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!
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