Thursday, August 4, 2011

A Little Getaway

by Kathleen Ernst

I write full time. And yes, that’s a dream come true. It also means that I’m pretty much writing, or thinking about writing, or doing something related to writing, all the time. I fall asleep reading reference books. Vacations become research trips. I’m rarely found without laptop, and never without a notebook.

It can be a little overwhelming.

I recently spent a week in Decorah, Iowa, taking a rosemaling class at Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum. Rosemaling is a form of decorative painting—a folk art with old roots in Norway. In the photo below, I’m holding a rosemaled ale bowl that some immigrant tucked into a trunk in the mid-1800s before boarding a ship for the new world.


I took a rosemaling class a year ago, primarily for research. The protagonist of my historic sites mysteries, Chloe Ellefson, is Norwegian-American. Her mom is a Gold Medal rosemaler, which is really good. The plot of Old World Murder features a missing antique ale bowl.

There are different styles of rosemaling, each with its own traditions. When I worked in the museum biz I admired the rosemaled pieces in our collection, but I figured I needed to understand the art in a hands-on kind of way. I started with a class in the Telemark style, which is considered the easiest to for beginners.

I learned a couple of things in that original class. First, I love to paint! Second, rosemaling is very challenging for a word-nerd like me. The class was intense and by the end of the week, I was exhausted. But I had two beautiful pieces that I take to programs and signings.

Rosemaling trip 012

rosemaling tray Since I didn’t do any painting once I got home, I decided to repeat the class this year. (Wise move on my part. I am definitely still a beginner.)

It’s been a very busy year. My head is constantly bubbling with plot ideas, my calendar seems too-full of deadlines, and my writing biz to-do list could, as my husband says, choke an elephant.

All that being the case, it was wonderful to once again immerse myself in the painting. We did two projects in the course of five days. Most of my classmates didn’t worry about finishing their pieces in that space of time. I, though, knew that once home I’d never find time to mix a palette and dig in. If I wanted the pieces done, I better get them done while in Decorah.

rosemaling3 That made for some late nights. When the studio closed on the final day, I carefully carted everything to my hotel room and set up there.


I did finish my pieces, a bowl and a box. I had a wonderful time, learned more about this marvelous old folk art, improved my technique, reconnected with friends and made some new ones. And best of all, being so focused on something different and difficult provided a much-needed mental margarita. I came home tired, but also mentally refreshed.


Although I must admit that I got some pretty good ideas for a future Chloe mystery while in Decorah, too.

How about you? What do you do to banish all things work-related from your brain?

Note: these pieces designed by my wonderful instructor, Joanne MacVey. You can learn more at,, or


Robin Allen said...

Your pieces are gorgeous! So precise and professional. And in fives days? Wow.

I've been knitting since the fifth grade, so that's what I do when I'm not writing or reading. I've designed a few pieces and have a pattern for some fingerless mitts for sale on (a social networking site for knitters).

It's going to be 105 degrees here today in central Texas, but I'm still going to knit. With wool.

Marji Laine said...

Beautiful pieces! So impressed.

Decorah, Iowa jumped out at me, though. I've watched the Decorah eagles on my webcam since last April. Not a normal tourist stop, I'm guessing, since I had never heard of it before. But I may need to correct my impression of the town, now that I've heard of it yet again.

Darrell James said...

Nice post, Kathleen! Thanks for teaching me something new. The research for a book is always a great diversion from the actual writing of it. I try to visit the locations for my books and learn as much about the setting and its people as possible.

irishoma said...

I love getaways where I learn something new. Your trip sounds like it was fun and productive.
Donna V.

Kathleen Ernst said...

I love to knit as well! As long as the pattern is pretty basic, I find it very relaxing.

The great thing about rosemaling is that when you stand back and look at the piece as a whole, all the wobbly lines and not-so-great strokes get lost. So even beginners can feel good about a project.

Decorah is perhaps best known at the moment for the eagles, but it is a charming town with a world-class museum. Well worth a visit.

Shannon said...

I am blown away by your painting. I can't draw a stick figure. When I need a break from writing or working, my first choice is to strap on a backpack, grab a paddle, or snap on skis. If I don't get my outdoor time, I get growly!

Alice Loweecey said...

Those are beautiful!

Beth Groundwater said...

Your artwork is beautiful, Kathleen. Thanks for sharing it and for explaining what rosemaling is!

As for me, when I need to clear my head of work/writing-related stuff, I head outside. :)

Kathleen Ernst said...

Shannon, I can't draw a stick figure either! I just had a great instructor, who walked us through the piece step-by-step.

I'm with those of you who head outdoors for a break. I just sometimes have trouble turning my brain off! I probably need to up the challenge element.