Chatter threads through the quiet concentration at Milan Village Arts School in western Minnesota. A dozen adult students eagerly gather around a giant work table inside this converted century-old country schoolhouse. It reflects the area’s deep Nordic roots with a rich red exterior, blue and green trim, and a roof influenced by Vikings. We gaze out big windows that frame the snow-covered landscape of this tiny prairie town (pop. 350) as we paint leaves, acorns and curly twigs, using a paste infused with pure silver particles.
Instructor Kim Bakken-Parr talks us through using this fairly new medium of precious metal clay, and offers a table of books and finished pieces to inspire us.
Display cases show what drew me to the school: heirloom arts such as Norwegian chip carving, spoon carving, silversmithing, and the intricate scrolls and curves of acanthus carving that draw students from across the nation to learn from masters.
My weakness — as the granddaughter of a woman who made krumkake for Christmas, said “Uff da!” with regularity and wore a “Proud to Be Norwegian” cap — has always been rosemaling. The floral-influenced decorative painting varies depending on its region of Norway — Rogalund, Telemark and Gudbrandsdal. Karen Jenson, whose rosemaling has been featured in New York City and Oslo folk-art museums, painted Milan’s downtown murals, lives in a museum-worthy Nordic home near the school, and teaches a few times a year.
Gene Tokkeim guides classes in Norwegian knife making and uses Scandinavian influences in his stoneware pottery studio in nearby Dawson, Minn. He’s one of many teachers spread throughout the Minnesota River Valley, where artists have found affordable living and often nurtured a heritage that may span generations and oceans.
“It’s kind of important for a school like this to exist,” says Ron Porep, who coordinates the weekend classes. “Otherwise, these skills don’t get passed on.”
One class can spark a thirst for more. Mary Anderson of Bellingham, Minn., proudly wears intricate silver jewelry made in previous classes and a braided Sami bracelet made from reindeer leather and an antler button.
“I try to expand my horizons,” she says. “This is my getaway.”
My classmates and I carefully place painted pieces into a dehydrator to wick out water and line up at the small kilns where our pieces are fired. In the final steps, which feel like a chemistry lab, our hardened pieces transform from putty white to shiny silver replicas of leaves and acorns.
While we’re using modern materials and technology, we’re following old traditions of crafting in the cold, quiet months, bringing the beauty of nature indoors for the winter.
The biggest concentration of Milan Village Arts School classes run from January through May, with one-day to weeklong workshops on bookmaking, silversmithing, stained glass, felted scarves, character carving, knife making, acanthus carving, chip-carved clocks, rosemaling, photography and an increasing focus on prairie living skills, such as baking bread, preserving garden harvests and weaving baskets (tuition starts at $55; 1-320-734-4807; milanvillageartsschool.org).
Syttende Mai: The town may have an Italian name (although locals pronounce it MY-lan), but its past moniker of “Little Norway” seems fitting, especially on the third Saturday in May when it celebrates Norway’s Constitution Day with traditional music and dance, arts and crafts, an Uff-da Parade, and a Smorgaas Tea at Kvitseid Church. Norwegian foods include meatballs, blod klub (blood sausage), Gjettost (goat cheese) with cloudberry jam, and rømmegrot, a rich cream pudding (1-320-734-4820; milanmn.com).
The Spoon Gathering: This annual event that began 10 years ago with a day of spoon-carving demonstrations has expanded to a weekend of woodcraft demonstrations June 3-4. It draws participants from out of the country, has inspired a similar gathering in England, and earns kudos for its $20 registration (1-320-734-4807; milanvillageartsschool.org).
Museum and art: Billy Maple Tree’s Gift Store provides a colorful sample of regional photography, woodcarving, quilts, handmade knives, jewelry, willow furniture, pottery, weaving and Scandinavian crafts such as bentwood Tine boxes. It connects to the Arv Hus Museum with its rough-cut wood frames on photos and artifacts, plus tools and stories from early pioneers (1-320-734-4868).
Artsy road trip: More than 40 artists open their studios and exhibit their work at venues across the Upper Minnesota River Valley during the annual Arts Meander, usually the first weekend in October (1-866-866-5432; artsmeander.com).
Visit Lac qui Parle: Visitors can hike the trails and watch for migrating birds at Lac qui Parle (“The lake that speaks”) along the Minnesota River. More than 100,000 geese may be seen each spring (early March through April) when they arrive from Swan Lake, Mo., and in late September and October when they gather again. Three camper cabins and two campgrounds open April 1 (1-320-734-4450; dnr.state.mn.us).
Where to sleep
Crossings by Grandstay Inn and Suites offers hotel rooms along Hwy. 7 in Montevideo, about 16 miles southeast of Milan. Rates include breakfast and a pool ($109 and up; 1-320-269-8000; grandstayhospitality.com).
T&T Lodging, a private residence with two bedrooms and a shared bath within walking distance of the school and downtown, expects to be open by spring ($45/night; 1-320-734-4422).
Where to eat
The More Cafe serves the standard burgers and sandwiches, along with once-a-week potato klub (dumplings). The cafe connects to a small Asian grocery store that reflects the town’s influx of newcomers from Micronesia. Bergen’s Prairie Market, the town’s main grocer, stocks Scandinavian imports such as coffee, cheeses, cookies, lefse mix and chocolate.
Additional places to eat, including Valentino’s Restaurant and Duffy’s Good Time Saloon, can be found 15 miles away in Montevideo (1-800-269-5527; montechamber.com).
Milan is about two hours and 45 minutes west of Minneapolis following Hwy. 12 to Willmar and connecting to Hwy. 40 for the final 43 miles.
City of Milan: 1-320-734-4411, milanmn.com.
Western Prairie Waters: 1-866-866-5432, prairiewaters.com.
Lisa Meyers McClintick (lisamcclintick.com) wrote “Day Trips From the Twin Cities” and the ninth edition of “The Dakotas Off the Beaten Path.”