Enjoy, Enjoy. . . Rosemåling

To begin, I need to establish that I am not artistic. I’ve read Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, and I still can’t draw, even though I sincerely did the exercises in the book. I’m not drawn—ha—to trying to draw either. It’s not something that lies dormant in me (that which I’m constantly excavating in retirement), but I do like making things—I can still picture the Valentines box I made in 5th grade, a shoe box decorated as a bee (“Bee” My Valentine). It won first prize. I love making a fine edge on an apple pie, knitting a scarf that’s a perfect match to my jacket, like none I could buy. I once made nightgowns for my granddaughters and matching ones for their American Girl dolls.

Which brings me to the subject of this blog, rosemåling, a Norwegian folk art that dates to about 1750. Although different regions developed different styles, most of which are still taught and practiced, all emphasize ornamental flowers, structure, and the occasional dramatic flourish. After discovering my Norwegian relatives on the island of Radǿy, in the county of Hordaland, Norway, I wanted a tangible way to remember and honor my Norwegian roots, so I decided to try rosemåling.

Now I must confess that I’m not fond of kitschy stuff, and most of my exposure to rosemåling has been of items that I wouldn’t necessarily want in my home—the flowery cheese board, decorative plates, Velkommen signs, all with an abundance of hearts and sweet birdies that can overwhelm a house. I’m also not particularly drawn to big swirls and Rococo styling, which characterize some types of rosemåling, so I knew it might be a stretch to learn the craft—after all, what would I paint if I don’t like the patterns and objects? I promised myself that I wouldn’t do any borders around the ceilings in my house or force crafts I don’t want on my family and friends as Christmas gifts.

I signed up for a weekend class at the North Folk House in Grand Marais, Minnesota—I’d learn just about anything to spend a weekend in that lovely place. I had to paint something, hopefully not kitschy, so I started with a board and Christmas tree ornaments—who doesn’t like an ornament?

Turns out that even if you’re not artistic, you can learn enough to do a credible job at rosemåling. Its techniques can be taught, practiced, and “mastered.” As Shirley, my rosemåling idol says, “It’s 95% practice and 5% talent.” After the weekend I had two ornaments and some awkward leaves painted on a board. Not much, but I knew I wanted to learn more.


I later discovered ongoing classes at Richfield Community Education, just down the road from me. It’s a large group of women and a few men who all know and support each other in their art. Ages range from teenagers to retirees. I was immediately welcomed to the group, and whenever I balked at something too flowery, they reminded me that it’s my art, and I can do whatever pleases me. We meet on Tuesday evening or Wednesday morning in a dedicated classroom. In the summer, we paint outside at Minnehaha Falls. Although conversation is limited, we know each other well enough to support each other when someone is care-giving a spouse, making items to sell because money is short, or bringing up grandchildren. We always take a break and enjoy strong coffee with Norwegian goodies—lots of brown cheese, mormokake, sandbakelse, and, of course, lefse. It’s a community, of rosemålers, yes, but also of caring people.

Aside from my modest first projects are the many gifts rosemåling has given me. The value of disciplining myself to learning techniques and then practicing them over and over; the quiet in my mind as I work totally absorbed in pulling out a flower petal or doing fine line work on a leaf; the calm I experience hours after the class has ended; and the feeling of accomplishment that comes from learning something new later in life. Best of all, realizing that I don’t need to be an expert to totally immerse and enjoy myself. I leave class every Wednesday carrying two heavy bags of paints, brushes, oils, brush cleaners, carbon paper, tracing paper, practice boards, etc. with a sense of time well-spent.

And then there’s Shirley, my model for the good retirement. She’s a North Dakota school-teacher turned prize winning rosemåler. She keeps the craft alive, passing it to the next generation.  A tiny, compact, Norwegian woman, who brooks no nonsense. For example, even though most of us carry heavy bags of supplies, the school wants us to walk through the building rather than using a door near our classroom.  Shirley says it’s a rule meant to be discreetly broken.  On the other hand, some rules cannot be broken.  I’ll never forget hearing her say to one of my classmates, “Oh no! You can’t use that blue! That’s a Swedish blue. You need to paint over that!”

But where does my experience fit in the larger context of retirement? Retirement gave me permission to try rosemåling. I wouldn’t have had time or the inclination to add something to a busy schedule when I was working. And now, here I am, enjoying the community and discipline of learning something new. I’ll never be a prize winning rosemåler, and I doubt I’ll come to like some of the kitschy stuff I see people painting, but I have a new respect and understanding of what makes art “folk,” the idea that common, minimally talented people can create art of their own for the pure enjoyment of doing it—for themselves!

It Started as a Chat Between Friends…..

Two years ago, Dan and I took a grandparent trip to Paris and Normandy organized by Road Scholar. Aside from the pleasure of experiencing the world through 14-year old eyes, I became curious about the origins of Road Scholar, a non-profit organization committed to “knowledge seekers and explorers, united in the belief that lifelong learning is a vital part of overall well being..” Clicking on the Our Story tab in their website reveals that it started with a random conversation when two people at the University of New Hampshire were musing about the Scandinavian folketshusen that provide community-based adult learning and the value-for-money of youth hostels. Although it has evolved from its bare bones, learning-focused approach to travel for older people, it is still a non-profit that incorporates scholarships for those whose finances don’t accommodate much travel. 

This got me thinking about social entrepreneurs, or people who come up with new ideas whose purpose is making a difference rather than making money.

Last year I had the chance to catch up with my old friend Jan Hively, as she reappeared in Minnesota after giving a workshop at the Saging International Conference.  We were at a reception in a restaurant where I knew almost no one, although I felt as if I ought to know almost everyone because they were all roughly my age, long-time residents of the Twin Cities, and were in education or the helping professions.  Hmm…. Is this more evidence that my life is littered with missed opportunities for networking with interesting people?  Almost everyone that I talked to (once I managed to scrape myself out of my modest introversion) were (1) semi-retired or retired from a first career and (2) starting something new – often with others in the room – where doing good rather than making money was the goal.  In other words, I was in a crowd of what I could only call social entrepreneurs.

When you google social entrepreneur, however, you get a different view….the first links are degree programs in business schools and lists of successful social entrepreneurs who are also making money.  Now I have nothing against making money while doing good, but when you click on Forbes articles, you get a prominent definition that adds something new:  someone who uses business skills to solve social problems.  Those were not the people I met, few of whom had a background in business or were particularly interested in commodifying social good. 

It was not hard to find nuance when I probed my Google search more deeply.  The deep thinkers at Stanford University have come up with the insight that entrepreneurship “connotes a special, innate ability to sense and act on opportunity, combining out-of-the-box thinking with a unique brand of determination to create or bring about something new to the world.”   They go on, noting that entrepreneurs attempt to ““shift economic resources out of an area of lower and into an area of higher productivity and greater yield.”  What comes to mind are, of course, microloans to women starting small businesses in developing countries (which have proven remarkably effective in promoting gender equity)l  or the Global Soap Project that recycles semi-used bars of hotel soap to improve health in underdeveloped areas.

But what are economic resources?  Like most people, my first thought goes to money.  Then I quickly channeled Jan Hively again…

I have known Jan, an exuberant role model for successful aging, since the 1990s, when we worked together on programming and outreach for the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Minnesota. At that time, Jan, who was in her late-60s, was completing a doctorate looking at the contribution of older people to the well-being of rural communities.  Her work, which demonstrated that the unreimbursed labor of older people was critical to maintaining villages and small towns, whether as volunteers in school or at the library or babysitting for grandchildren so that their parents could hold down several jobs.  Jan drew on her work to create a Minnesota Vital Aging Network – which is now an international movement dedicated to grassroots engagement of older people in their communities.  Almost as if she were addicted to staring new initiatives, Jan went on to found SHIFT! , (an organization that provides support to boomers who are seeking employment, looking at retirement, or finding community), the Pass It On network, which is focused on peer learning for older people, and the Life Planning Network, which links professionals who support vital aging and provides professional learning opportunities to them.

Each of these organizations is non-profit, most operating on volunteers; none seem to genuinely meet Stanford’s definition because there is no significant monetary financial “yield”.  They are grassroots, locally organized and maintained, and are committed to growing interpersonal community as well as “doing good” and measurable economic value.  They are distinct from the business skills driven model and “yield” because they are, at their core, part of a challenge to redefine aging from inevitable but increasing diminishment (the current dominant and ageist perspective).  She, and other social entrepreneur “of a certain age” focus on how shared wisdom promotes a common good. 

Not everyone can be an older social entrepreneur with global impact (like Jan) but everyone can find a way to contribute to grassroots social cohesion. The premise – than small local actions can lead to large consequences – is particularly relevant for people who have more time than money.  People like me. Who knows how many new initiatives began at that reception, where everyone these was drawn to the vision of being part of that entrepreneurial social movement?