Italians, Puerto Ricans, and Hasidic Jews lived, all bordering one another. It was really pretty interesting.
VH: How did you get interested in art?
LTA: My father, Harald Tønnessen, was a “commercial” artist; doing then by hand what graphic designers do today on computers. I always had some simple art supplies, and early turned to making things and pictures to entertain myself as a young child. I never looked back or seriously considered doing anything else.
VH: How has your Norwegian background inspired your work?
LTA: When I was an art student at the Art Students League in NYC, I won the McDowell scholarship for a year abroad to study and paint. The majority of that year was spent in Norway, a logical place for me to be. I studied briefly as a “hospitant” student at the Statenskunstakademi in Oslo and then lived with my father’s family in Farsund, who welcomed me warmly as their own.
The experience marked me: first because of the welcome, and then due to the natural beauty of the area. I fell in love with the landscape of craggy hills and islands of the Skaggerak of Sørlandet. It was incredibly beautiful to me and the discovery of belonging to such a beautiful place—the earth there, the generations of family buried in the small Spind Kirke graveyard has marked me, a “kid” who grew up in a large international city like NYC, and found ancient roots in this little place in Sorlandet.
I was profoundly blessed and marked by the experience. The very place my grandparents left to find work in the USA was where I was able to return to learn from and depict in paintings. I have been incredibly blessed by this opportunity; a small version of “the American Dream” played out in my life! The older I get, the more profoundly the experience of being on the land and in the places that my family left means. I can imagine better both how hard it was to live in rural Norway in the early 20th century, yet how awful to leave so much behind.
VH: I am curious about your work with the Concord Art and Agricultural Project. Can you explain what the project is and how you are involved?
LTA: I maintain a studio in Concord, Mass., at the Umbrella Community Arts Center. The early settlers of Concord (where the American Revolution began) were farmers. There is great appreciation here for our agricultural heritage, and a collaborative effort was made in 2016 between the Umbrella and the Concord Agricultural Committee to choose 11 artists to depict life on one Concord farm for four seasons. Many different kinds of artists collaborated to make a fascinating reflection of Concord farm life today. My assignment was the farm of Frank Rotondo, who inherited the farm from Italian immigrant parents, and runs the farm alone today. It was a very rich experience.
VH: The Concord pieces are oils, but you are also an illustrator. Can you speak about some of your illustrations?
LTA: All my paintings are oil, my primary medium. Most of my illustrations are part of a children’s picture book I’ve been working on about a girl and her grandfather in mid-century Brooklyn.
On occasion, I have other reasons and/or opportunities to do illustrations either for publications or as part of my teaching. Some of these are woodblock prints, a medium I enjoy.
VH: Your more recent works depict the Lofoten Islands. What inspired you to travel there?
LTA: We have been back to Norway many times to see family, friends, and the glorious places to see there, mostly our ancestral homes in the south and western fjords. Only recently, four years ago, did my husband and I travel to the Lofotens, returning this past summer. I was struck by the vast, severe beauty of the spaces with awe and wonder.
VH: How did these trips change your art?
LTA: Since our first trip to the Lofotens, my primary interest has turned to trying to depict the feeling of being in the Lofotens; we are so insignificant in such places, but also incomparably blessed to be there. It is like facing a great mystery, both thrilling, overwhelming, but very good. To me, it speaks to confronting what is Infinite and Eternal.
Tonnessen Andersen’s Lofoten works can be seen at an upcoming exhibit STILLNESS at Scandinavian Culture Center, 206 Waltham St., West Newton, Mass., during March and April. For more information, visit loisandersenfineart.com.
This article originally appeared in the March 9, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.