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 Frank N. Engebretson  (1882 - )

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Lived/Active: Wisconsin      Known for: barn mural art, pastoral scenes

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
As a barefoot farm boy in a country school, Frank N. Engebretson, barn muralist, first attracted the attention of his teacher by his love for art.  In the Engebretson School near Gratiot, LaFayette County, Frank Higgins, his teacher, brought him drawing materials, pictures of buildings he was to use as models, and encouragement to express his own originality. Aside from a few months' correspondence work in crayon drawing, when he was a young man, and a half dozen lessons in tapestry painting during a trip to California, this was all the training he ever received. It was scant preparation for the great eighty and ninety-foot murals he was later to paint on the broad sides of Wisconsin barns.

The first painting he did was as a house painter. At sixteen years of age, having finished his eight grades in school, he began work as an apprentice. Two years later he was on his own, and to this day he has made his living primarily as an interior decorator and house painter. His brother Julius was first responsible for his departure from the practical and utilitarian. His first barn painting, on the Jake Winn farm near Wiota in 1924, was a large advertisement of fine Holstein cows. When his brother saw the work, he suggested that the next mural be painted on the side of his own barn and be simply a beautiful landscape. Thus was born a strange art, the creation of huge roadside murals on farmers' barns. He has painted scores of them, many located on obscure country roads.

Today Frank Engebretson is a well-known rural artist; his murals have attracted attention from newspapers and magazines from Massachusetts to the west coast. Country Gentleman, the Prairie Farmer, the Christian Science Monitor, Life, and many other national and local papers have carried stories about him and his pictures.  His murals have brought vivid farm and nature scenes to over a hundred barns in LaFayette and Green counties, and but for limitations of time and energy - and because he is a "poor man to get away from home,"- he could have carried his art to many other parts of the state.

Dane County alone brought over a dozen offers from farmers who had seen his murals to the south. Others came from as far as Green Bay.

Born in 1882 on a farm near Gratiot, he married a Norwegian girl when he was twenty-five years of age. Of their three children, the two sons work with the father on both interior decorating and barn murals. Both of Engebretson's parents were born in Norway, and the comfortable home in Brodhead today has typical Norwegian atmosphere and hospitality. We get a feeling of unusual compactness of family from the stories of great family gatherings, from Engebretson's elaborate chart of geneology. He has traced the family back to the old country grandfather who "came to Green County in 1848, after a nine weeks' voyage in the three-masted ship, Forward."

Located in the spacious northwestern section of Brodhead, the homestead has as its most noticeable feature the striking mural on the barn facing the house. It is a graphic portrayal of the old covered bridge at Clarence, which stood south of the town until fifteen years ago. Hundreds of visitors, chiefly from the surrounding community but also from neighboring counties, have walked or driven up to the house to study the picture, as well as the decorations on the house itself and in the yard. "It is not only the old timers who knew the bridge," remarked Mrs. Engebrptson, "but also many young people who come."

Although he has lived in both California and Florida, Engebretson and his calm Norwegian wife are rooted to their native state. He is happiest when he is creating a mural for some Wisconsin farmer, and it does not matter that the farmer often wishes to furnish the subject matter for the painting. Some Swiss farmers, for instance, have asked for mountain scenes from Switzerland. Engebretson makes sketches and submits them for approval before beginning the work on the barn. But more often farmers have been content to let the painter work out the design from his own experience. This he does after talking with the farmer to find out his interests. Then he makes suggestions, often with reference to the size of the barn and the nature of the surrounding terrain.

Counting the many times he has repainted and refinished the murals, which farm families have wanted, Engebretson has painted well over two miles of murals on barns alone. One might think that after this achievement he would be content to let his brushes lie, but he is still active with small sketches in oil.  Last winter in a trailer camp at Sarasota, Florida, while recuperating from illness, he happened to paint a landscape on the screen door of a neighboring trailer.  Soon his fellow 'trailerites' were besieging him with requests for "screen paintings," for which they were willing to pay. "I suppose I could have done a land-office business," he said. "if I had had the time." As it was, people would take the screen doors off and bring them along in the hopes of getting a picture, particularly people from Wisconsin.??

Thus the boyhood desire to paint pictures has followed him throughout his life. Though his barn murals are the most original contribution he has made to the needs of the common people for color and artistic experience, he also paints many small sketches in oil which he has sold or given away. One of his large oils hangs in the county court house in Darlington, and an interior mural may be seen in the Brodhead Hotel. Instruction might have made him a professional artist, but he is well content to have made a creative contribution to the life of people in his own rural community.

Brodhead Historical Society

Barton, John Rector, 1897- / Rural Artists of Wisconsin (1948), ?Frank H. Engebretson: Brodhead. "Two miles of murals",   pp. 37-40?

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