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A zest for life, design

“I thank the Lord every day for another day of life,” says Bette Zieska, of Annandale, “since I have so many interesting things to do!”

Bette feels blessed that she has time to pursue the things she enjoys.  As the mother of four children, she was often too busy to focus on her own pursuits.  But after retirement, she began to take the time to pursue art in many forms.

“I’m not an artist,” Bette says modestly.  Yet Bette has created pencil drawings, loves to paint, designs and prints her own greeting cards, quilts, makes beaded jewelry, and – most notably – creates beautiful and original baskets out of pine needles.

Some of Bette’s artistic pursuits are just things she enjoys working on.  She mostly does them for herself.  But Bette’s pine needle baskets have won numerous first-place awards at the Minnesota State Fair.

“Twice I even won ‘Best of Show,’” she said.  “That really made me proud.  That’s the award everyone wants, because it comes with a cash prize.”  Bette remembers that the Minnesota Basket Weaver’s Guild contributed to the prizes, which made the awards even more valuable to her.  The Minnesota Basket Weaver’s Guild is an organization devoted to promoting and teaching the art of basketry in Minnesota.

It’s no wonder Bette won first prize at the state fair for many years.   Bette’s designs are fresh and original, and incorporate many interesting materials, such as agates, antlers, gourds, and beads.  She also dyes her own materials, so she can make baskets in many colors.  Bette has made baskets in many styles and sizes:  baskets with covers, oval baskets, round baskets, baskets with handles, trivets and even woven napkin holders.  Some of her baskets are so beautiful they will only be used for display purposes.  Bette loves making them and also enjoys giving them away.  Graduations, birthdays, anniversaries and other events have all been occasions for Bette to give a hand – woven basket.  Bette customizes each gift so the recipient will get what they want, adding an agate for a special granddaughter, and dying the fibers a certain color to meet a daughter’s wishes.

Bette learned many of the art forms that she enjoys through people she met while traveling with her husband after retirement.  Bette and her husband were married for over 60 years before he passed away just a couple of years ago.  “It was a good marriage,” says Bette.  “I miss him very much.”  Some of their best times were spent traveling in the fifth wheel they purchased for retirement.   Bette enjoyed touring, especially the American Southwest.  She recalls looking for petroglyphs in Arizona and New Mexico, as well as finding pieces of obsidian, a rock once used by Native Americans for making tools and arrowheads due to its knife-sharp edges.

Bette found that traveling was a wonderful way to meet people, as many fellow travelers were quite friendly.

“I used to go up to the campground store for groceries, and it would take me two hours to get back,” she says.  “So many people had their projects spread out outside as I walked by.  If I expressed any interest at all, they’d invite me over and show me what they were doing.  And there were so many interesting things!”

It was in this way that she learned painting and drawing skills – things she’s wanted to be able to do since she was a child.

She also learned how to make pine needle baskets through a woman she met while travelling.  The baskets are made out of the long needles found on some pine trees in the South and Northwest.  But Bette has improved on the techniques she learned.

“Just like with embroidery,” she said, “your work shows on the other side.  Well, I didn’t want my work to show.  So I figured out how to go back over so both sides look finished.”

Bette didn’t always have an easy life.  While pregnant with one of her children, she contracted polio, and was in the hospital for many months.  Although she had a mild version of the disease, she has experienced weakness in her legs all her life.  It also contributed to a lung disease which continues to plague her.  Other health concerns have continued to come up all her life, yet Bette maintains a positive attitude and keeps doing what she loves.

“There must be something in my genes that makes me think positively,” says Bette.  “My glass has always been half full.”

Bette was married for over 60 years to “a wonderful man.”  She considers herself lucky to have had so many good years together.  They lived and raised their children in the northern Twin Cities suburb of Crystal.  They got to know the Annandale area when they purchased lake property at Sugar Lake when she was pregnant with their fourth child.  By the time their youngest son was in high school, they had moved out to Sugar Lake permanently, building a year-round home where the cabin used to be.

“Sugar Lake was a wonderful place to live,” says Bette.  “I have many friends there.  We still get together in the summer for cards and so on.”

Bette and her husband moved into Annandale when he became ill.  After he passed away, Bette stayed in Annandale.  “It’s easier to be close to things.  Everything is right here.”  Bette’s son also lives in the area, and her daughters come regularly.

Bette credits her daughter-in-law with setting up a wonderful workspace for her in the corner of her living room, so she can continue to work on her art projects.  “It’s so convenient,” says Bette.  “I can work on my computer or paint or work on another project, all right from this spot.”

Although Bette’s main focus at this point in her life is on her creative projects, she also loves travel and adventure.  This past summer, Bette – aged 82 – and her daughters went on a cruise to Alaska.  Day trips from the ship included hiking in the mountains and taking a scenic ride on a “miner’s train,” which traverses through areas where miners staked their claims during the Alaskan gold rush.  “It was wonderful to see the mountains, to see the glaciers,” said Bette.  “I’ve always wanted to see the glaciers with my own eyes.”

One of the excursions they chose included ziplining in the Alaskan mountains.  Photos of Bette show her suspended from a cable (or zipline) over a gorge with a rushing river far below.   She doesn’t look the least bit worried.  “They strap you in,” she says, “so there’s not really anything to be afraid of.”

Fear is certainly not something Bette seems to have much of.  Instead, she continues to find new activities that she enjoys, and she surrounds herself with things that bring her happiness.  Bette pulls out a quilt she made.  “I call this my happy quilt,” she says.  “I made it with all my favorite bright colors so that every time I look at it I smile.”

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