Art extends well beyond the dozens of frames in Karen Jenson’s home. Her delicate brush strokes cover bedroom doors and kitchen cabinets. Her petals and swirls trim headboards and trunks, corner shelves and clocks. Look up, and you’ll spot them on a chandelier.
Jenson, 83, is among Minnesota’s top rosemaling artists, an unlikely expert in the flowing, flowering style that originated in rural Norway. (“I’m Swedish,” she points out, “not Norwegian.”) The traditional designs often adorn furniture, giving a colorful flourish to everyday items.
Jenson’s house, in this tiny town in Minnesota’s western prairie, has become a grand gallery. A showcase of her work, a shrine to the craft. But it’s a home, first. So it feels far more personal than any gallery could. Painted onto doors are portraits of Jenson’s four children, her two dogs, herself. In one self-portrait, titled “The Girls,” she offers her rescue mutt, May, a treat.
Recently, Jenson moved out of her beloved home and into assisted living, leaving her handiwork in an uncertain spot. The Milan Village Arts School, where Jenson taught, would like to buy and preserve Jenson’s place, perhaps offering it to visiting artists and students. “Once it’s gone, it’s gone,” says Ron Porep, the school’s director. “We’ve got one shot at this.”
This house wasn’t much, at first. When Jenson and her husband bought it in the 1960s, it measured 30 by 30 feet. “It was cheap,” Jenson explains. “People thought we were crazy to put money into this shack.” She smiles: “But we did.”
The house became both her studio and her canvas. “It’s my creation,” she says. But she’s quick to point out that she didn’t do it alone. Over three decades, a pair of Norwegian brothers built the furniture and woodwork on which Jenson rosemaled. Aaron and Arvid Swenson are identical twins, bachelor farmers, carpenters and roommates. Jenson met them by chance, while rosemaling at a Scandinavian fair, and a friendship blossomed. Maybe more.
On the kitchen cabinet, Jenson painted them: two tall men, sharing a single pair of three-legged pants — a nod to their ever-matching outfits, their telepathy, their closeness. On a stately closet upstairs, Aaron Swenson carved: “A surprise for Karen.”
“We were together a lot at that time. We’ve all cooled off now,” Jenson says. Her two daughters, sitting beside her, laugh. “That’s true! That’s the way things work, sometimes. That’s the way this worked.”
Jenson traces her artistic roots back to the farm where she grew up a 4-H kid. “One year, the creative spirit got a hold of me,” she says, and she trimmed her steers’ tails into a pretty, geometric pattern. “I was the laughing stock of the county fair.” She brought a bowl to school for a class project, picked out one of the patterns the teacher had on hand and, inadvertently, painted her first rosemaling work. The technique wasn’t correct, she notes, but the shapes were similar.
“What is amazing to me is that this type of design even appealed to me as a child,” she says, running her fingers across the bowl that her kids used to fill with popcorn.
Jenson took her first rosemaling class in 1972, not knowing much about the craft. She loved it, soon after trekking to the Vesterheim, a Norwegian-American museum and heritage center in Decorah, Iowa. It was the first time she had traveled alone, the first time she had stayed in a hotel. She was terrified. Seeing the instructor, a Norwegian artist, effortlessly glide his paintbrush across the page further frightened her. In class, she was silent, wide-eyed. But on the third day, her brush flowed. Jenson jumped up and shouted.
Back in Milan, she began “practicing, practicing, practicing.” She’d rise at 6 a.m., walk a few miles, garden for an hour and then hole herself in her studio, painting until 10 or 11 p.m. “I loved it,” she says. “Every minute of it.” She worked with oils then, before becoming allergic to them. Once a year, she trekked to Decorah to study with a Norwegian artist. In 1979, she won the Vesterheim’s gold medal — a feat that just 70 rosemaling artists can claim. She painted beds, murals, canvasses 20 feet across.
“When people think about spectacular pieces in the history of rosemaling in America, people often think of Karen,” says Laurann Gilbertson, chief curator at Vesterheim, “because she’s not been afraid to do big pieces.”
Some rosemalers work from patterns. But even today, rusty with age, Jenson would never. She practiced long enough, hard enough to be able to form her designs spontaneously, mapping them in her head, flowing to and from a painting’s “root.” Brushing over the strokes kills the painting’s life, she argues.
Jenson is opinionated, feisty, engaging. She giggles at memories and expresses astonishment at how things turned out. How she discovered rosemaling, how it brought her to Norway, how it introduced her to the twins.
But for just a moment, sitting in her kitchen on a recent afternoon, Jenson sighs and admits to missing this place. She doesn’t paint much these days, “and boy, can I tell it.” At the height of her art-making, taking even an afternoon off would dim her dexterity.
Jenson traces, with her finger, the delicate curves of a painting she created decades ago — at her prime, in a matter of a few hours. She presses down, lightly, on a pale orange flourish. “If you went like this, it would bounce,” she says, her eyes wide. “That’s the life in it.”