The work of a painter can be a bit messy with stray splotches of paint haphazardly covering clothing, but the result is worth the mess.
These overalls tell a story of local artwork that is still visible inside churches, homes and county municipal buildings throughout the Midwest.
Odin Oyen was born in 1865 into a family with roots already established in the interior design business. His father, Lars, was a gilder and molder; he also owned a factory in Trondjem, Norway, that created decorative items such as picture frames.
The Oyen family immigrated to America when Odin was a young boy due to financial setbacks. They settled in Chicago and later moved to Madison. When Odin was 14, he apprenticed at a decorating firm. At 18, he returned to Chicago and enrolled at the Art Institute of Chicago. While Odin was a student, he gained practical experience for his future business endeavors in the employ of a decorating company on Michigan Avenue.
A few years later, Odin moved to La Crosse and helped start an interior decorating business with Louis Nelson in 1888. Two years later, the partnership had dissolved and the young men went their separate ways. Odin stayed in the interior design business and brought his father and brother into his business.
After the business became a success, he settled down and married a teacher named Emma Nelson. Odin and Emma had two sons, Leighton and Harold. Just as Odin had followed in the footsteps of his father, Leighton and Harold followed in the footsteps of Odin. Leighton became an artist and Harold a salesman.
Shortly after his sons joined the firm, Odin died at age 61. Oyen Interior Design Firm was carried on by Odin’s former partner, Louis Nelson, and Odin’s son, Leighton. The firm dissolved in 1931 during the Great Depression, when the need for lavishly decorated buildings was put on hold.
This pair of overalls was discovered tucked away in the attic of the home of Leighton after he had sold his home in the 1980s. Along with the overalls, samples of wallpapers from the studio were found.
These overalls are stamped OYEN on the inside of the bib. They are a made of a heavy, once-white canvas and have a crusty texture of dried-on paint in shades of gray and yellow. These overalls more than likely witnessed the creation of a few local masterpieces in their day.
Fortunately, the buyer of the home made sure that the overalls and other items from the attic were donated to La Crosse County Historical, where their story of an immigrant’s successful business is preserved.
This article was originally published in the La Crosse Tribune on May 19, 2018.