Fundraising efforts underway to save unique home of Milan artist

Jessica Stölen-Jacobson
Montevideo American-News

Karen Jenson began painting when she was just 20 years old - a venture that would lead to a career as a professional artist and teacher. Jenson and her husband purchased a home in Milan in the early 1960s, and Jenson spent years designing every nook and cranny of the home with her Scandinavian-inspired artwork amidst her 50-year career of painting and teaching art around the United States and Canada. The work was done with the help of two identical twin brothers Jenson met along the way. The contractors/artists, Arvid and Aaron Swenson helped to complete the home, called the Trestuen Gallery. The word Trestuen is Swedish for “Tree Room”.  “When she bought the house, it was just a typical little small-town house,” says Milan Village Arts School Director Ron Porep. “When she met the twins, Arvid and Aron Swenson, they built a whole new section on the house. They actually cut down these big conifers in the garden and they used those as the beams. The whole concept of the house is built around nature.” 

Each room in the home is adorned in Jenson’s handprinted Norwegian Rosemaling and Swedish Dalamalning, both of which she is known for worldwide. She painted not only the walls and cabinets, but the furniture, fixtures, and nearly every available surface. Many of her pieces of art done on bowls, canvas, and more hang inside the home. In addition to her own artwork, Jenson’s home includes her own collection of other artists including Franz Allbert Richter and Gene and Lucy Tokheim. The inside of the house is not the only artistic part of the property, as in the summer, the exterior features an expansive garden designed to reveal artistically combined color tones throughout the growing season. “She is a master of color,” says Porep. “She mingled colors in the garden to play off each other at different times of the year. It’s pretty special.”

Karen Jenson's house, also called the Trestuen Gallery, in Milan.

A few years ago, Jenson developed a medical problem and could no longer live at home, but a suggestion that was made about the Milan Village Arts School purchasing the home and preserving her legacy appealed to her. Porep said the house sat vacant after a year when Jenson moved into an assisted living situation. “We were kind of looking after the gardens,” he says. “Her children were ready to sell the house and we asked for two years to put the money together, leasing the property from them in the meantime with the intention of buying the home.”  Porep says it’s important to preserve the home because of is its one-of-a-kind design. “There’s nothing like it in the United States. It’s unique as a piece of art. It’s the whole concept - everything from the way the windows look out into the garden, and the secret areas in the garden enhances it. The creativity of everything inside. You have to see it to see how unique it is yourself. And so for that point itself, it’s worth saving.” 

Because the Milan Village Arts School is not a large organization, the need to raise funds not only for the purchase of the home and artwork inside but for the ongoing maintenance of the home became necessary. With the idea to create fundraising opportunities in mind, the group moved forward with the plans in March of 2020. About two weeks later, the COVID-19 pandemic shut down many of those opportunities. “For a small school like this, that was financially difficult,” Porep explains. “We were hoping in the second year conditions would improve, but they still haven’t." With the regular route of fundraising working against their favor, the Milan Village Arts School came up with a plan to start a campaign online, posting a link on GiveMN.org’s website, and making contact with people individually to ask for assistance. Thus far, they have raised over $45,000 towards the cause with a goal of $400,000 to go. That goal will help with the purchase of the home, the artwork, establishing a scholarship fund in Jenson’s name, and ongoing maintenance of the house. The group plans to push the fundraising efforts hard over the next months until Spring before evaluating where they are at with their initial plan. “There’s other things we can do if COVID improves, we can start to have some fundraisers in the house,” he adds. 

The Milan Village Arts School is hoping to preserve Jenson's legacy, and the home through their fundraising efforts.

The Milan Village Arts School hopes to use the home for more than just a display to view. They hope to rent out rooms and to be used for classes. “I see it as a center for the excellence in Scandinavian arts,” Porep says. “It can be used as a retreat, for exhibits. We can see it evolving and developing over the years.”  The Milan Village Arts School, a tax-exempt 501(c)3 organization is holding all donations for the Trestuen Legacy in a separate account. Donations can be made by checks made out to “MVAS” or “Milan Village Arts School” and mailed to P.O. Box 230 Milan, MN 56262, on GiveMN.org/organization/Milan-Village-Arts-School. For more information, or to follow along with the fundraising efforts, visit the Milan Village Arts School website or Facebook page.