In June I signed up for rosemaling summer school at Vesterheim Folk Art School in Decorah, IA. The 5-day course didn’t start for several weeks, so I had time to daydream about how wonderful it would be. I’d paint for eight hours, starting at 9am Sunday morning and until 5pm the following Thursday. Even better, we’d be painting in the Os style, which I wanted to learn because it’s the style from the area where my ancestors lived in Norway. Anticipating the fun reminded me of teaching summer school as an elementary school teacher. One summer we made balsa wood model airplanes. Another year we made kites—it’s not easy to make a kite that will actually fly—we had lots of crashes before we perfected a design. Best of all, I got to make things with kids who liked to make things. Now, here I was, looking forward to making something with adults who liked to make things—and there’d be a road trip, too.
Finally, it was time to go. I set out Saturday afternoon, so I’d be ready for the 9am start on Sunday. The drive to Decorah had all the elements of a scenic midwestern countryside—rolling hills, tidy fields of corn, idyllic farms with enormous barns, clusters of contented cows grazing, and a highway lined with prairie flowers in full bloom. The beautiful drive heightened my anticipation. An entire week of painting my own beauty awaited me!
Sunday morning at last. I walked up the three flights of the Vesterheim Folk School and into the classroom with a mix of excitement and some trepidation. After choosing my spot and pulling out my supplies, I looked around the room.
Then I saw it, the plate we’d be making. It stood on a counter in the front of the room, and it was HUGE, nothing like what I’d imagined from the course description. Okay, I’d read that the plate was 18 inches, but my mind had glossed over that part. I was picturing a plate like one of my original rosemaling attempts—more like 8 inches. Still, I mostly admired the plate, not fully comprehending what its size meant…
After introducing ourselves, our instructor said “today we will learn to make Os flowers”. She proposed eight hours of practicing. I took another look at the plate and started to wonder whether it was wise to spend a day practicing, but I had no idea how to make an Os flower, so I listened to her instructions and started to practice.
And thus began the first lesson of the week. Up until this class, I’d followed designs from our local teacher, Shirley Evenstad, an internationally known rosemaler, although I had to learn many skills to do that. But here was a new teacher, asking me to design and paint my own flowers. I felt frustrated and uncertain, and as I watched others plunge in and design flowers, I wondered whether I belonged in the class. But, I’d paid a sizeable tuition, and I didn’t want to go home, so I gave it a try.
It was fun! I could design my own flowers, and I liked them. I’d taken a new step in my learning by working independently. However, by the end of the day, I was exhausted—I’d never painted for more than a few hours, and I wasn’t sure how I’d get through the week. As I left, I looked again at the beautiful sample plate. Having just spent seven hours making four flowers, I didn’t see how I’d finish that plate in the remaining four days.
The next day I asked the instructor if I could make a smaller plate. She said, “Oh no, you will easily finish.” Huh! By the end of day two, I still had not started on the plate as I was practicing the big scrolls that anchor the design. As class ended, I begged her again to let me make something smaller. Once again, she dismissed my concerns. Where was Shirley when I needed her?
Well, of course I didn’t come close to finishing. I managed only to make the scrolls and one large flower at the top. I was angry and frustrated. I wanted to take my anger out by blaming the teacher for not letting me switch, but in truth, I was crabby because I was face-to-face with my limitations.
In craft circles there are always jokes about UFO’s—unfinished objects. As the class wrapped up, everyone was joking about not wanting another UFO! So it wasn’t just me. No one finished, but our instructor seemed unconcerned. As a former teacher, I judged that she was learning something, too. It was too much to do in five days, although she did not admit this.
Or maybe she was just less worried about UFOs than I was. At home, I put the plate on our hutch, and I started calling it my albatross. I don’t want UFO’s of any sort in my life. I don’t like quitting, but I had no idea how I’d finish such a huge plate.
The following Wednesday, when I met my local rosemaling friends, I told them that I was carrying the plate around like an albatross—it got a laugh, but no suggestions. But a few days later my daughter saw the plate and said, “I want that for my office. Don’t quit, keep going!” I carried my plate to my local group the following week and the intrepid Shirley said, “You can take it a flower at a time, and you’ll have it for your daughter’s next birthday!”
Thinking back, two observations come to mind: “Beginner’s Mind” and resilience. Beginner’s mind is dropping our expectations and preconceived ideas about something, and seeing things with an open mind, fresh eyes, just like a beginner. I believe I started out with that—Os was new and I was willing to learn, though initially I’d been uncertain about flowers and scrolls. Resilience, however, took some time to develop. I was angry that the class had not fulfilled my eager anticipations—a finished plate to take home. The support of others, however, helped me see that I can turn my UFO from an albatross into a beautiful plate. That’s what I’m now doing, one flower at a time.