Jen and Chris are sisters first, makers second. They have been peddling handmade goods since the late 1970s when they plucked clay from a creek, molded and painted it in their backyard studio (aka bushes behind the swing set) and then sold the creations door-to-door to fund a trip to an amusement park. Today, they are using that same entrepreneurial spirit to fund their diverse adult interests, including trips to amusement parks.
Through their business, The Mad Owl, they make all products in their St. Paul studio using local, recycled and re-purposed materials whenever possible. Their main focus is a hand-stamped muslin-patch line. This original line features sassy, playful and often irreverent hashtags and sayings, many with a regional flavor that reflects proud Minnesota roots. Jen and Chris stamp all of their tea-stained muslin patches by hand and even hand-carve many of the stamps as well. Because they are made in small batches by the sister duo, each item is a unique and one-of a kind conversation piece. In addition, The Mad Owl has a line of uncommon baby bibs and baby accessories made with smart, unconventional, and urban patterns and prints to create exclusive accessories for littles.
See Chris and Jen's work at the upcoming Homespun Craft + Gift Show at the Veterans Park Pavilion in Richfield, MN on August 25, 2018 from 2pm-7pm. This is an event for all ages that will showcase the work of more than 40 local makers, plus live music, a local food truck, kids activities, and more! More details about the show here!
Did you grow up in Minnesota? In what ways do you think your environment influenced your creative journey?
We were both born in Minnesota in a small town called Litchfield, west of the Twin Cities. We lived with our parents on a small farm in Annandale for the first few years but when our parents divorced, we moved out of state with our mom, first to Colorado and then to Florida.
Even though we grew up in other states, we spent every summer here in Minnesota on our Grandmother’s farm out in Cokato, MN. Those summers were filled with long, idyllic afternoons biking in the countryside, playing hide and seek in the hay bales and turning the outbuildings into our own tiny village. This was where everything else fell away—school work, family stress, peer pressure, growing pains—and where we escaped together, where our imaginations were fostered and flourished. We spent long hours building and creating entire imaginary worlds together.
Even though Colorado and then Florida are where we officially “grew up,” got our first jobs, learned to drive, had our first dates, graduated from high school, and established best friendships, we both always considered Minnesota our home. After high school, we both migrated back here to put down roots permanently.
Our ability to cocoon together, escape, connect to place through our imaginations and to create is still the foundation of our creative process today.
What did your path to creating your business, The Mad Owl, look like? Would you say that you’ve both always wanted to be artists/makers?
We made our first foray into entrepreneurship as makers at a young age when we found a creekbed near our house in Colorado that had a clay bottom. We harvested the clay in big plastic bags, took it home to our “workshop,” which was a hideout in some bushes in the yard, and made clay pots and figurines. We painted them and then went door to door throughout the neighborhood and convinced folks to actually give us real money for what essentially amounted to roughly painted lumps of clay. We were fairly successful, which we chalk up not to the quality of our workmanship but to our salesmanship and the fact that we were still pretty cute little kids.
Unfortunately, our paths diverged from that early venture. We both spent our younger years exploring who we are and where we belong. It wasn't until our late 30s that we were able to return to creating and making.
Jen’s journey: I became a single mom at the age of 18. I raised my daughter, Sarah, in South Minneapolis. I spent my 20s and early 30s working multiple jobs and going to college to be a teacher, and then teaching high school English. It was a struggle trying to balance being a mom while I was still trying to become a person. There was very little time for creating and making.
When Sarah had flown the nest, I fell in love and moved to St. Paul with Travis, now my husband. Sarah had a daughter and at the ripe old age of 38, I became a grandmother! I was finally in a place in my life where I had time to create again. I started making bibs and clothing for my granddaughter. I also started sewing my own clothes and costumes. Even though sewing was, and still is a challenge, and there is a fair amount of swearing and frustration when I sew, being in front of my sewing machine became a kind of meditative outlet.
When I was in my early 40s, I had twin girls (making me at one point, a pregnant grandma!) When Aela and Eva came along, I started making clothes, bibs and sensory toys for my girls out of fabrics that aren’t traditionally associated with baby clothing. Friends and family began noticing my work and I started getting requests for custom baby bibs and baby shower layettes.
Chris’ journey: In her 20s and 30s, Chris went to law school and then started a long career in non-profit work advocating for affordable housing, transportation policy and our National Parks.
She fell in love with travel, and in her early 30s, she stowed all of her belongings in storage and set off for a solo trek wandering around the entire world for a year.
Chris finally settled in and managed to stay put for several years after finding her dream job advocating for the environment. She started to nurture her own creative side and was experimenting with different ways to make epoxy-coated tile coasters and she started making magnets out of bits of paper brochures she had collected on her travels.
Our journey together: This whole venture came about when we started working together in my house, turning my dining room table into a makeshift workshop until we decided to move our “studio” into a spare bedroom. We were having so much fun making that we decided it might be fun to return to those early entrepreneurial roots, to create together and head out into the world together to sell our creations.
We named our company The Mad Owl, which is a mashup of two long-running inside jokes, and Travis designed our beloved owl logo. We officially incorporated as an LLC in January of 2017 and made our very first official sale as a company at a Minneapolis Craft Market event at Lakes and Legends Brewery in March of 2017. Initially our business was a focused line of baby bibs, bonnets, teethers, sensory toys, coasters and magnets.
Once we were up and running, Chris and I started experiment with carving stamps. Using artwork created by my husband, Travis, we taught ourselves how to carve different types of rubber and linoleum carving block. We experimented with stamping baby clothes. It was a lot of trial and error as we tried several ways to stamp directly onto cotton but we were never satisfied with the results. Chris came up with the idea that we should stamp on a separate material and sew it onto the clothes resulting in our current line of stamped patches for the baby bodysuits. We loved the way the muslin patches look. Hand-stamped patches have become the central focus of our work. We have been working to hone and perfect our stamping process and have grown our stamped-patch line to include baby bibs, winter hats, slouch hats, baseball and trucker hats, and wristlets, in addition to the baby bodysuits.
We are very fortunate to have so much support from our family. Travis is an unending source of artwork and ideas. In addition, we have an aunt, Jer Cullen, who owns and runs a manufacturing business, HBI Textiles with her partner, Doua Lee and their son Peng Cha. Jer has been instrumental in helping us get our business off of the ground. She has served as a patient business mentor and a resource in helping us streamline and hone our creative process. She and Peng even figured out a way to transfer our stamps onto leather patches, which we started adding to baseball and trucker hats this summer.
Our four other sisters, Angela, Rachel, Katie and Mary, and my daughter Sarah have advised us on social media tactics, given us feedback and ideas for sayings and hashtags and have come to help us at markets. We truly do think that without the support of our family, we would not be able to do this work.
How do the two of you work together as business partners? What are the most rewarding and/or challenging moments about working with your sister?
Working with your sister has its pros and cons for sure. Luckily we have differing strengths and have figured out how to leverage those. I tend to stick to creating, hand-carving stamps, and sewing. As for the business aspects, I handle the social media, marketing and networking. Chris does all of the stamping by hand. She also handles most of the technical business aspects, such as filing taxes, managing money, handling contracts, etc. It has been a lot of trial and error as we figure out how to manage a business. Neither of us has a background in marketing or business and we both struggle with some of the technical aspects of owning a business.
On top of that, as family, we can sometimes be a little less patient and a little more snippy with each other than we would be if we were working with someone we aren’t related to. But on the bright side, we know each other so well, we never take those moments personally. There have been some tense interchanges that would have maybe ended any traditional business partnership, but we have spent an entire lifetime navigating each other’s moods and getting to know each other’s ways and so we are able to continue to move forward and create even on our worst days.
Also on the plus side, we work well together and find comfort and peace in our creative partnership. We hand-make almost everything in what we lovingly refer to as our “St. Paul studio,” which is actually a tiny spare bedroom in Jen’s house. This is the place where we bunker down, listen to music on vinyl, or watch Xena, drink beer and make stuff, mostly during the small quiet hours of the night when my girls are sleeping. The creative process arises from the quiet conversations and feeling of calm, close comfort we find when we’re working together. We aren’t sure that process would be easily replicated if we were not sisters who had spent so much time together creating and building our own worlds together as we were growing up.
Why is it important to you to source local, recycled, and re-purposed goods when possible?
Both of us our huge stewards of the environment and proponents of conservation. Chris has a day job advocating for our environment on the national level and Jen volunteers on the board of a local conservation organization. We believe that we should try to reuse materials as often as possible in order to reduce our environmental impact. We also like to know where our materials are coming from as much as possible so we can make sure they are ethically sourced. We also try buy local whenever we can in order to support our own local economy and to support small business owners who are working much the same as we do, with limited time, money and resources but with passion and heart.
Do you like to leave space for experimentation and play in your work? Or would you say you tend to approach your art with an intention or plan that rarely changes along the way?
I (Jen) tend to approach creating like I am bouncing from cloud to cloud in the sky and have a hard time focusing. I have about 100 new ideas a day and I am always adding them to a long ongoing “someday” list.
Luckily Chris has a practical approach to the creative process and is able to temper my chaos with reason and focus. She tends to reign us in and get us on track and remind us that we must have a “cohesive collection” of products. She has the talent of taking my ideas and distilling them down into actual products.
Together, we find ways to constantly play and experiment but also move forward and focus on improving and perfecting our process and our products. We are also constantly listening to feedback from people who visit our table at markets, buy our products and follow us on social media. We have tried a few things that didn’t go over so well and we are never married to anything enough that we can’t change our process, our approach, our ideas or our products. We have come up with some great new ideas because of this ability to be responsive. While our creative process is very personal, ultimately we are creating for other people and it is important to us that those people find products that resonate with them and make them happy.
In terms of living and making in Minnesota, do you feel connected to this place? To any communities in particular?
Even though we moved here as young adults, we have always considered Minnesota our home. We are truly Minnesotan to the core. I moved to Uptown in the mid-90s back when it was still a little rough and gritty around the edges. I raised my oldest daughter there. Chris still lives in Uptown. We find a lot of peace in places like Lake Harriet and Lake of the Isles, and still enjoy the country life from our summers on the farm, so we enjoy lots of county fairs, and Chris drives in the autocross every year at the county fair in Hutchison.
Do you find that achieving a balance between being an artist and a business owner is one that comes easily to you? Do you enjoy wearing all the hats that are required of you on a daily basis?
Being business owners has provided us quite a few challenges. Neither of us has a background in business and we feel like our learning curve when it comes to the business side of The Mad Owl is sometimes quite steep. We’ve had to learn a lot in a short amount of time. Last winter, we went through the process of trademarking the phrase “coldAF” and we to have a crash course in trademark law, which was quite a learning process.
I joke quite often that I just want to make stuff. I also love to talk to people at our markets. But honestly, the rest of of it is a challenge. As our business grows, we are learning the ropes. Chris enjoys the challenge of creating products people will actually buy. She does the stuff that needs to be done legally for businesses, but it’s not her favorite aspect of The Mad Owl. That’s sitting next to her sister in the studio, stamping stuff while Jen sews, and watching Xena on our TV.
What are some of your favorite pieces you’ve made? What makes them special to you?
I still love our baby bodysuits and the very first stamp I carved, which is a fox. But I am in love with our wristlets. Travis, who is an architect, started bringing home scraps and samples of upholstery fabric from the design department at his firm. I asked him to create a prototype clutch or wristlet using those pieces. He designed the pattern for our wristlets and then taught me how to piece them together. I love the process of making them. They start out kind of ugly; they are scraps and bits of mismatched orphan fabrics, and as they come together you see raw edges and the backs of the fabrics and messy seems. Throughout the entire process of piecing and sewing them, I keep thinking, “This is ugly. This is not going to work.” The last step in the process involves turning the wristlet inside out and then sewing the lining shut. Every single time I do that final turn, I am surprised at how beautifully the piece turns out. It is like a tiny Christmas morning every time. I think, “Oh, look at how beautiful this is!” It’s a reminder that the process of creating is messy and sometimes chaotic but if I trust in myself and my skills and if I trust in the pattern and the process, the end result is something wonderful. The process of making them is incredibly satisfying.
Do you find it important to support local businesses, artists, and makers? Any favorites you’d like to share?
It’s absolutely vital to support local businesses, artists and makers! We are not only investing back into our own economy, we are supporting folks just like us who are investing everything they have into their dreams. As makers, our work is so incredibly personal to us. We aren’t just creating generic products. We are putting a piece of ourselves into each product we make and sell. When we buy from a local artist or maker, we are telling them their work is important and that their vision and ideas have touched us somehow. As a maker, this is so meaningful. I would much rather buy from someone who has put their sweat, passion and soul into a product than buy something that was made on an assembly line.
Some of our favorite local makers are S.S. Baits Co., Muddy Mouth Cards, Skipped the Stone, and Awesome Industries.
Do you feel like making and creating through your business allows you to contribute to something larger than yourself?
Besides actually creating, my favorite part of our work is interacting with the folks who shop at our markets. I love seeing the smiles and laughs when people read our patches. At the most basic level, being able to create something that brings someone else joy or happiness is important work. But we are also part of a larger movement where people are recognizing the importance of buying from small, locally owned businesses as a way to reinvest in our economy and to support independent artists. We have found an incredible community among other Minnesota makers and feel like being part of this groundswell movement of local arts is important work.
In addition, we have supported local organizations or fundraisers by contributing portions of our sales from several of our markets and will continue to do so even as we grow.