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Embellishing Existing Artifacts

In such culturally diverse places as Wisconsin, folk artists often convey ethnic, geographic, and occupational identity through objects that are traded, sold, and displayed at festive public events. Makers often self-consciously create these artifacts for audiences outside their own immediate communities. Some of these objects romanticize a bygone era; others combine elements of everyday mass culture and esoteric folk culture.

Folk artists sometimes alter existing objects by embellishing them with traditional designs that strike outsiders as unusual or even exotic. The object's basic form and practical function may persist, but it assumes a new identity through the decoration its modifier applies. The form of decoration proclaims the modifier's allegiance to a cultural tradition that played no part in the original creation of the artifact.

Norwegian Traditions


Rosemaled Knife Holder, ca. 1965

Created by Vi Thode.
Wisconsin Historical Museum object # 1996.118.145.1-.2

Rosemaling, the Norwegian folk tradition of painting functional objects with colorful floral designs, began in Norway around 1750. Typically, everyday household items (such as the kitchen knife holder pictured here) were painted with common rosemaling motifs such as s-scrolls, c-scrolls, and acanthus leaves.

The Hardanger fiddle, a stringed instrument, is another Norwegian object that is often highly decorated. The fiddle plays the music of Norway and is used for dancing, accompanied by rhythmic loud foot stomping. It was also traditional for the fiddler to lead the bridal procession to the church.


Playing a Hardanger Fiddle, 19th century

WHS CF 32918


Otto Rindlisbacher Playing a Hardanger Violin

Rice Lake, Wisconsin. Buckhorn Tavern. Source: James P. Leary

Beaded Objects


Beaded Baby Shoes, 1990

Wisconsin Historical Museum object # 1993.102a-b

Folk artists sometimes alter existing objects by embellishing them with traditional designs. Ho-Chunk artist Linda Lucero of Black River Falls, Wisconsin, modified a pair of Reebok baby shoes by attaching glass and bronze faceted beads. In doing this, she gave a ubiquitous commercial product a specific ethnic identity.

Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe artist Beverly Gouge began beading at the age of nine. She had beaded caps for ten years when she completed the beaded baseball cap seen here as an object for sale.

An unknown Ojibwe maker embellished the shoulder strap to a powder horn seen here, a European trade good. The exquisite beadwork gives a Native American identity to a non-Native object.


Beaded Baseball Cap, 1990

Wisconsin Historical Museum object # 1990.30


Powder Horn with Beaded Shoulder Strap, 1800-1848

Wisconsin Historical Museum object # 1947.848