Lila Nelson’s Celebration: Laurann Gilbertson

It’s hard to imagine what Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum would have been like without Lila and Marion Nelson. For nearly 30 years they worked tirelessly to build and promote the collection, build a base of more than 6,000 members, and basically turn us into a world-class museum. Although Lila would always try to give the larger credit for this work to other staff and volunteers, we know that MUCH of the effort was hers.

A “Wise and Foolish Virgins” tapestry from the Vesterheim collection.

Unpaid, Lila typed correspondence for Marion when they worked on weekends and LATE into the night. She cataloged the collection of nearly 6000 artifacts that belonged to Luther College during a multi-year process to become an independent museum. She continued to catalog the artifacts for Vesterheim, another 8600+ (into 1987). The cataloging process included careful descriptions and dimensions and black and white photographs. She also developed an organizational system that allowed easy access to records in the years before computer databases. The files were arranged right to left, a holdover, she said, from her time in the Air Force. The files are still right to left.

Although there is no official record of how Vesterheim’s folk art education program, including craft study tours to Norway, originated, Lila’s fingerprints are all over. In 1967, not long after Marion and Lila took over the leadership of the museum, Vesterheim began to offer classes in folk arts, including rosemaling, woodworking, knifemaking, and weaving. Sometimes these were taught by Norwegians, sometimes by talented Americans, including Lila Nelson.

There were tours to Norway with the purpose of immersing in tradition, meeting practitioners, and learning techniques. There were textile study tours in the 1970s, and there have been numerous tours since for us and other folk artists.

A rya stored carefully in a drawer

A rya stored carefully in a drawer

The preservation of the collection was always a high priority. Lila studied textile conservation so she could actively provide better care. The passive care of the collection, though proper storage, should not be overlooked. One of Lila’s proudest accomplishments was the move of the textile collection (5,500 artifacts) into better space in 1991. She had considered the needs of each textile when planning racks (of certain lengths), drawers, and cupboards. It was my honor to work with her for 10 months as we moved from overcrowded storage to the new, carefully planned, space. As we unrolled and rerolled and put away the textiles, she would comment on them, teaching me about their color, creation, history.

Access to the artifacts was also a priority so in 2003 Lila sponsored the first all-color Vesterheim magazine. The magazine brings artifacts and their stories to members far and wide.

But even these impressive accomplishments don’t quite capture all of what Lila did for Vesterheim and for all of us. It was her ability to teach, inspire, and encourage. How many of you have heard of krokbragd or rya or have tried one of the Norwegian weaving techniques? That’s because of Lila.   Though classes, presentations, and personal contact she share her love of Norwegian textiles and of learning.

Vesterheim is pleased to offer an exhibition, beginning December 5, 2015, of some of Lila’s weavings [and tapestries will be at the Textile Center this fall]. Through her weavings, we can clearly see her life and legacy: Study historical examples, explore the possibilities for your own work, share the joy of what you’ve learned. Study, explore, share, repeat. A good way for us to live as well. Thank you, Lila.

Laurann Gilbertson is Chief Curator at the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah, Iowa.

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