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5.14: Olaf ‘Ole’ Colberson’s Wall Murals: Finding a Voice Against Stigma

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    Going into this research project I had a lot of concerns about how I myself could approach this project. First, I have little to no academic or practical background in art history or material culture. I did have experience working in a museum under my internship at the Milwaukee Public Museum, where I worked with objects retired from the collections that would later be used in their children’s programming. However when I was eighteen, I paid less attention into the cultural significance of the objects I was handling, and more determined to create a physical and online sorting system and have an opportunity to build a stronger resume. I have always loved museums and jumped at the opportunity to take this course that would allow me to be part of an amazing opportunity to create something that would last within a community.

    My academic background is a Bachelor of Arts in History, focuses on European history and modern chronological history (18th century onwards), with a certificate in Classics, and currently I am working towards my Masters in Library Information Sciences. Second, I have no Norwegian, or Scandinavian background—my family is VERY German—and other than Norse mythologies and Disney’s Frozen, came in with little cultural understanding, but have an eagerness to learn. During my undergraduate career I often wrote about the human or societal portions of history, specifically gender roles, political theories, and societal and international conflict while attempting to write with as little personal bias as possible. I learned rather quickly that History and Art History took very different approaches. After a semester in this class and discussing with people who have actual backgrounds in these topics, I believe that I needed a new approach to this research project.

    Selection Process And Initial Thoughts
    When we went through and selected our objects for this assignment, I remember initially reading through and selecting four or five objects that stood out to me. It was not until we chose on class day that I decided on Olaf ‘Ole’ Colberson’s Wall Murals. The biggest decision making factor was the blurb on the pieces significance and history.

    Large landscapes that adorned walls at Little Norway. Olaf Colberson was born in 1860 or 1861, immigrated to the U.S. from Norway in 1888. Moved between Wisconsin and Minnesota before finding himself in the Madison area. A eulogy in our collections explains “devious means had been implemented to get him committed to Mendota” mental hospital in Madison. Friends assisted with his release and helped him get set up in Black Earth. He was a trained painter and eventually painted these murals at Little Norway. He died in 1931.

    After reading through it I was intrigued by the concept of forced institutionalization and thought, “there’s a story here, with this particular artist.” I wanted to find out why he was institutionalized, I wanted to know how his friends helped him get out, and lastly I wanted to find out why the entire blurb was more about the person than it was the object itself. It made me wonder if this particular person was prominent in Mt. Horeb. I also have an interest in mental health services (my sister works for UHS in their mental health services department) and policies, specifically looking at how they have changed throughout the years.

    To add onto my inexperience with material culture and art history, on my first trip to Mount Horeb where I first saw the pieces, I was initially impressed with their quality, but immediately thought there were proportion issues. Some of the figures seemed to appear as too large or too small, and I was not sure if it was from issues in perspective? This also only occurs in his paintings that have creatures in them, comparative to his landscape only works. This led me to believe that maybe he learned how to paint as a hobby, or had a natural ability, perhaps learned at the hospital itself, and was less of a professional or school training—this I would later learn was very wrong, and I will go into those details when I discuss more about Ole’s background.
    My next observation was that 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 pinned (or nailed) to wherever they were displayed. The pieces were described as wall murals, and I was surprised that they were displayed in what I would consider a damaging way. Why would they not hang it from the back, or attach it to some wire?

    Lastly, I noticed that the paint didn’t reach the frames along each edge, or may have been worn or rubbed off—hence why the historical society, or whoever, provided the paintings with new frames. All this initially led me to believe was that, although these paintings may have been beloved, they were not given proper or gentle treatment in their past locations or during their transition to ownership from the Mount Horeb Historical Society.

    Folk Art Versus Outsider Art: My Internal Debate About Ole
    Because I was only able to see the pieces twice, and read the history of the item once near the end of the semester I was working with minimal information at the beginning of my research. I had problems placing Ole for what type of artist he was, and one thought I kept returning to, where was he trained? Was he traditionally trained or did he receive training through his forced stay at the Mendota Mental Hospital? Would the answer to those questions technically define who Ole was as an artist?

    My first few searches into Olaf ‘Ole’ Colberson had little findings. His work was not publicized anywhere, hospital reports are confidential, and was seemingly not placed on the internet. In fact the only specific findings I had on Ole or his family were the census records that tracked him, his wife, and his daughter’s movements between Wisconsin and Minnesota. These reports also show the U.S. government’s inability to track certain people or groups, as Ole was listed repeatedly, but under different spellings or adaptations of his name. This was fairly common for most immigrants, especially prior to the 1900’s once World War I started and the U.S. government became stricter on the groups of people that came, and keeping records of them. I will discuss what I learned more specifically about Ole in the section about him, his life, and his work.

    One of the earliest ideas someone said that could relate to Ole and his murals were about outsider art. Outsider art is generally defined as art created by those who are not officially trained or are outside of an establishment. How this pertains to Ole is through his perceived mental health conditions, as many people use this form or definition of art as a therapy for mental health disorders. This concept of mental health issues and art interested me as they do discuss a lot about the people and the conditions themselves while still addressing what they are capable of artistically creating or crafting. Because I was not initially informed on when Ole was trained, it was plausible that he received training or practice while he was institutionalized at Mendota. Looking more into outsider art I found a few studies and movements that use outsider art as an aid for those with mental health, but also a political force to garner attention to larger issues. These included gaining more notice for ‘othered’ artists, promoting awareness about people with mental health conditions, and attempting to raise funds and research into how art can help those who are diagnosed with these conditions. How can art, and the promotion of outsider art lead to improved lives and awareness about the community of those who suffer from mental health conditions?

    A quality example of outsider art as a political platform can be seen from the case in Denver, Colorado where a piece initiated by Leo Tanguma and David DeLay was used to increase discussion on real issues. “The artwork…was created and is exhibited with several goals in mind: to provide persons who are mentally ill with a chance to express feelings about their lives and to choose how people with mental illness are represented; to provide a reason for various community members to work together and gain confidence in their abilities; and the educate the general public.” The idea of the project was to have those with mental illnesses describe to the artist what they feel like, how they are represented, and how they wish to be represented. The initial discussion lasted about 3 hours and from there they all collaborated in designing, sketching, and painting the murals. This group included people from a wide variety of mental illnesses, ages, racial backgrounds, and health treatment.

    It was clear very on that being in this environment was helpful to many of the participants in not only engaging in their own self-awareness, but also in building an understanding about art and how it can represent them too. During the building and decorating process of the project, the group of artists had to work together in lifted, decorated, and pinning the giant murals together. This process alone helped the participants improve in their social interactions, as they discussed with others in a safe and aware environment. As the meetings continued more and more people came and interacted, bringing food, or family members. They taught the group how to operate the different tools and equipment to build and together erected the murals.

    The design was intricate, light, sharp, and essentially conflicted. “The shape would be basically triangular, with irregularities along the edges and two voids left in the design plane: one void an asymmetrical heart, the other a somewhat abstractly drawn butterfly with jagged borders. The openings would represent the emptiness that existed in the lives of many of the participants. The irregularities along the edges would represent a general societal view of mental illness as bizarre; they were also simply to intended to catch the eye.” The product was also divided into 2 halves, light and dark. The dark half showed how mental illnesses can be viewed, and how those views can alter a way in which the participants saw themselves. The light side was bright and colorful in hopes that they will be ‘normalized’ and understood for themselves and not for their conditions. The pieces were first shown altogether in an exhibit, and were received positively. After the initial exhibit the pieces were split up and divided throughout the Denver metropolitan area, where they continued to promote the conversation about mental health, and those who suffer from those illnesses. “The story of the murals creation and the impact of its display have conveyed to them that there is a growing community of individuals who are “coming out of the closet,” so to speak, about mental illness.”

    This is only one example of how outsider art can be used as a platform, and how being “othered” or different can give people a voice in order to bridge gaps through artistic creations. Another, more recent example is the Porch Light Initiative in Philadelphia. The initiative is currently working on an ongoing, community based, healing through art project that emphasizes the importance of universal health and wellness. Together the community has banded to form an entire grouping of outsider artists who are transforming their society from the outside in. “A finished Porch Light artwork shines a light on those people who helped bring the project to life and challenges social stigmas of around mental and behavioral health, offering a fresh window of opportunity for continued progress and community growth.”

    The project began as a research opportunity. They wanted to learn if creating art helps improve social, behavioral, and mental health. Not only were they measuring those participating within the program, but within the community itself. The program works by pairing porch light artists with locals who have been known to struggle with addictions or mental health disorders. Together they paint murals around the city and conduct qualitative and quantitative research to determine if the murals have a positive impact on people’s lives.

    Throughout the experiment the researchers followed two timelines, individual timelines for the participants and an overlying community timeline. Starting with the individual timeline, the researchers established a baseline. They interviewed their participants to see how they felt about their specific situations, and how it was difficult to get past some of their issues with society. These interviews then continued throughout the entire process of the experiment. Next they would work with their paired artists and design and install the different murals. They would be interviewed after the artwork was completed to note any changes in their behavior or thoughts, and interviewed one last time much later to see if there were any further changes, once they were not consistently creating the artwork. The community was surveyed, interviewed, and observed once prior to the start of the community’s makeover, during the installation process, and once after in order to determine how their thoughts and feelings changed. They selected 3 communities for the large-scale mural projects, measured their demographics, and compared them to similar communities that would not receive assistance or partnership from Porch Light.

    The results showed promise for future Porch Light projects, as the participants reported being less secretive about their mental health issues due to stigmas, reported experiencing less rejection, and reported a decrease in stress levels. “When Porch Light is implemented consistently with a regular group of participants, it holds promise for promoting recovery and resilience at the individual level.” The results of the study were promising enough for it to continue today. One participant, Adam Alli stated, “If I sit painting, it gives me self control over who I am. Everybody has their downfall, but right now everyone around this table has the courage and motivation to heal.” Together these participants were able to work together and create a safer sense of community, while also improving their own mental, or behavioral health. So far Porch Light has accomplished in finishing 30 murals, having 374 participants, and achieving over 3,000 community members within the project.

    Their research and numbers continually show how this project has helped create a safe and more engaged community. This graph shows the results of one of the sites after one year of Porch Light’s involvement and assistance within the community.

    As we can clearly see in the graph the community experienced a relatively significant change within one year of the murals project. Not only did this project create positive results in individuals but it also increased positivity throughout the community.

    The concept of mental health and how it coincides with art is fascinating to me, and spending time researching these projects was an absolute joy. It is refreshing to read about people who actively make a difference in their communities, and provide awareness about the stigmas and problems we can take approaching mental health disorders and illnesses.

    The reasons I thought Ole could be an outsider artist was because of his background in Mendota mental hospital. Many times outsider art does center on mental illness, and I thought perhaps there was a connection between Ole and this platform. But after getting back to Mount Horeb’s Historical Society, I learned that he would not be classified as an outside artist, as his background and work (at least the murals he painted for Little Norway) does not have the general characteristics of outside art. He can be classified as a traditional Norwegian folk artist, who presumably has a clear understanding of mental health stigmas.

    Olaf ‘Ole’ Colberson
    Most of what we can learn about Ole 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, displayed the vast majority about his personal life in a touching sermon where she provides information about his travel to America, his family, his time in Mendota mental hospital, and most importantly how he was trained and commissioned to paint the murals for Little Norway. She also details that his tombstone identifies him as Olaf Kolbjornson, much different than how he was more commonly known.

    She starts her letter by detailing how she came to meet Ole and his family. They were neighbors across the lake in Black Earth, Wisconsin, and because of their shared immigration experiences the families became fast friends. This was very common for many immigrant groups, and they would often form communities together. Ole 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.” Anne points out an interesting cultural practice we discussed in class, and that is how folk artists and communities viewed women and needlework. In her sermon she discusses how Ole had a beautiful wife who made beautiful embroidery. It exhibits how women were valued by their creation of homely goods and how they often used those skills on their clothing. By 1909 Ole and his family had moved to Amery, Wisconsin and took in their nephew who was also coming from Norway. His nephew would later become his son-in-law as Ole’s daughter (and only child) married her cousin.

    Next Anne goes into detail on Ole’s personal tragedy, and how he was placed in Mendota mental hospital, and how his friends secured his release:

    Sometime about 1922 or 1923, we heard that Mr. 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.

    The people who should have cared for him the most abandoned Ole, and society had shunned and temporarily forgotten about him. In this way he does relate to the outside artists, and the stigma that follows mental health conditions.

    However Ole’s artwork does not coincide with what is considered outsider art. After his friends discovered what had happened to him, they worked diligently to obtain his release from the hospital. Anne’s father obtained permission to allow Ole for one-month temporary release, and when the community saw that he did not have any ongoing mental health illnesses the governor, Phillip La Follette, obtained a permanent release for Ole. Phillip then purchased a house for Ole to reside back in Black Earth, and the community helped assist Ole to get his life back together.

    While rebuilding his life Ole 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. It was around this time when Little Norway was searching for a person to help decorate some of the community spaces. They wanted someone who could paint in a traditional Norwegian style, and they selected Ole.

    They 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.” It was not long after that Ole was commissioned for another large job, and began painting for the Colonial Lodge. Once he had finished that project, Ole gave back to the community and for no cost redecorated the community’s church. Ole passed away around Thanksgiving in 1931, and his obituary kindly remarks, “Mr. Colber[t]son, as well as being a musician, was a hand painter of unrecognized ability. Landscape scenes were his specialty and he produced original work.” Ole was survived by the family that left him, and a community that supported and appreciated him, and who continued to show appreciation in his work.

    It is through his narrative, and the story behind the man and the murals that leads me to believe that his work can only be identified as traditional Norwegian folk art. He was trained in Norway and brought his skills to America. He was specifically commissioned for his Norwegian style of artistry for Little Norway, and predominantly lived in relatively small, significantly Norse (or Scandinavian) communities. But I also believe Ole can provide example of cultural importance, and the unfair stigma placed on those who are labeled as outside artists, and those struggling with mental health illnesses. Although I was not initially correct in my research, I found a topic that is truly amazing and promotes a healthier and more accepting society.

    Although his physical work is not consistent with outside art, his life was. He felt and faced the stigma of mental illness, and how difficult it is to move on with ones life once they have been labeled—even incorrectly. Art can be a therapeutic representation of a community or one’s self, and through Ole’s landscapes we can see a man who was represented by his ethnicity and his community. Art was able to help give people in Denver and Philadelphia, and Ole a chance past the stigma of mental illness. I was correct in my initial decision in selecting these pieces; there is a story and a message here.


    This page titled 5.14: Olaf ‘Ole’ Colberson’s Wall Murals: Finding a Voice Against Stigma is shared under a CC BY license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Ann Smart Martin (University of Wisconsin Pressbooks) .

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