Norma Wangsness visited the Kingsland art classroom last Tuesday to share her portraits, rosemaling and landscape paintings.   PHOTOS BY GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/SPRING VALLEY TRIBUNE
Norma Wangsness visited the Kingsland art classroom last Tuesday to share her portraits, rosemaling and landscape paintings. PHOTOS BY GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/SPRING VALLEY TRIBUNE
Decorah artist Norma Wangsness spoke to the students in her daughter Linda's classroom at Kingsland High School in Spring Valley last Tuesday afternoon, sharing her photography, landscape paintings, rosemaling and drawings.

"I started with no training - none in school, except when I was in the fifth grade and my teacher gave me a pencil and paper and told me 'Draw this'. I should've kept at drawing, but I didn't. Later, when I was 13 years old, I was in Girl Scouts, and my leader was also my music and voice teacher. She talked about photography as art, and she gave me two photographs to paint," related Wangsness. "Photography was my first career."

Kingsland art teacher Linda Wangsness wanted her students to understand that once a person becomes interested in art, it can be a lifetime pursuit. "She's a professional artist and has been all her life. This is just a sampling of what she's done artistically. She's 84 years old and still getting commissioned to do portraits...imagine yourself being 84 and still doing what you love."

Norma's husband also shared her interest. She told how many years ago her then-boyfriend took two photographs of her, developed them in his family's farmhouse bathroom and hand-painted them for her.

Norma and her husband eventually bought a restaurant in her hometown, which led to them taking wedding portraits for the next few decades. "We rented a camera and took the boy next door's wedding pictures, then we took our waitress's wedding pictures. Eventually, we bought a studio from an older man who knew what he was doing, and the first year, we did seven weddings, and then we became the largest wedding photography business in the state of Iowa, doing 200 weddings a year."

Hand-coloring wedding photographs for senior portraits and weddings became Norma's livelihood and creative outlet. "I used to hand-color every picture left at our studio, and I had to do 10 a day. I learned how because I took two one-week courses - one in transparent oil and one in brush oil - and I'd spend the day coloring senior pictures. I bought two copies of a picture that everyone in a contest was given to paint, and when I painted it, I started entering state conventions, and the first year, I won a blue ribbon for my portrait. I loved doing hand-coloring. I have a commission now for two portraits, but Eastman Kodak is out of business, so there's no photographic paper."

She took up painting portraits and landscapes as well as continuing her career in photographic painting. She showed the students a miniature landscape painting she made of a river and bluff, one she painted of her husband's family's ancestral home in Norway, and drawings she made by "photo-drawing," or using the enlarger in the photography studio to transfer the negative to drawing paper, then filling in the white spaces to make a positive drawing. Norma told the students, "I also paint for a gallery in Door County - I've done that for the past 16 to 17 years."

Wangsness has earned acclaim for her rosemaling skills, particularly for works did for the Vesterheim Norwegian Museum in Decorah. "I've worked to become a gold-medal rosemaling artist. I got my gold medal at Vesterheim in Decorah; two years ago, I was commissioned to paint a gift to the king and queen of Norway. They chose me because I do portraits and rosemaling. I did a plate with rosemaling and fine art portrait of them in it, and when I went to present it to the king and queen, I was wearing a traditional Norwegian costume. I brought it to her, and you have to walk backwards away from a king and queen because you're never supposed to turn your back on them, and I saw the queen hand it to the king. She probably thought 'just another rosemaled plate...we've got hundreds of them,' until she took a second looak and saw that it had their portrait in it, and she nudges the king. They were both smiling. I received a 'thank you' from the Norwegian embassy."

That wasn't her first brush with Norwegian royalty. When she was 10 years old, her mother took her to see the prince and princess of Norway when they were visiting the area.

The experience perhaps anticipated that the art of photography would not only lead to a career, but also to love. Years later, she discovered a photograph of the visit by royalty that showed a 16-year-old boy in the back of the crowd. That boy in the photograph eventually became her husband.