Iron Range artist brought 'Grace' photo to fame

  • Article by: PAUL WALSH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 27, 2012 - 11:45 PM
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Rhoda Nyberg and young relatives with "Grace" in 2002

An Iron Range artist whose coloring of her father's photograph "Grace" fueled its worldwide popularity has died.

Rhoda Nyberg was born above the Bovey, Minn., studio where in 1918 Eric Enstrom photographed a man at a table bowed in thankful prayer before a modest meal. Nyberg died last Tuesday in Grand Rapids, 11 days after her 95th birthday, following a series of strokes.

"She played a major role" in the world's embrace of "Grace," said Kris Mayerle, one of her children. "And I don't think she ever really wanted to take a lot of credit in interviews. It was always about Grandpa."

While Rhoda was working as a dress designer in Duluth, her father called her home to help him in his photo studio. It was there that she learned how to hand-color black and white or sepia photographs.

She began coloring "Grace" with heavy oils. That work was well received, and sales of the picture soared. Her coloring was used on the prints starting in the 1940s by Augsburg Publishing, which began production when Enstrom Studio could not meet demand.

In 2002, and with Rhoda Nyberg and other Enstrom descendants attending, a State Capitol ceremony marked the colored version's designation as the official picture of the state of Minnesota.

"I remember this picture from the time I was a child," news accounts of the festivities quoted a teary Nyberg as saying. "We were very proud of it. This is going to be something his grandkids ... and his great-grandkids are going to remember for a long time."

At the ceremony, she recalled reading letters from people who saw the "Grace" photo in Europe. While pushing for the state photo honor, Senate sponsor Bob Lessard of International Falls said he saw a print in a "teeny little shop" in Costa Rica.

"It just kind of shows how international it is," Lessard said of the colored photograph that remains a staple of farm kitchens, restaurants and grandmas' dining rooms.

"I'm looking at one now in my kitchen," said Mayerle, who lives among a collection of family cabins along a lake near Bovey. "She painted this one."

Another "Grace," measuring 18 by 24 inches, hangs in the living room, she said, noting that "every wall has some of her paintings, and my basement is filled."

The man in "Grace" is Charles Wilden, an elderly peddler from nearby Grand Rapids. His serene face was captured at a studio table with a family Bible, a pair of eyeglasses, a loaf of bread, a knife and a bowl of gruel placed before him, his folded hands on his brow in prayer.

"It's got a simplicity to it," the now-former Rep. Loren Solberg, DFL-Bovey, said at the time he introduced legislation on behalf of the photo's designation. "It shows a man who is grateful for the simple things in life."

Nyberg graduated from Greenway High School, then nearby Itasca Junior College and the Pepin School of Fashion Design in Minneapolis. She became a well-known Iron Range artist based in Coleraine, focusing on oils, watercolors and historical prints.

"She really got into watercolors," Mayerle said, "lots of landscapes of northern Minnesota and lots of flowers. [She painted] anything that was pretty."

Eric Enstrom died in 1968 at 93.

Nyberg also was preceded in death by her husband of 53 years, Vincent Nyberg, and an infant son, Eric. Along with Mayerle, she is survived by children Kent Nyberg of rural Bovey and Kim Nyberg of Minnetonka.

A memorial service for Rhoda Nyberg and for her sister, Lois Berendts, who died in January, will be held this summer. Burial will be at Lakeview Cemetery in Coleraine.

Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482

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