Sharing Norwegian traditions

Lise Lorentzen’s rosemaling exhibit

Photo: Kathi Santora / The Writing Studio The gallery space at the Liridodendron Mansion is perfect for showcasing objects in situ, like this beautifully rosemaled violin.

Photo: Kathi Santora / The Writing Studio
The gallery space at the Liridodendron Mansion is perfect for showcasing objects in situ, like this beautifully rosemaled violin.

Victoria Hofmo
Brooklyn, N.Y.

Norwegians have wonderful traditions; why keep them to ourselves? It is wonderful when we can share those traditions with new audiences, as Lise Lorentzen did in her rosemaling exhibit at the beautiful Liridodendron Mansion in Bel Air, Maryland.

This polysyllabic tongue-twister of a name comes form the unique tulip trees on the property. Within this grand home, built by Dr. Kelly, the founder of John Hopkins Hospital, is an art gallery carved from four rooms of the museum. This could be a challenging space to curate an exhibit, but in this case it’s an asset to a painting tradition that uses furniture, plates, and other household items as a canvas. It allows the viewer to see the work, as if in situ.

I had the opportunity to speak with Lise about this exhibit, rosemaling, and her work as an artist.

Victoria Hofmo: How did you begin painting in the rosemaling style?

Lise Lorentzen: I grew up in Staten Island, N.Y., and our family was very involved with the local Sons of Norway lodge. When I was 11 or 12, a gentleman by the name of Jon Grondahl, a local woodcarver and rosemaler, was asked to teach a series of rosemaling classes at the lodge. During his second round of classes, my parents felt that I should try it out since I liked to paint. As of that point, my only real experience with painting had been the dozens of paint by numbers I had done. I took this class with my grandparents and many of the other seniors of the lodge. After the class was over, I did not do anything else with rosemaling for a couple of years.

When I was 14, my father was diagnosed with a form of MS and had to retire from being a carpenter. A year later, he began making hope chests, clocks, etc. and I was to rosemal them… hence, we were in business. I have to say that if my father hadn’t gotten sick, I do not believe that I would have continued with rosemaling. So at 15, I re-taught myself a lot of what I had learned with Jon Grondahl. I also spent a lot of time reading rosemaling books and looking at pictures of rosemaling.

Photo: Kathi Santora / The Writing Studio Lise Lorentzen celebrate her show at the Liridodendron Mansion.

Photo: Kathi Santora / The Writing Studio
Lise Lorentzen and her father celebrate her show at the Liridodendron Mansion.

When I was 19, I took my first seminar with Eldrid Arntzen, a NEA recipient and Vesterheim Gold Medalist. I then went on to spend many weeks with her at Fletcher Farm School for the Arts and Crafts in Ludlow, Vt., during their summer semesters. I was also very fortunate to be a member of the Garden State Rosemaling Society. Doris Jorgensen was wonderful at getting top rosemalers from around the country and Norway to teach. These artists included Eldrid Arntzen VGM, Karen Jenson VGM, Shirley Evenstad VGM, Christina Keune VGM, to name a few. Words cannot describe how wonderful it is to be able to learn from all these different artists. One of the most amazing weeks we had at the Garden State Rosemaling Society was when Sigmund Aarseth came from Norway to teach us for a week. This was truly a great experience, and I learned so much about rosemaling and painting that week.

Another great opportunity I had was completing the New York State Council of the Arts (NYSCA) fold arts apprenticeship program with Eldrid Arntzen.

I continued with Thor-Kraft, the business with my father, until I was 25. I had rosemaled through high school, college, a master’s degree, teaching for the NYC Board of Education, and marriage! I have a BA in Elementary Ed. and a master’s in Special Education. After taking what really turned out to be a short break in rosemaling, I continued taking on many commissions every year and taking classes along the way. I am a member of Vesterheim, The National Norwegian-American Museum and Heritage Center, and had the opportunity to participate in their rosemaling symposium in 2004. This was also another fantastic opportunity to immerse myself in the art form and be together with rosemalers from across the country, Canada, Norway, etc.

VH: What was the allure?

LL: Though I kind of fell into rosemaling by accident, I was instantly attracted to it. The variety of styles, the flow, the challenge in creating new designs, the uniqueness of each piece—all of this adds to its attraction for me. Though rosemaling is considered a folk art, it truly is a fine art that requires tremendous skill. I am never bored!

VH: Can you speak a little about the history of rosemaling painting?

LL: Norwegian rosemaling is a decorative folk art painting traditionally done on wood. It began its development in the late 1600’s. At this time, European artists painted Norwegian churches in the Renaissance style using boarders, scrolls, and flowers. This style was embraced by many of the Norwegian people and they proceeded to take it into their homes. They hired urban artists to decorate items from their homes because they felt it enhanced their living environment. Those who could not afford to hire an artist painted their own homes. This is where rosemaling as we know it truly began.

Norway was a fertile environment for the growth and development of a decorative painting style. This was mostly due to its rich heritage in woodcarving, metal work, and woven textiles, dating back to the Viking days, and partially due to the improved economic conditions of the time. Though decorative painting was not a distinctive Norwegian phenomenon, rosemaling was unique in that it combined the European Renaissance style with Norway’s long-standing folk art traditions. It was the rural painter who truly developed rosemaling and its various styles. Without formal training, they combined different styles, elements, and shapes without following any specific rules. The result was an unconventional and spontaneous art form. Eventually, styles developed that represented different regions of Norway.

Photo: Kathi Santora / The Writing Studio One of the more traditional items in Lorentzen’s rosemaling show.

Photo: Kathi Santora / The Writing Studio
One of the more traditional items in Lorentzen’s rosemaling show.

Rosemaling lasted as the leading decorative art form of Norway until the mid to late 1800’s. Its decline was a direct result of three things: the Industrial Revolution, immigration to the United States, and a style change towards faux finishes.

Due to a man named Per Lysne (1880-1947), rosemaling continued quietly in the United States. He was one of the last professional rosemalers in Norway and immigrated to Stoughton, Wisconsin, in 1907. He worked as a wagon and furniture painter until the Depression. At that time, he turned back to rosemaling to make a living. During the 1940’s, many people discovered his work, as well as the numerous rosemaled items brought over by the immigrants. This sparked an interest in the art form here in the United States.

Today, rosemaling is a thriving art form with participants from all over the United States, Norway, Canada, and many other countries. Some may be surprised to note that it has become very popular in Japan. There are scores of painting organizations that dedicate themselves to the continual growth of rosemaling, the most notable being Vesterheim.

VH: What are the challenges of painting this way?

LL: Rosemaling is an extremely technical art form. The handling for the brush is very reminiscent of the Asian calligraphy, Japanese in particular. It is truly a study of contrasts, thick to thin, light to dark, etc., and most of these contrasts can be done using the one brush. Due to applied pressure, gentle twisting of the brush between the fingers, and a pull of the brush towards you, a variety of strokes and effects may appear before your eyes. Also it should be noted that rosemaling is primarily done on wood, and therefore there is a whole learning curve in wood preparation, antiquing, lazuring, aging, etc. The list is endless, and so is the final product. No two pieces are ever the same. It should be noted that there are 15 different recognized rosemaling styles. Again, the variety is amazing.

[For those who do not know what lazuring is, as I did not, it is defined by Color Space as “layers of paint prepared nearly as thin and transparent as watercolor, consisting of water, binder, and pigment. It is applied with a rhythmical movement using large brushes. The final color is achieved using varied colors applied in several layers, over a white surface. Light passes through these thin layers of color and is reflected back, giving a pure color experience.”]

VH: What are the benefits of painting this way?

LL: As I alluded to in the previous question, I think the challenges of this style end up being the benefits. There are no two pieces that are the same. All rosemalers have their own styles and techniques, and they are able to paint just about anything. It should be noted, that just like a Monet or a Rembrandt, the original rosemalers can be identified by their style and mastery of the art form and could easily have been ranked among these mainstream artists if they had had the formal training available to them. Today’s rosemalers can easily be identified by their style and techniques. A huge benefit of this art form is that because of the brush technique and control, being able to paint other styles outside of the rosemaling genre usually comes much easier to a rosemaler.

Photo: Kathi Santora / The Writing Studio This chest combines traditional rosemaling patterns with more modern designs.

Photo: Kathi Santora / The Writing Studio
This chest combines traditional rosemaling with more modern painting.

VH: Do you paint in other styles? If so, can you explain what they allow that rosemaling doesn’t?

LL: Yes I do. Though being a mother of three doesn’t usually allow me much time to experiment. Prior to moving to Maryland from Staten Island, I was painting murals for people in their homes. This ranged from scrolled boarders, to Strawberry Shortcake, and even a Lord of the Rings mural. These past few years though, I have been incorporating landscapes and scenes within my pieces. That has been a lot of fun, and has pushed me in directions that had not occurred to me before.

VH: Can you speak about one of your favorite pieces in the exhibit and why is it one of your favorites?

LL: In the exhibit I was able to include a piece that I did for the Norwegian American 17th of May Parade Committee of Greater New York in 2013. This is an 18″ Nordic Style wooden plate where I painted a representation of Adolph Tideman and Hans Gude’s 1848 painting of “Brudeferden i Hardanger.” When the committee was looking for something for their large raffle that year, my brother volunteered me and said, “Oh, my sister can do that!” My family has a lot of faith in me. I had not done a landscape in over 20 years and to take on a project of such a well done piece was no small task. The outcome, though, was tremendously satisfying and was very well received by all who saw it. It has pushed my to paint beyond what I thought I could do and remains a special piece in my heart. I was very fortunate and thankful to receive permission from its owner to display it at this show.

[Lise is very open to combining painting traditions and styles. She had an interesting piece in the exhibit Brooklyn/Norway: A Visual Interpretation. It was titled Nordic Style Wooden Plate—Norwegian Rosemaling—Telemark Style 18″ and included straight lines. It was something that I had never seen. Lise explained, “This Norwegian rosemaled plate ties the traditional style with the straight lines of the city: a mixing of the old and the new. This plate represents what was left behind in the “old country” and looks into the future in the “new country.” This design had a very fresh, startling impact—a pleasant, if unsettling surprise.]

VH: Congratulations on your current solo exhibit. How did the exhibit evolve?

LL: Here in Harford County, Maryland, there is a very rich and diverse art community. Within this community, there is a wonderful site called the Liriodendron Mansion. This was the summer home of Dr. Howard Kelly and his family. He was one of the founding doctors of John Hopkins. The home was built in 1898 and is listed on the National Registry of Historic Homes. It is used for weddings, conferences, and as an art facility. Four of the previous bedrooms on the second floor are reserved for featured artists throughout the year. They usually have seven to eight shows over the course of a year. Over the past two and a half years, I have gotten involved with various art groups, including the Harford Artist Association and the Arts by the Bay Gallery. Through these groups, my rosemaling has become more widely viewed and recognized. Also, I have placed third at the National Exhibition of Folk Art in the Norwegian Tradition in 2013 and 2014. This received newspaper coverage here in Harford County. The committee at the Liriodendron then approached me to put together a one-woman show, and I have been very happy to be chosen by them to display my work.

VH: Are the pieces on display ones you had already painted, or did you add any new pieces for this exhibit?

LL: When I was initially asked to do this show and asked if I could fill four rooms, I said “sure.” The reality, as it got closer, was very daunting! Again, having three children in three different schools and with three different time schedules and a husband that travels some does curtail some preparation time! That being said, I had some pieces that I had already done—some of my own personal collection and pieces that are part of private collections. But I did a lot of other pieces primarily for this showing. In total, there are close to 100 items on display. These include everything from a hope chest, wedding plates, tines, a corner cabinet, clocks, Christmas ornaments, etc. I was the mom in the basement painting away for quite awhile!

VH: How is the exhibit organized and why?

LL: The exhibit is spread amongst these four rooms in the wonderful mansion. My husband, who was a huge help in organizing the arrangement of the show, and I placed the pieces in such a way for them to be visually pleasing. There is a mix of styles and pieces from room to room. Many of the pieces are hung, but we also had the opportunity of using the mantles of the beautiful fireplaces and various stands to display all the items. I did actually paint a fireplace screen specifically for one of the rooms because I was so inspired by the venue.

VH: Is rosemaling something visitors have been familiar with, or is it something new for them?

LL: There is a real mix of those who are visiting the show. Some are part of the art community and know rosemaling through me, and some have read it was there and have come to check it out. Many that have shown up know me from other things and are excited to see what I do. There have been those that are of Norwegian descent and are familiar with rosemaling that have walked in and have been so excited about seeing rosemaling all around them.

VH: What has been the response to your exhibit?

LL: I have had a tremendously positive response to my exhibit. We have had so many people show up over the last three weeks. It truly has been amazing. Being able to display so many pieces has been wonderful because it gives people a true understanding of the depth of styles, techniques, and variety in this art form. It is so much more then a folk art. Another added bonus is having my family involved in the exhibit. My two daughters, 14 and 12, have been tremendously helpful in speaking to people and explaining the history and the art form in general. My oldest daughter has been wearing her bunad every week and has been happy to explain that, and my younger daughter has been instrumental in setting me up to demonstrate and explain the different styles.

VH: Can you speak about other things you are involved with or planning?

LL: I am currently involved with two galleries here in Harford County: The Harford Artist Association in Bel Air and the Arts by the Bay Galley in Havre de Grace. Both of the sites have been tremendously welcoming and it has been great to give rosemaling more exposure. As of this past winter semester, I began teaching a non-credit course in rosemaling at the Harford Community College, and they have asked me to return in the fall. Also, I just received a grant from the Maryland State Arts Council to be a master teacher to an apprentice. These are great opportunities because an art form can only continue if others pick up the brush.

The exhibit ran from May 31 to June 29. Lorentzen’s work can be viewed on her website Her work can also be purchased at the Danish Athletic Club in Brooklyn.

This article originally appeared in the July 3, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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