Last week’s topic in MATS was wall art and the assignment was to create an abstract, collage-style piece of art containing florals and words for a retailer such as Anthropolgie or Urban Outfitters. Initially I had a hard time finding my way into this assignment, as it’s a different style than I’m used to working in, but as I started sketching ideas, I remembered that I’ve been wanting to create a more modern version of rosemaling, which is a decorative folk art that originated in Norway. For inspiration, I photographed a few of the rosemaled pieces I have in my house that belonged to my grandma. As I began to paint and collect items for the collage, the project cascaded deeper into my grandma’s life, as I found many of her things that I am now fortunate to have, including her handwritten lefse recipe, photographs, her fabric, and several sewing and crochet patterns.
My grandma lived in the same tiny community, Petersburg, Minnesota, for the first 94 of her almost 99 years. I’ve mentioned Petersburg before, and at one time it was a small, thriving, rural community with a church and a school and a creamery (where my grandparents worked and met), a store, and a gas station. The church is still there, but the school is gone, the businesses are closed, and it is now just a collection of homes near the crossroads of two highways.
As I began working on the assignment, pieces of this story -- of Petersburg and my grandma -- began making their way into the collage. The collage includes bits of her handwriting, crochet patterns, and photographs of the lace from her wedding dress and Petersburg, where she lived the majority of her long life. It also includes a striped pattern that I painted inspired by piano keys, as she played organ for our country church from when she was a teenager until well into her 90s. I realize this collage is more personal than "mass market” (I seem to have forgotten that the class is called “Make Art that Sells”, not “Make Art that Only Your Family Would Buy”), but as soon as I started gathering pieces of her life and this community, I knew that they needed to find their way into the collage. I initially thought about using photoshop to create a digital version where I would replace the pieces that are specific to my grandma with more general imagery and patterns for the final submission. But in the end, I decided to submit it this way, as it just felt right to me, even if it may not be exactly right for the assignment.
My grandma’s life was quite simple, but upon closer inspection, it was also quite extraordinary. By today’s standards, she didn’t have a lot of opportunities in life. She wasn’t able to go to college. They didn’t have a lot of money, and she lived the majority of her life two miles from where she grew up in a tiny rural village that slowly deteriorated from the thriving community of her youth into today's quiet shell of abandoned buildings and shuttered businesses. But she was always joyful, hardworking, and kind. She taught piano lessons, she played the organ every Sunday, she knitted, she cooked, crocheted, read voraciously, and wrote a weekly newspaper column for well over 50 years that chronicled the lives of people in Petersburg. That is not a simple or poor life. It is a rich life.
While finishing up the collage, I decided to add the word Velkommen, which is Welcome in Norwegian, as my grandma was very proud of her Norwegian heritage. In the end, this may have veered too far off the tracks of the original assignment, but I think my grandma would have looked at this piece and smiled and said, in her own pleasant way, “Well, that’s real nice.”