Hope … For Jenson’s Small ‘Island’ of Art

A Mourning Dove swept past me moments after I had eased into a weathered wicker chair on the small garden patio of rosemaler Karen Jenson’s iconic home in the small artist community of Milan,MN, mere blocks from the Milan Village Arts School (MVAS) where she held classes in the past. The dove landed to perch momentarily on a simple wrought iron guard rail, the work of Gene Sandau, the late blacksmith artist from nearby Madison, posing proudly if not symbolically.

Was the dove symbolically an omen for an era gone by? Perhaps an era even erased from current existence? Hope springs eternal for something many of us are holding onto as vividly and strongly as the dove’s talons grasped Sandau’s wrought iron.

I speak of her home, for Jenson is now a resident of a senior care facility in nearby Appleton. Her house has remained empty with exception of AirBnB out-of-town renters who’ve come for MVAS arts classes. Her house is in itself a work of art by an artist known even in the old countries for her freestyle rosemaling. Indeed, she was considered one of the best internationally, and artists traveled to this small prairie town for years to study with Jenson. 

Jenson’s “great room” is representative of her home of “old world art” in the small arts village of Milan.

Her garden, which surrounds the house with nooks and crannies just as it is within the exterior walls, is an island into itself. From the two patios, front and back, and from windows inside her house, the nearby streets are beautifully obscured from view. How could anyone not describe her house and corner lots as anything other than an island? An island of old world art?

A few years ago when her family decided for the move to the Appleton facility, a fund was started with hopes of saving her home as a living legacy to her influential life as a artist and teacher, which would be donated to MVAS to also house guests … as it did until Covid. “My hope is that someone will buy my home and donate it to the school,” she said, “that it will remain as it is. I didn’t want to sell, and I wish I could still live there. I loved my home.”

The house was recently listed and a “standard” open house was held this past weekend. A “lookalou” couple came in ahead of my friend, Wanda Berry, and I. Like us, they were audibly amazed by the art that seemed to evolve from every direction, from each of the numerous nooks and crannies, in all the rooms and an unexpected balcony, all emphasizing Jenson’s Norwegian rosemaling and Swedish dalmalning.

Her kitchen with the decorative cabinets is a treasure.

This wasn’t my first viewing of the ornate interior that was the work of Jenson’s painting and the carpentry skills of twin brothers, Aaron and Arvid Swenson of rural Flom, who constructed the beds and other decorative pieces. That initial viewing was years ago prior to the now annual Upper Minnesota River Arts Meander when friends Harland and Robbie Kasa, of rural Cannon Falls, came for a visit. We gave them a tour of the studios of area artists Dale and Jo Pederson of Wegdahl and Gene and Lucy Tokheim of Dawson before driving to Milan for a visit of the Arts School.

Harland, too, was an artist who recreated from scratch horse drawn buggies and ornate carriages, and got into a conversation with Jenson at the school. Interestingly, Harland had a client who was interested in having a rosemaled seat on his buggy, which Harland had explained to Jenson along with his frustration in finding someone to do the painting. “I do a little rosemaling,” she quipped before inviting us for the short walk to her house to show us her work. She was kind enough to show us all of her home but her bedroom. Her house back 20 some years ago was a wonder of awe. For those of us so fortunate, an awe that hasn’t changed.

A view of the ornate garden that obscures the adjacent streets gives one a glimpse of Jenson’s early morning cup of reflective coffee.

I knew Jenson only by sight at that point, and a few years later our booths were next to one another at an international cultural event in Willmar. Thus began our conversations and friendship, one that has continued to this day. She was working on a plate during the event and when we were packing up she was fine with selling it to me … which is now here on my wall at Listening Stones Farm. Since she has visited the farm a few times, and always smiles when she sees the plate.

And, yes, there is another connection between us, for it turns out that her grandfather and his brothers built this house I live in here on the farm, as well as others in the nearby area … all “Gustafson-built houses.” She grew up as a child at the foot of this road, near Big Stone Lake, and for a short while placed a small prebuilt log cabin on the top of a hill on land she still owned. “My family farm,” she called it. We were quite excited to have her as a new neighbor and envisioned sitting with a glass of wine to possibly view sunsets featuring a small oak savanna on the ridge across from the little cabin. Unfortunately her poor health kept her from enjoying her hideaway, and it was eventually sold and moved after she entered the Appleton facility.

Which brings us back to her beautiful “island” home in the midst of Milan. The house is listed for just short of  $200,000, and was initially part of an agreement set up by Jenson with ties to MVAS to hopefully raise enough funds to purchase the house and lot and donate it to the school. Contributing to that effort was area community organizer Patrick Moore, a 40-year friend of Jenson’s, who said that over the years about $70,000 had been raised. It wasn’t enough.

Her seating area in the “great room” offers a nice view of her west side garden.

Some family members had apparently, much to Jenson’s disappointment, run out of patience with the fundraising effort and as Jenson put it this weekend, “wanted to bring an end to it, to just get it sold.”

“Unfortunately,” said Moore, “negotiations broke down, and we couldn’t meet the family’s price, so now we are hoping that a friendly buyer can step forward.”

Hope is eternal, for Jenson, Moore and others … myself, included. Her home … yes, it is a home more so than a house … is a regional treasure, at least, and in itself a work of sweat, labor and art. Jenson’s sweat, labor and art. Although the fundraising efforts, which basically began after Pioneer PBS Emmy Award-winning staff did a Postcards segment on Jenson and her Milan home, have fallen short, many of us are still hoping for a just conclusion. Perhaps a wealthy buyer with a benevolent spirit might still purchase the home and lot, then donate it to MVAS while keeping the art home as is. As internationally respected rosemaler Karen Jenson has left it, a legacy to her life and career as an artist.

A wreath of greeting and farewell still hangs as one leaves Jenson’s former home.

Sitting in the stilled, ornate garden, hidden from the street, it was easy to find a moment of meditation among the bleeding hearts, allium and other plants in her beautiful gardened yard, with a warbler and sparrows cheerfully singing and with a dove momentarily perched on the wrought iron. You could close your eyes and vividly recall the painstakingly painted freehand rosemaling decorated the walls, doors of cabinets and rooms, of the twins’ wood crafted adormants and beds, along with intricate acanthus carvings.

When I opened my eyes, the dove had flown. Was it a symbolic omen? One suggesting hope is on the way, or one of a less fortunate conclusion? Many of us hold hope that Karen Jenson’s legacy, of her art and her importance to this small Norwegian village in the heart of the prairie, will be forever retained.

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About John G. White

Somewhat retired after a long award-winning career in newspapers (Wisconsin State Journal, Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, Denver Post and a country weekly, the Clara City Herald). Free lance photographer and writer with credits in more than 70 magazines. Editor with various Webb Publishing magazines in St. Paul, and a five year stint as editorial director at Miller Meester Advertising.

1 thought on “Hope … For Jenson’s Small ‘Island’ of Art

  1. Leave it to an oldish newspaperman to wax so beautifully about Mom and her treasured home. Thank you, John.
    I’m with you… and Mom… and MVAS… and so many others, in wanting to maintain her treasure, her life’s work, as an enduring legacy for all to love as I do. May it come to be.
    Signed, Dawn Jenson Herbst
    By the way… the mourning dove has always, to me, been a symbol of my Dad. He was perfection at mimicking the doves’ call. Perhaps he visited you that day.

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