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The University of Diane

By John Torgrimson, January 24, 2024

Diane Knight is pictured in front of a wall of Doodles – intricate pen and ink designs that she creates. (Photo by Renee Bergstrom)

The University of Diane


“Time with Diane is all-around nourishing”


WHALAN — This past September, 80 people of all ages showed up for a pot-luck celebration for artist and poet Diane Knight’s 85th birthday party at Cedar Valley resort.  

Noted Minnesota musician and entertainer Dan Chouinard emceed the evening, leading attendees with music and song. It was an evening devoted to a woman who is held in high esteem by those in the local art scene as well as the many people she has befriended since moving to Whalan.  

During the event, several people spoke about how they came to know Diane and how she has influenced them and impacted their lives. One woman at the party said sitting down and talking with Diane was like going to the ‘University of Diane’, because you learn and think about things in new and different ways.  

The evening had a celebratory feel to it as people honored their dear friend and, to add a little literary luster to the evening, Diane read a few of her poems from her book Putting Down Words – poems and doodles, published in 2020.

Diane’s friend Carla Noack, who once performed with Lanesboro’s Commonweal Theatre Company and now teaches theatre at the University of Missouri–Kansas City, helped organize the birthday party. 

“For many years, I lived only a few miles from Diane. If I was feeling stuck or in a knot about something, I could hop on the bike trail to Whalan knowing that I’d soon be in Diane’s presence and feel better about everything: opened and inspired and loved—connected on a deep level,” Noack stated.  

This is why Diane is held in such high regard as an influencer and a connector of people. She is not an influencer in the social media sense of the word today, like on TikTok or Instagram, but as a person who listens to others and treats them with mutual respect;  it’s in the way she carries herself and does her art. You could say it’s in her DNA.


Diane’s studio is in an old bank building that overlooks the Root River Trail in Whalan. Writing and art classes have been held there in the past. (Photo by John Torgrimson)


Iowa. California. Minnesota.

Diane grew up in Iowa in a tight knit family that was always interested in creating things. They did a lot of craft projects growing up. She took art in high school and decided to study Art Education in college, eventually teaching for a couple of years.  

“The first year I taught in a consolidated school. They had never had an art teacher before, so I got to design the whole program and set up the classroom. That was really fun,” she said. “I taught K through 12 students from several small Iowa towns, and adult-education as well.” She later worked at the University of Iowa hospital in their art department.

In 1962, looking to grow as a person and to experience life outside of Iowa, Diane and her soon-to-be husband drove her VW west, stopping in the Grand Tetons where they joined a climbing camp of mountaineers. Unfortunately, Diane broke her ankle rock climbing and ended up in San Francisco with a cast up to her hip.

In the early 60s, San Francisco was the epicenter of the counter culture movement with Hippies, emerging music and drug scenes, and protests over the Vietnam War. One couldn’t be further away from Iowa than the city by the bay.

While Diane wasn’t in the thick of these scenes per se, it was a place where art in all its variations were on display and Diane took notice.  

“It was quite a shock for an Iowa girl,” Diane recalled. “Yet it was amazing.”

Diane’s daughter Shandra was born in San Francisco in 1969. The family returned to Iowa the following year and Diane returned to work at the University hospital art department once again, creating graphs, charts and displays.  Her son Josh was born in 1971.  Diane and her husband divorced soon after.


Some of Diane’s early art focused on three-dimensional box sculptures and wire figures. (Photo by John Torgrimson)


Work in the art department was the beginning of Diane’s career as a graphic artist that would eventually follow her to Johnson Printing in Rochester in 1974, and later to the Mayo Clinic.  

“A lot of the work back then was cutting and pasting images and stenciling letters,” Diane recalled. “It wasn’t until I worked at Mayo that we started using computers.”

While living in Rochester, Diane got involved as a volunteer artist for the Rochester Civic Theater, spending the next 20 years making masks, puppets and leading crews of young people. 

“This involved a group of people working together for a production. It was a very fun time,” Diane said. “Sylvia Langworthy was the director and she gave me the confidence to do these things.”

Diane and her partner Sid Sheehy, a long time acquaintance from her San Francisco days, moved to Whalan in 1991. Sid died suddenly in 1997. Diane retired from Mayo in 2000.

Doodling and Poetry

Diane got serious about making her own art as she grew older. She initially focused on 3-dimensional box sculptures and began working with clay and wire figures.

In 2012, she and her siblings turned her Whalan studio into an art gallery, featuring a range of genres. She also began hosting art classes and writing groups, making it possible for people to do things with art. These continued up until the pandemic. 

“As an artist, her work is constantly evolving,” commented Noack. “She trusts her impulses and allows them to lead her to surprising places. There is a sense of joy and playfulness in every piece she creates, as well as darkness and sorrow. She embraces it all.”

About five years ago, Diane began her “doodling” project and began writing poetry. Diane says that she has done more than 100 doodles – no, not your ordinary scribbles, but a patchwork of shapes and random designs that end up as a complete image that, like all art, elicit a visual reaction from the viewer.

Diane claims that her poetry began with simple thoughts that she would write down. “A line would come and I would just start writing until I got to the end,” she said. It led to Putting Down Words, which is a combination of her doodles and poems.


Diane was a self-trained graphic artist during her working career. Her most recent art project involves intricate ink and pen artwork she calls “doodles”. (Photos by John Torgrimson)


The poems Diane has been working on recently are quite different than many in her book. She likes the poetry of the late Mary Oliver, who often looked to nature for inspiration, and believes their styles are similar.

“The good thing about growing old is it gives you time to work on art,” Diane said. “Writing poetry can be intimidating. I want to be more relevant to the world and what is going on. I am looking for more of a punch in my writing.” 

Student of Buddhism

Diane was briefly introduced to Buddhism when she was in her 20s living in San Francisco, where a colleague encouraged her to go to the Zen Center. She said she was “too Iowan at the time to consider it.”

Today, she is a student of Buddhism, which she revisited after moving to Whalan. Followers of Buddhism don’t worship a deity, but focus on achieving inner peace and wisdom, often using meditation to study the mind. Diane, who doesn’t meditate as many Buddhists do, will often interrupt her day to practice mindfulness.

“When I was young I was afraid of death. I knew it would be an inevitable part of my life, so I decided to have a conversation with death. Come on, we’re going to have a talk. I’m going to look you straight in the face. We’re going to be friends. That made a huge difference.” She was living in San Francisco at the time, in the early 1960s.  

Today, at 85, Diane isn’t afraid of death anymore. As a Buddhist, she is aware of the impermanence of life and the interconnectedness of everything and that life will take its course. 

“Diane is led by wonder,” Carla Noack said about her friend. “She is good with quiet. Conversations with Diane can quickly go deep because she’s comfortable with silence and curious about whatever comes in those moments. She listens. She shares. She expresses gratitude. She is ever interested in what it means to be human. Time with Diane is all-around nourishing.” 

It’s like going to the University of Diane.


Diane Knight’s book  Putting Down Words, a book of poems and doodles, is available at Lanesboro Arts and through Amazon.

Visit her Root River Current poetry post Those Darn Feelings to read or listen to Diane share two recent poems; two additional poems and examples of her original artwork can be found here.




John Torgrimson is the editor and co-publisher of Root River Current.



Root River Current’s coverage of the arts is made possible, in part, by the voters of Minnesota through a grant from the Southeastern Minnesota Arts Council thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts & cultural heritage fund.

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