Lila Nelson was an adventurous Minnesota farm girl who left the land to attend college, join the U.S. Air Force and then forge a national reputation as a scholar and artist of traditional Norwegian textiles.
She and her husband, Marion Nelson, now deceased, are credited with transforming a small Norwegian folk art museum in Decorah, Iowa, into a 12-building historical heritage center — the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum — now considered one of the nation's premier ethnic museums.
Nelson was active in the Weavers Guild of Minnesota for decades, taught classes and led tours to Norway, and created an impressive body of weaving. She died May 26 at age 93.
"She was an exceptional woman," said Claire Selkurt, a retired art history professor from the University of Minnesota and longtime friend. "She and her husband were founders of an ethnic museum of national significance. She was a remarkable artist. And she was a wonderful teacher and mentor."
In 2001, Nelson was awarded the St. Olav medal by the Norwegian government in recognition of her contributions to Norwegian-American culture.
Nelson was one of two children born to Marie and Amand Nentwich, who farmed near Long Prairie, Minn. She graduated from St. Cloud State University and then taught in a one-room schoolhouse, said her niece Laurie Garland, of New Mexico. But Nelson "loved her independence," said Garland, and wanted to see more of the world.
So Nelson enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, where she landed a position at a weather mapping division in Germany, Garland said. She returned to Minnesota after several years to pursue a master's degree in English at the U, where she met her husband, Marion, who years later would chair the university's art history department. The two were married in 1957.
"She was not traditional in the least," said Garland. "She was always a very interesting woman."
The couple spent considerable time in Norway, where Nelson developed her love of Norwegian culture. By the mid-1960s, they were hired to catalog the collection of art, pottery, furniture and other artifacts at the Vesterheim museum, then affiliated with Luther College. When the museum became an independent nonprofit in 1965, Lila Nelson became the museum's textile curator and Marion Nelson the museum's director.
The couple steered the museum into remarkable growth and stature, becoming a frequent stop for Norwegian dignitaries. The collection grew to include 24,000 items in a dozen historic buildings that bring to life the Norwegian immigrant experience, said Charlie Langton, the museum's editor.
For 30 years, the Nelsons worked at the museum — commuting to Iowa on weekends and during summers from their Minneapolis home, said Langton, a longtime friend.
"They accepted no pay for most of the time they were here," said Langton. "It was about giving back, and they did a million-fold."
Lila Nelson's love of textiles also led her to the Weavers Guild of Minnesota, where she was an active member and teacher for 60 years, said Becky Franklin, the guild's managing director. She wove both traditional and contemporary themes.
For example, Nelson created a tapestry about famine, and about the war in Iraq. She also incorporated words or poetry into her work. Joked Franklin: "She was a little bit of a subversive."
Nelson is survived by her niece Garland, cousin Jean Olson of St. Paul and sister-in-law Varda Hanson of Fergus Falls. A celebration of her life will be held at the Textile Center of Minnesota in Minneapolis on June 25.
Jean Hopfensperger 612 673-4511