Willmar instructor discovers the art of discovering art

After teaching art for more than 20 years and leading students through the process of creating art at Ridgewater College in Willmar, Marjorie Nilssen will take up the role of being a student and continue to explore her own artistic discoveries.

Artist Marjorie Nilssen poses for a portrait Dec. 31, 2020 at her studio in Atwater. Nilssen retired from Ridgewater College in Willmar at the end of December after working as an art professor there for the last 20 years. Erica Dischino / West Central Tribune

WILLMAR — Marjorie Nilssen has been a teacher for 39 years, including teaching art at Ridgewater College in Willmar for the last 20 years.

Teaching students is a major part of who she is.

But Nilssen has also been an artist for nearly 50 years.

Creating new, abstract and “mysterious” art is also an enormous part of who she is.

After retiring from Ridgewater at the end of December, Nilssen is now learning how to adjust to life without students and how to use that additional time to explore and expand her own artwork.


“It’s time to be a student again,” said Nilssen, 62, acknowledging that the transition will take awhile to “unfold.”

Retiring was a “difficult and emotional decision,” said Nilssen, who considered Ridgewater her home and the faculty and students her family. “I loved my job,” she said.

But Nilssen said her philosophy and “passion” about teaching studio art with a hands-on approach was hard to marry with the virtual, distance-learning classes required because of COVID-19.

Being in the studio “with paint all over my hands” didn’t transfer well online, said Nilssen, who took the challenges of COVID as a sign that it was time to retire and spend more time on her own artwork. All of her blood relatives died young, she said, which added another layer of urgency to live a full life.

Nilssen praised the Ridgewater art program for not being a “cookie cutter or theme-based” program.

Nilssen said she was able to share “discoveries with students” and the “joys of art making” by leading students through the process of creating art rather than just producing an end-product.

As a result, students created art that no one had ever seen before.

Nilssen said seeing students who had been “afraid of art,” because they didn’t know how to draw, experience joy and develop confidence during the process of creating their own work of art has been a highlight of being an art teacher.


“It’s just a beautiful thing,” she said. “I’ve loved that aspect of teaching all these years.”

Nilssen said being an artist means having some successes, but many failures. She’s never been shy about showing those failures to her students.

Nilssen said she hopes that by exposing her own vulnerabilities, she’s helped remove the “fear of failing” for her students so they’ll continue to explore their own art.

Other than when she was an 8-year-old child and discovered that she was good at art by drawing pictures of people she saw in her mother’s magazines, Nilssen has never spent much time creating traditional art.

For several years Nilssen has been neck-deep in a type of artwork called encaustic wax that uses a combination of beeswax, resin and colored pigment that’s melted on a “hot box” to create designs on paper. She’s also been experimenting with creating reliefs and sculptures using unusual found objects, with some encased in wax.

She recently packed up the hot box and has returned to painting that focuses on colors and shapes. “Actually holding a brush is new and different again,” she said.

It’s still abstract art, but the tools are more traditional.

There are currently no paintings of landscapes or sunsets in her rented studio space in Atwater. But that could change as Nilssen considers a trip to New York, a place she’s been to many times and calls the “best city in the world” to study traditional still-life drawing and painting.


“I don’t feel like I’m done learning,” she said.

For Nilssen, doing traditional art could be a new way of stepping into an unfamiliar world of process and discovery.

Trying new things “makes us more well-rounded as human beings,” she said.

Although she’s now set aside her full-time role as a teacher, Nilssen said she would like to be a one-on-one mentor to artists.

“I’m not done teaching yet,” she said. “I’m not done giving.”

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