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Rudser, Thelma Alvina (a.k.a. "Telle")
b. October 6, 1910
Discipline: Folk/Traditional, Wood

Known as “Telle,” Thelma Rudser was born into a family of wood workers. Her great-uncle Sevil was a cabinet maker in Norway while another great-uncle, Thomas Risem, was a woodcarver for the Chickering Piano Company in Boston. Her grandfather was an amateur woodcarver in Norway.

Rudser was born and raised in Grand Forks, North Dakota. She took up woodcarving at an early age, inspired in part by a pair of ladles made by her grandfather. When some neighbors moved away, she found two jackknives in their trash and used one of them to whittle her first carvings. (The other knife was given to her brother in a trade.)

She graduated from the University of North Dakota in 1935. She had majored in physical education, but also studied in the art and industrial arts departments.

In 1937, she moved to Bismarck and worked as crafts project instructor for the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The WPA was a federal New Deal program designed to alleviate unemployment during the Great Depression. In it, Rudser supervised fifty-two craft shops in the state.

In 1943, she enlisted in WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service), a unit of the United States Naval Reserve. WAVES was similar to other military programs - such as the Women's Army Corps (WAC) and the Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS) - in which more than 250,00 women were sent to the front lines of World War Two. They served as nurses, cartographers, computer operators, auto mechanics, weather forecasters, parachute packers, mail sorters, photographers, air traffic controllers, dog and pigeon trainers, and even Marines. Rudser served as an aviation machinist’s mate.

When she returned to civilian life at the end of the war, she settled in Bismarck and established Telle’s Hobby Lab, a professional woodcarving shop. In 1948, she relocated everything to McKenzie, a small town just east of Bismarck. She made her living carving figurines, letter openers, stamp boxes, and the like. She also carved special-order items such as furniture pieces and plaques for special occasions.

She would also incorporate her heritage into much of her work. Her plates, bowls, forks, and other utensils were often decorated with intricately carved trolls and other things from Norwegian lore. Also, she often added to the carvings with rosemaling, a traditional form of decorative Norwegian folk painting. Usually very colorful, this abstract style of painting incorporated floral designs and curvy linear forms that decorated chests, furniture, and other household items.

Later, she returned to Bismarck and, among other things, taught woodcarving in classes sponsored by the city’s Parks and Recreation department.

- Ben Nemenoff


Barr, Paul E. North Dakota Artists. Grand Forks: University of North Dakota Library, 1954.

Frank, Mary Margaret. “Telle.” Publication and date unknown.

Martin, Christopher. Prairie Patterns: Folk Arts in North Dakota. Bismarck: North Dakota Council on the Arts, 1989.

Rolfsrud, Erling Nicolai. Extraordinary North Dakotans. Alexandria, Minnesota: Lantern Books, 1954.

Taylor, Edwin Mrs. Catalogue of Art Workers Within North Dakota. Bismarck: American Association of University Women (local branch), 1945.

“Thelma Rudser’s Woodcarving Illustrates Old Norwegian Craft.” Grenora Tribune, 1935.

Other Sources:

State Historical Society of North Dakota
NDCA blue art footer with typed arts disciplines listed