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A brush with history

Ken Magnuson used traditional Hallingdal style of rosemaling to paint this cabinet.1 / 5
A tall letter holder is an example of the shaded Hallingdal style that earned Ken Magnuson a Gold Medal at Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum.2 / 5
A bark-edged bowl is painted in the Turid Fatland style, which uses the natural grain of the wood as part of the design.3 / 5
A mitten bowl that would hang on the wall is painted in the Turid Fatland style.4 / 5
Rosemaler Ken Magnuson, wearing his Gold Medal on a traditional Norwegian farmer's shirt, works on a large tina box with a carved wooden handle in his home studio in rural Zumbrota. Some of his art awards are on display as well.5 / 5

ZUMBROTA -- A purist, he's not -- at least not when it comes to rosemaling.

Retired veterinarian Ken Magnuson embraces Norway's folk art both in the traditional form that was prevalent in the 1700s and 1800s and in the modern form that has evolved.

A Gold Medal from Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum and an Artisan Award of Excellence from the Norsk Hostfest are proof that he has gotten really, really good at it.

Rosemaling is a style of painting developed by farmers and peasants who brightened up their dark, dreary homes during Norway's long winters by painting them with fanciful flower and scroll designs.

They covered everything from walls and ceilings to cabinets and trunks, bowls and boxes with their designs. Different regions of Norway had their own styles. The style developed by the painters of Hallingdal and Telemark spread throughout the country and eventually the world.

Magnuson, who is of half-Norwegian and half-Danish descent, began exploring his fascination with rosemaling in 1975 after receiving Sigmund Aarseth's first book on it. He especially liked the symmetrical designs and bold colors of the Hallingdal style.

He knows better now, but at the time Magnuson thought he could just go buy some materials and start painting because he'd read the book.

While shopping for supplies in Rochester, he bumped into Ruth Tongen, a Wanamingo rosemaler. That encounter led to her offering a community education class in Zumbrota.

Magnuson studied with her, then traveled to Decorah, Iowa, to take a class at Vesterheim, which attracts the best artists from Norway and the United States. The teacher sat down and started to paint, expecting students to do the same.

"I was in way over my head," he realized. "I was completely lost."

Several years passed before Magnuson did what he should have done first. "I started over," he said, and took a class designed for beginners. The teacher was patient, but insisted that all work be correct.

That experience led to a session with a Norwegian teacher who also was a perfectionist.

"That's the way you learn how to do it right," Magnuson said. Take a "C" and an "S," add teardrops and scrolls. "Put them all together in the right way and you've got a beautiful piece of art."

After studying with a variety of teachers, he found the style that would win him the Vesterheim Gold Medal -- shaded Hallingdal. A variation of the traditional style, it blends one color into another.

Magnuson started winning ribbons at the national competition in Decorah in 2000 -- including Best in Show for a cabinet -- and had accumulated the required points for a medal in 2003.

That's when he started to teach rosemaling.

"It's important to be a good teacher," he said, and he finally felt that he knew what to do.

Over the past decade Magnuson has taught others to paint not only in Minnesota and Wisconsin, but also in North and South Dakota, Washington, California and Oklahoma.

"People saw my work and liked what I do," he explained, so they ask him to come and share that knowledge.

Rosemaling is not just an art for Norwegians, Magnuson stressed, and it has no geographic boundaries. Artists from Japan and Taiwan discovered it while living in the United States, he said. Now he knows at least two Japanese Gold Medal rosemalers.

Magnuson's art work has continued to evolve. In recent years he has been influenced by Telemark-style painter Turid Fatland, who paints on odd-shaped bowls in their natural state with the bark left on the edge.

"The basics are the same," Magnuson said, "but she glazes and paints the background to fit the grain and the natural beauty of the wood." She also uses some non-traditional colors.

He has taken five classes from Fatland, including a seven-day session in Norway, and he'll study with her again this summer in Decorah.

The style requires maple, aspen or other light-colored woods. Magnuson gets some of his hand-turned bowls from a local woodworker, Bill Beckman.

"It's a new, refreshing style to paint," Magnuson said.

Purists question whether Fatland's style should be allowed in competition, since it does not replicate what was done in the old days. He argues that the shaded Hallingdal style that won him the Gold Medal wasn't strictly traditional, either. An American Rogaland style that has some new elements has been a winner at Vesterheim, he added.

Magnuson also has taken his work to the Norsk Hostfest in Minot, N.D., for the past two years. Last year he won the Award of Excellence. But he does not plan to return there because it is so demanding -- four days of 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. painting, demonstrating and selling.

"It also interferes with my Gopher football," he noted. Magnuson, a University of Minnesota graduate, has season tickets to both football and basketball.

He works out of his home, but he has not covered his walls and ceilings and furniture with rosemaling the way his ancestors did. "That's not the way I want to live."

Rather, Magnuson paints trunks for his nieces' and nephews' weddings, and Christmas ornaments for family. He sells or gives away the rest of his work -- including the award-winning pieces.

He's scheduled to teach classes in Rochester April 4-6, in Zumbrota April 11-13 and in Decorah in late June.

Right now he's working on some framing for doors that will be installed in a couple's cabin, and he acquired a cupboard and a tina box with a carved handle from a couple in Coon Valley, Wis. The husband builds wooden pieces and his wife carves them.

Magnuson is content right where he is for the winter, working a little every day and spending time with his grandchildren who live nearby.

Clearly, the painting is important to him. Magnuson admitted, "I would be bored silly if I didn't have this."