And the Learning Continues

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…

The BIG one and My first ever plate

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.

As of September 26th

I Want Out!

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Today I told my daughter that I’ve been thinking that I need to get out of my comfort zone, which Dan Buettner describes as the “behavioral and psychological construct in which our activities and thinking fit a routine pattern.” 

My daughter replied, “You think you want out! I don’t leave the house!” Between COVID and working from home she knows exactly what I mean about being stuck, comfort zone notwithstanding.

My clinging to a comfort zone was brought home to me last week when my husband and I visited the “other Karen” and Dan at their new home in Boulder, Co. In pre-historic times, i.e. prior to COVID, Karen and Dan intended to winter in Boulder, which has four seasons but a milder and shorter winter than Minneapolis, and then return home in the spring. During the second year of this plan, while they were still in Boulder, along came COVID, making it feel both difficult and risky to come back for spring and summer in Minneapolis. After a back and forth of emotions and reasoning, also a couple of trips “home,” they decided to make a clean break with the only home they’d known together and experience something new; they moved permanently to Boulder. 

Immediately they were thrust into a world of differences, taking them out of the comfort zone of neighborhood, people, coffee shops and politics that fit them well. Visiting them, I realized the many changes they’ve made and experienced. There’s the ethos of the west—independence and self-reliance. Then there’s the difference between the lush green, mostly flat terrain of the Twin Cities and the Flatiron mountains framing a basin that is mostly dry and dusty.

The move required selling their Uptown condo and moving into a tiny house, which meant truly embracing Susanka’s “not so big life.” Loved pieces of furniture and art objects had to be considered one by one and either kept or sent to another home (I got an amazing desk). They needed to find a new church, friends, and ways to spend time. I won’t belabor the innumerable decisions and differences, rather note that a taken-for-granted way of life had to be changed.

Karen and Dan’s new life was what precipitated my preoccupation with my own “comfort zone” (see Karen’s blog about wrestling with her comfort zone). They are having an adventure, and I’ve always been up for an adventure. Karen glowed when she talked about all the new things they are experiencing, the adaptations they’ve made to living a smaller life, and their emerging new friendships. Moving has clearly taken them out of their comfort zone, and from my vantage point, it looks like FUN!

Starting about the day we enter school, our world expands, from our family, to the school, the community, state, country and world. We grow outward to a bigger life, leaving home, finding our way, and making our own home. It seems like the natural order of things.

Now here I am as an older, retired person, and it feels like I’m going in the opposite direction. Instead of life getting bigger, it’s getting smaller. Some of the progression is my own doing. I like an orderly life, which hardly sets me apart from the norm. The price of that orderly life, however, can be a fence that keeps me in and life out—like a border wall, intended for psychological safety but locking out the other, the unknown and the chance to learn and grow.

We stay in our comfort zones because they make the world predictable. We stay because we don’t want to disrupt others and because physical changes can make us hesitant. Our judgments can obscure how the world works. Some of us have caretaker responsibilities. And then there’s COVID, which has constrained us all. It’s not hard to produce a list of plausible reasons—maybe I should call them excuses. But that seems too harsh.

About a month ago, I signed up for a short class on writing about sacrifice. Karen Hering, the leader, asked us to focus on any object in our sight and write about why we need it. I focused on a birdhouse that I had covered in rosemaling (I couldn’t bear to leave it outside over winter, so I’d brought it into my office). I found myself writing that I need the birdhouse because it allows me “to be whimsical in the world, to step out of predictable Karen into creative Karen. . . to see what the predicable Karen can’t see when she’s always doing what people expect her to do. The birdhouse reminds me of art and beauty and playfulness while being a home for birds—birds that fly—leave the ground and fly.” 

Writing those words was a revelation to me. I suddenly saw why I need to break out of my comfort zone (at the time I didn’t call it that). For me right now, during the restrictions of COVID, my rosemaling class has given me some of the stretch I need. I have never considered myself artistic—and here I am painting! In the process I’ve met new people, learned about folk art, worked with one of the prize-winning rosemalers in the US, found a way to honor my Norwegian father, and have had the joy of creating, even when my line work is shaky and my flowers somewhat crooked

I’m reminded of other risks I’ve taken in my life, moving numerous times, including to Utah and Pennsylvania, and quitting a secure job that I liked to go back to graduate school in my 40s. Not to mention the risk-taking men I fell in love with (and sometimes married). All have had moments of great pain, discovery, and happiness. I’ve worried about failure and did fail off and on. But these risks, these stepping out of my comfort zone have been life changing. As I’ve reached outside myself, the inside of myself has had the most meaningful change, because I’ve found persistence, resilience, patience, and impatience within myself, and I’ve learned I’m up for a challenge.

This December I will turn seventy-eight. I’m promising myself that this year, I’ll step out of that comfort zone a little further. I don’t know what it’ll be, but I’m open and ready. Parker Palmer says in his new book, On the Brink of Everything, my expectation is not of the world but of myself: delight in the gift of life and be grateful.” As for me, the brink I stand on is taking a new risk, however big or small, but one that takes me out of my comfort zone.  So far, I’m thinking about a trip to Rome with Karen Rose…. And that’s a good place to start.

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!