H is for Heron. Next came F for Fox, her favorite animal. From there, Dinah Langsjøen worked when she could, layering on watercolor, a couple sweet hours here and there between raising her son. She didn’t follow the alphabet, instead listening to her gut. When the world watched the giraffe birth live-streamed, Langsjøen decided G was for Giraffe. For Langsjøen, life is about allowing art to lead the way.
Now, art lovers will have a chance to view part of Langsjøen’s journey as an artist in her exhibit Nostalgia in Nature, which opened today at the 410 Project in Mankato.
Origins of an artist
Separating Langsjøen from her art is nearly impossible.
“I’ve tried to put a time frame on it, but it’s been my whole life,” she said. “There were art teachers, creative teachers, who noticed, pushed me to cultivate it, acknowledged talent. I’ll always be grateful to them.”
Langsjøen grew up in Mankato, graduated from Mankato West High School and went on to study Art History at UW-Madison. Before moving back to her hometown two years ago, she lived in Colorado, where she spent hours upon hours with her acrylic paint and canvases. She was dedicated to the craft, and disciplined too, constantly maintaining her work like a runner training for a marathon.
I’ve tried to put a time frame on [my art journey], but it’s been my whole life.Dinah Langsjøen
Art and motherhood
In 2016, Langsjøen discovered she was pregnant. The news made her fear for her identity. Like many artists facing motherhood, she expected to lose that piece of herself.
“I didn’t want to lose my identity,” she said. “My sister was an artist until she had kids. I didn’t want to lose that.”
Then Langsjøen was invited to be a guest teacher at the International Music Camp at the International Peace Gardens bordering the United States and Canada for their Visual Arts Week. Acrylic was already second nature to Langsjøen, but watercolor was a completely new challenge.
“I’d never had an interest or really understood watercolors,” she said.
Langsjøen took a three-hour lesson, practiced what she could, and two weeks later, she was teaching others. She painted two watercolor pieces during that week of teaching. One was a passionflower, the other a heron.
I told myself, ‘You’re still an artist, and you’re getting this done! All 26!’Dinah Langsjøen
After her son Torin was born, Langsjøen picked up the Heron.
“I saw nursery artwork for sale and thought, ‘I can just do it myself,’” she said.
Watercolor turned out to be the perfect medium. Acrylic paint would dry out and be unusable if she left it out too long. With watercolors, she could leave her work sitting out if she was interrupted and still use it again with some fresh water. With determination to keep her identity as an artist, to embrace motherhood and to decorate her baby’s nursery, Langsjøen set a goal for herself: to paint the alphabet.
“It was kind of with a vengeance,” said Langsjøen. “I told myself, ‘You’re still an artist, and you’re getting this done! All 26!’”
It was a daunting challenge for a new mother, but Langsjøen was up for the task.
“I’m impatient; I make three to four at a time, so somethings always drying, and I finish one or two at a time,” she said. “This gives people a false sense of how fast I can make them. I do a lot of public show and tell, because I want people to realize all the work that goes in. I hope people value art more when they can understand the process.”
There are times I’m working and he wants to get involved, and my first thought is, ‘He’s going to mess it up.’ But then I remember what this is really about. Adults compare, children explore.Dinah Langsjøen
Steadily, Langsjøen finished Torin’s Alphabet. The process of creating the alphabet proved to Langsjøen that she could still be an artist, and that artistic mindset influenced the way she raised her son.
“There are times I’m working and he wants to get involved, and my first thought is, ‘He’s going to mess it up,’” she said. “But then I remember what this is really about. It’s the parent ego versus the child ego. I love kids for that. They’re less likely to self-criticize. Adults compare, children explore.”
Of course, it’s not easy to balance motherhood and a full-time position as Senior Executive Administrative Assistant for Wakely Consulting while still finding time and energy for art.
“There are days I don’t have the time or energy to make art, but my son has started to get so excited to see me doing it,” said Langsjøen.
A few moments in the morning, a couple hours after putting Torin to bed, or both of them working together, Langsjøen makes time to maintain her artistry alongside her motherhood.
Art and Healing
In April of 2019, the artist was tested again. Langsjøen was diagnosed with breast cancer at 32 years old, despite having no family history or any risk factors.
Art is so necessary for my mental health… When you go without your art, it’s like getting sick.Dinah Langsjøen
“I do place value on the universe guiding me,” said Langsjøen. “My breast cancer, I should not have found it. Even the doctors wondered how I found it. I had no risk factors, and we found it so early. Faith is where you put it. I put it in listening to my gut.”
As Langsjøen began surgeries and treatment, art became an anchor.
“Art is so necessary for my mental health,” she said. “My breast cancer made me realize, the more I wasn’t painting, the more I was depressed.”
During this time, Langsjøen’s work became more abstract and intuitive. Her abstract pieces were displayed at Tandem Bagels, and many of them sold. But that’s not why Langsjøen makes art.
“When you go without your art, it’s like getting sick,” she said.
Langsjøen now wears a compression sleeve, just one of the side effects of her surgeries; her lymph nodes were affected, and the arm isn’t draining. But Langsjøen has the cheerfulness of someone who’s been through the wringer and decided to thrive. She considers her compression sleeve a fashion statement. One of the sleeves she has is designed to look like watercolors.
“This show is running right up to my next surgery, and I was really excited to be able fit it in,” she said. “I’m glad I got this done now, because who knows how my next surgery will affect my painting arm.”
I’m alive until I’m not.Dinah Langsjøen
The potential loss of her painting arm’s abilities is not something that will stop Langsjøen.
“I’m alive until I’m not,” she said.
Facing more challenges
Langsjøen painted her way through the fear and uncertainty of an untimely cancer diagnosis. Then the pandemic arrived, and she was ready to face it, paintbrush in hand.
“When I had my cancer diagnosis… you walk down the street, and people don’t know what you’re going through,” she recalled. “They have no idea. Then this pandemic happened. You walked down the street, you looked people in the eyes, and you knew exactly what was happening in their lives, because it was happening to all of us.”
With her son home from school and the energy of spring shrouded by the darkness of Covid-19, Langsjøen needed a way to keep the brightness alive.
“So, I brought the birds in,” she said.
You walked down the street, you looked people in the eyes, and you knew exactly what was happening in their lives, because it was happening to all of us.Dinah Langsjøen
Backyard Birds of the Midwest is the second collection in the exhibit.
“Birds are so strange,” Langsjøen said. “They’re already thought of as angels, or spirits. People talk about being visited by cardinals.”
In the process of painting the collection, Langsjøen noticed synchronicities. After painting goldfinch, for example, a friend in North Carolina called unexpectedly to say he’d spotted one, or Langsjøen would see the book, The Goldfinch. It’s hard to say whether people become artists because these synchronicities fill their lives, or if, because they are artists, their eyes are open to seeing them. Regardless, the magic happens over and over for Langsjøen.
“Every bird I painted showed up,” she said. “It’s a matter of noticing and slowing down.”
Backyard Birds of the Midwest was completed in the spring of 2020 and includes the birds familiar to any Midwesterner: chickadees, swallows, the cardinal, and more.
In May, Torin’s father passed away. Although they had been separated for years, Langsjøen and Torin’s father had been amicably coparenting. Because Langsjøen had lost her father when she was very young, she had been determined to keep Torin’s father in his life.
“I finished the bird series right before he passed away, and I’m grateful for that,” Langsjøen said. “I don’t think I would have been able to pick it up with the same vitality.”
Langsjøen, fighting her own battle with breast cancer, in the unfamiliar world of the pandemic, was the sole living parent for her son. As she always had, she turned to her work, and another collection, Wildflowers, eventually came to life. Influenced by field guides, screen printing and a lifetime of memories, Wildflowers is the final collection in the gallery.
“Wildflowers are very personal to me,” Langsjøen said. “They signify childhood, my grandma who passed. Nature is such a benefit to mental health. I painted the wildflowers to bring all the good memories and nostalgia in. There are dark times, but you do what you can do.”
I painted the wildflowers to bring all the good memories and nostalgia in. There are dark times, but you do what you can do.Dinah Langsjøen
Wildflowers is darker and more realistic than her other collections.
“I didn’t want a background; I didn’t want to lose the power of a single flower,” she said. “So, I made the choice to go solid black. It was a scary choice. I don’t ask my art where it’s going anymore. It’ll show me. I’m trusting it to turn out how it needs to. Thus, the black paint.”
The artist today
In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, the 410 Project had to clear their slate of 2020 shows, and Langsjøen had two upcoming shows canceled for the same reason. When the 410 Project made an open call for submissions, Langsjøen applied.
“I was intimidated, because I had just sold most of my abstract paintings and was worried I didn’t have enough watercolors to fill for an October show,” she said. “Alas, we see how that turned out!”
Sometimes that’s all art really is—just giving something the time of day.Dinah Langsjøen
The exhibit will be at the 410 Project from October 2-18. Langsjøen has her own favorites in the collections but said it’s always surprising what people like. Some of the plants and animals depicted may seem common at first glance, especially to a Midwestern audience. But their familiarity is what gives them that power of nostalgia.
“Sometimes that’s all art really is—just giving something the time of day,” Langsjøen said.
The originals will be for sale and prints will be available through the Union Market. Visitors who sign the guest book will receive a discount on future prints of the collection as they become available.
Future of the artist
Langsjøen’s future is undecided. There are many factors and tempting projects on her mind: a children’s book, more abstract pieces, drawing through Inktober. For Langsjøen, art is vengeance, sanity, healing, and motherhood. Art is everything.
“To live in fear, to not live for what you love doing, that’s not living,” said Langsjøen.
Wherever Langsjøen goes, her art is certain to follow.