Karen Irene Foget (nee Elness)
Karen was born on July 26, 1933, on a farm near Garfield, MN, where she drove a tractor at the age of 5 to help with the harvest of hay. At age 11, she was helping at a corn husking machine when she used her left hand to grab a reluctant cornstalk, causing the machine to grab her hand and crush it. Released from the hospital after amputation, she asked and was allowed to steer the family car back to the farm. This steely determination defined her attitude throughout her life. She never accepted that there was anything she couldn’t do.
At Alexandria High School, she learned to play the trumpet and developed her talent for drawing. In her senior year, she painted a mural of a trumpet player at the school and received an art scholarship to the University of Denver Summer School. Here she overcame a serious case of homesickness thanks to a group of spirited students from other states. Their support made her so self-confident that she went to California by bus to visit relatives when the course was completed.
At St. Olaf College with a state grant of $1000, her extracurricular activities included skating in the Skating Club and swimming, achieving a Life Saving Certificate. Working at the Art Department, she became engrossed in art history and was dismayed that only male artists were featured.
She became art editor of the 1952 St. Olaf yearbook and received a summer scholarship to study at the University of Oslo, sailing across the Atlantic both ways. On the homeward trip, she won a sack hopping contest and was awarded a silver cup.
In her junior year of college, Karen was elected by the student body to be Editor-in-Chief of the 1953 edition of the yearbook that won All-American Honors. She was also designated as a junior counselor for freshmen, an honor she declined because she knew that the yearbook was going to consume all her free time.
During her senior year, Karen joined the Toastmistress Club and was elected to the Academic Honors Society, Pi Delta Epsilon (an honorary journalist society) and Phi Beta Kappa. She graduated Magna Cum Laude with Department Honors in Art. During the following summer, Karen took classes in silk screening and etching at the University of California, Los Angeles, to prepare for a year at St. Olaf as an art instructor in Drawing and Applied Arts.
The next year, she went to Denmark on a Fulbright scholarship to study at the Royal Academy of Art in Copenhagen and while there she learned to speak Danish. During holidays, she visited friends in England and Germany, and also took a car trip with other Fulbright recipients to Italy and France.
In the fall of 1956, at the end of Karen’s studies at the Royal Academy of Art, she decided to visit Bornholm, a picturesque island south of Sweden. There, at a youth hostel, she met her future husband, Kaj, who had taken a break from his work as an engineer at a meat canning plant in Roskilde, a city west of Copenhagen. There was only time for one date with him in Copenhagen before Karen and a Canadian friend traveled through Netherland, France and Italy to Greece, where she was particularly enthralled by the island Mykonos. They then sailed back to the USA.
Karen joined a group of St. Olaf friends in New York trying to find work. She also took an evening course in woodcuts at the Pratt Graphic Art Center. Meanwhile, Kaj obtained a Fulbright travel scholarship to work as a research assistant at the MIT Food Technology Department starting in March 1957. Karen was at the airport when he landed in the U.S. He caught weekend rides from Boston to New York with other students, so the relationship between Karen and Kaj blossomed, culminating on their eighth date in a simple marriage, attended by a few of Karen’s friends.
A college friend had married a French chef and together they opened a French restaurant, Maître Jacques, in Boston, where Karen painted large murals, depicting a French table.
As a Fulbright scholar from Europe, Kaj was obligated to return to and stay in Denmark for two years before he could apply for a visa to return to the U.S. So, after Kaj’s year at MIT, the couple arrived back in Roskilde where Kaj continued his employment with the meat canning company.
Karen took courses in book design, typography, illustration, graphic design and calligraphy at the Graphic College in Copenhagen. Her teacher and future friend was a prestigious graphic designer that helped her gain a position with Gyldendal, a large book publishing company, where she designed book covers and drew illustrations.
After 3½ years, the couple decided to return to the U.S. where Kaj found employment with Oscar Mayer Co. and Karen with the University of Wisconsin Press in Madison. Karen created the concept drawing of a house that was built on a lot surrounded by the Arboretum, and here the little family lived happily for 36 years.
After the birth of their daughter, Kiersten (Kiki), Karen chose to do freelance work and designed books with illustrations, book covers, brochures and logos for various publishing companies and other clients. Her work was rewarded by 22 awards at the Midwestern Books Competition and Chicago Book Clinic.
She also continued to work with her Boston friends who had been very successful with their new restaurant, Maison Robert. She created their menu and wine list designs with hand calligraphy, in addition to creating a series of Ben Franklin-motivated wooden plaques and paintings of fruits and vegetables.
When Kaj retired, Karen did too from the publishing business. She continued to create many paintings, mostly with fruit and vegetable motives and had 26 showings at various galleries. In addition, Karen developed adult courses in Women’s Art History at University of Wisconsin Extension, and Artful Dreaming and Womanspirit in Art classes at Edgewood College.
In 2004, Karen and Kaj moved to Capitol Lakes Retirement Center where Karen became very active on the Art Committee, initiating the transformation from what she called “hotel art” on the walls to original art from mostly local artists. She also joined a group of women who found dream interpretation interesting, and as a side hobby, she painted a large series of her dream images.
In the last years of her life, Karen developed dementia and had several falls that required hospitalization. She died peacefully and painless on October 15, 2023, in the nursing department of Capitol Lakes.
We welcome you to share your memories of Karen here on her Tribute Wall.