Heritage Memorialized

31 Mural, Painting on Masonite

Painting on Masonite Mural, Painting on Masonite
Olaf Colberson, 1928
Masonite, paint
Little Norway Collection, Gift of Scott & Jennifer Winner
MHAHS 2016.040.0001

Norwegian-trained painter Olaf “Ole” Colberson immigrated to Black Earth, Wisconsin. At one point in his life, he was committed to the Wisconsin Hospital for the Insane. He was later released by petitions from his Norwegian community of devoted friends.  They provided him a new home and began purchasing his artwork.  His talent was later recognized by Isaak Dahle who commissioned Colberson to adorn one of Little Norway’s buildings with a series of murals. Each mural depicts a quiet rural scene in the Norway home region of Dahle’s grandfather.

For a complete essay on this object, click here.

Olaf Colberson was a trained painter, who learned his trade in Norway before moving to the Midwest. “—not only a house painter, but an artist who created beautiful pictures.”[1] He is remembered best for his paintings that decorated the halls of Little Norway. Most of what can learned about Colberson comes from his funeral and wake, where his closest friends spoke about who he was as a person, his talents, and his family. Anne Sinley,[2] displayed the majority of what we can infer about his personal life in a touching eulogy. She provides information about his family, his time in Mendota mental hospital, information about his training, and his influence within the community.

She starts her letter by detailing how she came to meet the Colberson family, they were neighbors in Black Earth, Wisconsin, and because of their shared immigration experiences the families became friends. It was sometime after this move that Colberson’s life took an interesting turn.

Sometime about 1922 or 1923, we heard that Colberson was at Mendota, supposedly a mental case. My brother, Ole, was just then taking a degree in Psychology. He and my father went to Mendota to see our old friend. It seems that while he was undergoing some minor surgery, devious means had been implemented to get him committed to Mendota. He was listed as manic depressive and with good reason. He had been completely disowned and deserted by his wife, daughter and son-in-law and stripped of his home and all of his assets.[3]

The people who should have cared for him the most abandoned Colberson, and society had shunned and temporarily forgotten about him.

Anne Sinley then describes how her father obtained a one-month temporary release for Colberson, and when the community saw that he did not have any ongoing mental health illnesses, the governor, Phillip LaFollette, obtained a permanent release for him. According to Sinley, LaFollete then purchased a house for Colberson to reside back in Black Earth, and the community helped assist him get his life back together. While rebuilding his life Colberson started with redecorating. He kept himself busy and spent his time creating artworks, and was even hired by others in the community to create art for their homes. The community was re-embracing him, and he was asserting himself back into the community. It was at this time when Little Norway was searching for a person to help decorate some scenery of the owners’ family background. They wanted someone who could paint in a traditional Norwegian style, and they commissioned Olaf Colberson after observing his work displayed throughout Black Earth.

The people of Little Norway began driving him back and forth between Black Earth and Little Norway for the entirety of his commission, and his work was very well received. The Mount Horeb Historical Society has in its possession a letter from Little Norway exclaiming, “Your effort is a marked contribution to the attractiveness of Little Norway and receives very high commendation on all sides…I can imagine no artist but one of Norse birth who could have done this work as they could not have gotten into the spirit of it.”[4]

The four artworks displayed here are landscapes the portray scenes from Isak Dahle’s, the creator and commissioner for Little Norway, childhood ; Mr. Colberson was locally considered a renowned landscape artist, however some of the pieces also included images of animals, people, or buildings. Each of the images had nail holes throughout the center of the images, and was informed that the frames were not original to the paintings. So these were not hung, but were pinned.

Colberson passed away around Thanksgiving in 1931, and his obituary kindly remarks, “Mr. Colbertson [sic], as well as being a musician, was a hand painter of unrecognized ability. Landscape scenes were his specialty and he produced original work.”[5] He felt and faced the stigma of mental illness, and how difficult it is to move on with one’s life once they have been labeled—even incorrectly. Art can be a therapeutic representation of a community or one’s self, and through Mr. Colberson’s landscapes we can see a man who was represented by his ethnicity and his community. There is a story and a message in Olaf Colberson’s life and artwork, he can be representative of many groups of people: immigrants, traditional folk artists (Norwegian folk artists), those condemned to a negative label, those redeemed through perseverance, and those who loved and were loved by their community.


[1] Simley, Anne. “Remembrances of Olaf Colberson.” 1931.

[2] The Sinley name is ambiguous due to document spelling and alternative spellings of her father’s name. As stated previously, many immigrants’ names had spelling changed during translation.

[3] Simley, Anne. “Remembrances of Olaf Colberson.” 1931.

[4] Little Norway Records. “Letter of Thanks and Recognition.” August 9, 1928.

[5] “Ole Colberson Found Dead In His Home.” Mt. Horeb Times, December 1931.


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