by Roger H. Nielsen
Museum of Danish America
"Celebrating My Danish Heritage" at the
A self-portrait, floating on a Viking-themed background: celebrating Vikings as explorers, conquerors, and farmers; recognizing Denmark as the oldest monarchy with a long and colorful history, and the oldest flag in the world; and featuring simple cottages to magnificent castles.
When Diya Nagaraj, the Curator at the Museum of Danish America, called and asked if I was interested in displaying my paintings in its galleries, I was flabbergasted with delight. It was an opportunity to not only display my talents as an artist, but to express my pride in my Danish heritage.
I grew up as a middle-class American, but also everything Danish. Our South Minneapolis house was filled with Danish art and artifacts. When my folks entertained, which they did often, they served primarily Danish cuisine on Royal Copenhagen porcelain with Georg Jensen silverware. Most of their friends were Danish; they were active in the Danish-American community and organizations. We attended the Danish American Lutheran Church, where I was baptized and confirmed. Consequently, a lot of my friends growing up were also of Danish descent.
I remember with fondness the wonderful Danish parties that my parents had or attended. They were joyful events, usually with bountiful food and libation. There was an abundance of toasts with aquavit and beer, which, of course, encouraged more toasts and much singing. Kringle and coffee were served at the end to allow time for the joy of the evening to mellow before heading home.
My dad’s favorite singer was Lauritz Melchior, the Danish opera singer, who we watched frequently on TV. I can still hear, “If I could tell you of my devotion ...”, the theme song for that show, in my head as I write. Oh, we had our favorite Danish actors as well: one was Jean Hersholt, who was best known as Dr. Christian in the popular radio series (1937-1954) and several movies of the same name. Each year, a humanitarian award named for him is given out at the Academy Awards ceremony.
In those days we walked to school and came home for lunch. While we ate, my mother would read to my brothers and me, usually about Danish subjects and quite often, Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales. We knew “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” “The Little Match Girl” and many others by heart. When the movie, The Hans Christian Andersen Story, starring Danny Kaye, a Danish actor, came out, I sat in the theater watching it with bursts of pride.
I was well-versed in Danish history and mythology. In school, when we were given an assignment, I usually chose a topic relating to Denmark, something I could talk about for hours without hesitation.
My father, one of 15 siblings born to an aristocratic, entrepreneurial farmer, came to America at the age of 16. With only a small footlocker filled with meager belongings, he started his journey in pursuit of the “American Dream.” Times were tough at first, but the work ethic his father installed in him allowed him to persevere. Though he was trained as a carpenter, he took any job that was available in order to survive and eventually succeed. He ended up in Minneapolis working at his trade for his future father-in-law, also a Danish immigrant. That’s how he met my mother, who became his best friend and helped him overcome a speech impediment and learn English, as she was bilingual.
My mother was the one who really nurtured my interest in art. As a child, I was always drawing. When I stayed at the home of friends or relatives, she would say, “If Roger gets restless or bored, just give him a pencil and paper, and he’ll be happy.” She encouraged me to take after-school and weekend art classes all through my teens. My dad would have preferred that I pursue one of the trades—not because he didn’t admire my artistic abilities, but because he didn’t realize that art could be a career. But Mom was fully supportive and constantly encouraged me. Even later, when I was living in art-student poverty while attending school in Chicago, she would send me small amounts of money with her weekly letters to help me survive and continue.
While on the subject of art school, I must admit that I was extremely fortunate to ever be accepted in such a prestigious school. The Art Institute of Chicago, at the time, was rated number two in the country after the Pratt Institute in New York City. My grades in high school were just barely acceptable for admittance, but my portfolio put me over the top. At that time, most of the instructors were nationally recognized artists, rather than people with teaching degrees, as schools are today. The emphasis was on draftsmanship and learning the basics in color and design, rather than what’s considered “creativity” and pushing the limit on cutting-edge concepts, which probably explains why I consider myself more of a craftsman than a conceptual artist.
I think most classically trained artists, if they so desired, could produce successful abstract works, but, in my opinion, very few abstract or conceptual artists, who lack the basics, could produce “realism” with any success. As a case in point, I have a friend who teaches in a very respectable art school and produces very compelling abstracts, but doesn’t have the ability to draw anything that resembles a chosen subject or object with accuracy or skill. It’s interesting that this person critiques my art as “merely sentimental illustrations,” which, to my way of thinking, sounds very complimentary and puts me in good company of previous masters, who, after all, were basically illustrators of their time. One of my favorite American artists, Winslow Homer, developed his “chops” as an illustrator for Harper’s Magazine.
To a large extent, my father was more right than I realized. Once done with school and a short stint in the Navy Reserves, I found myself back in Minneapolis with a wife and a baby on the way. The possibilities of making it as an artist with my new responsibilities looked pretty slim. Rather than go in the direction of my father in the building trades, I went to work for a family friend (another Dane), who was expanding his picture framing business and needed help. It was an apprenticeship that served me well. I helped him launch what is now a Warren Buffet-owned company, and he taught me a trade at which I became quite good and allowed me to enhance world-class paintings with my frames.
I eventually launched my own company, Master Framers, that became nationally known for designing and manufacturing fine, handcrafted, and gilded frames for museums and high-end collectors. This gave me a certain amount of “expert” status that allowed me to share my techniques with my peers by giving seminars and workshops at national trade shows and conventions.
I’m extremely grateful for the work ethic that my father drilled into my brothers and me, as his father did to him. “Work is a Blessing” became a credo that we all lived by. Those of my father’s siblings who came to the U.S. have all achieved the “American Dream” through hard work and dedication. My parents were successful building contractors and several of his brothers became wealthy restauranteurs. The next generation has built on that. I have a brother who has been very successful in business, and his sons are taking it to another level. Another brother was a musician with records on the charts, and so it goes. All from the “Work is a Blessing” credo drilled into us so long ago.
During my middle decades, making art took a back seat to raising a family and building a business. I had a tiny studio and occasionally made a painting, but the studio was primarily for doing art restoration—something I still do part-time. It wasn’t until I retired that I could rekindle my original dream of creating art. Celebrating My Heritage is really a collection of paintings illustrating the pride and love I have for my relatives, both past and present. Viewers will see a variety of family portraits referenced from old, faded pictures, as well as from life and current photos. I have scenes of my father’s birth farm and landscapes from photos I’ve taken on my trips to Denmark. I’ve also paid tribute to the Skagen Painters and the
Golden Age of Danish Painting.
My style of painting varies from loose and sketchy to more refined and detailed. I approach each painting as a new challenge, and I continue to grow with each venture. I hope readers will enjoy viewing my exhibition featured at the Museum of Danish America in Elk Horn, Iowa, June 25 - November 4, 2022. To see more of my artwork, visit my website www.rogerhnielsen.com and like me on Facebook.
Thank you, Roger H. Nielsen, 1940-whenever