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Northern Minnesota artist creates traditional Norwegian folk art

Artist Jean Honl of Roseau, Minn., who was introduced to the traditional Norwegian art of rosemaling in 1974, is well-known in northwestern Minnesota for her mastery of the decorative art form. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald1 / 3
Jean Honl, a Roseau, Minn., artist, uses one hand to steady the other as she paints detail on a rosemaling project recently. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald 2 / 3
Jean Honl's rosemaling is displayed at the Riverwalk Gallery in East Grand Forks. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald 3 / 3

ROSEAU, Minn. — Thirty-five years ago, Jean Honl fell in love with rosemaling.

She took a community education class in 1974 and has been perfecting her skills in the traditional Norwegian art form ever since.

“I loved it from the first day I learned it,” she said, remembering Eunice McDaniels’ class at a public school in Roseau, Minn.

A longtime resident of Roseau, Honl is well-known in the region for her decorative painting on wedding and anniversary plates, clocks, trunks, furniture and other gift items.

Honl studied rosemaling on her own and at the Norwegian American Museum in Vesterheim, Iowa. She is also an accomplished woodworker who designs and builds the furniture pieces on which she paints rosemaling designs.

“I think my favorite piece I’ve done so far is a large hutch,” she said. The piece stands in a hallway in her home.

Recently, she has been focused on creating “some really large pieces for my home,” she said.

“The last thing I want to do is a grandfather clock. I want it to be really fat and big,” she said with a laugh. “I have one more place left in my house. It will go in my kitchen. Then there will be no more room.”

Years ago, she and her husband, Pete, put an addition on their house so she could have a dedicated art and woodworking space.

“I really love woodworking,” she said. “I go out in the workshop. It’s just me, and I can concentrate on what I’m doing. It’s very relaxing. I just leave everything.

“I think that’s part of why I got so involved in it.”

Artist of the Year

Last month, Honl was named the 2019 Artist of the Year by the Northwest Minnesota Arts Council. The award is given each year to an outstanding artist in the seven-county region served by the council.

“I was so surprised, shocked,” she said.

Honl was recognized as “a talented fine craft artist in rosemaling and woodworking,” according to a news release from the NWAC.

The honor was an affirmation of her mastery of a folk art practiced by Norwegians and Swedes for centuries.

Different styles of rosemaling developed in Norway because people were isolated in communities separated by mountains. Those styles reflect the specific geographic area where they were used, such as Telemark, Hallingdal and Rogaland.

“It is such a beautiful art. Some of the rosemaling on trunks that Norwegian immigrants brought to this country are just wonderful.”

In addition to trunks, rosemaling can be found on other functional items such as bowls, cheese boxes, lunch boxes and chairs.

When starting a rosemaling project, Honl sketches the image with an erasable watercolor pencil.

The style she uses allows her to “play around and be more artistic,” she said.

“It’s easier to go out on your own and come up with your own design. There are a lot of areas where you can expand.”

Honl, whose background is Norwegian, Swedish and Danish, uses acrylic paints in creating her art. She limits her palette to three colors: gold, red and blue or green, she said.

Two shades of each color create a “graduated” effect, or a variation of color from light to dark, in each paint stroke, she said.

She uses only three colors “because I want the whole piece to go together,” she said. “I want the piece to look like it’s one piece, instead of a menagerie of pieces.”

Honl continues to demonstrate rosemaling at workshops, arts events and festivals. On such occasions, she may wear the traditional Norwegian garment, the bunad, which enhances the sense of tradition that her artwork evokes.

“I got my bunad by trading rosemaling for it,” she said.

Stirring memories

Honl hopes people get “just pleasure” from viewing or living with her artwork.

“A lot of the people who buy my things are Norwegian. But, if not, they are Scandinavian," she said.

“I think rosemaling reminds them of their childhood, if they’re older,” or a grandmother who had some rosemaled art in her home.

Honl, whose artwork can also be viewed and purchased at En Liten Svensk Shoppe in Roseau and on her website, has created artworks for customers in every state in the union and in Puerto Rico, and she welcomes their feedback.

“I do love when they love what I’ve done for them. It’s like a compliment to me,” she said.

“I think I’ll be rosemaling for the rest of my life. It just caught on with me. I really do love it.”