Black Cat Farmstead: Farm-to-loom art

Andrea Myklebust works the loom at Black Cat Farmstead, near Lake Pepin, Minnesota // Photo by Barbara O'Brien Photography

Andrea Myklebust works the loom at Black Cat Farmstead, in Wisconsin near Lake Pepin close to the Minnesota and Wisconsin State Line  //  2018©Barbara O’Brien Photography

If you’ve ridden the Metro Green Line in the Twin Cities, you’ve likely seen Andrea Myklebust’s work. The Raymond Avenue, Westgate, and Union Depot light rail stations feature granite, cast bronze, and concrete sculptures carved and forged by Andrea and her husband, Stanton (Stan) Sears.

But the bulk of Andrea’s work happens an hour-and-a-half outside the Twin Cities, in the hills of western Pepin County, Wisconsin, near Lake Pepin. There, Andrea and Stan live and work at Black Cat Farmstead, a hillside farm that includes a small barn, a pasture for their flock of sheep, the couple’s home, and a huge sculpture studio. It’s here that Andrea weaves stunning textiles, and hand-spins wool and yarn.

Andrea and Stan moved to the 36-acre farmstead from Minneapolis’ Longfellow neighborhood in 2005, but it wasn’t until 2011 that they bought sheep and Andrea began creating under the Black Cat moniker. Although the people from whom they bought the farmstead “weren’t even growing rhubarb,” Andrea says the property has technically been a working farm for the past 150 years. Originally, she and Stan were just looking for a place to cut stone for their sculptures. They ended up getting much more.

The overwhelming stillness of the place is striking. Once in a while a crowing rooster or bleating sheep cuts through the quiet, but most of the time it’s just the wind rustling through the leaves. “The sheep were kind of my mid-life crisis,” Andrea jokes, noting that due to lambs being born and other sheep being sold, the flock fluctuates in numbers from 50 to 60. 

Andrea Myklebust, left, with some of her sheep and a rooster on Black Cat Farmstead near Lake Pepin, Wisconsin // Photo by Barbara O'Brian Photography

Andrea Myklebust, left, with some of her sheep and a rooster on her and her husband, Stanton Sears’, farm // 2018©Barbara O’Brien Photography

Formally trained in sculpture, Andrea never envisioned running a farm-to-crochet-hook operation. But she says her love of animals and deep-rooted passion for textile and fiber arts made the transition easy. 

“There was an opportunity here,” Andrea says of Black Cat, “to, as an artist, do something that was more intensely in a relationship with the land and, as a person who really enjoys working with animals, to have this partnership.”

Warm and affable, with a smile that makes you feel immediately at home, Andrea is a hearty soul. She takes the ups and downs of farm life with a sense of humor (an unwritten requirement for anyone running a farm), and cares for Black Cat and her work with earnestness and intentionality.

Andrea lived in Minneapolis until she was 10 years old, when her family moved from the city to the countryside near La Crosse, Wisconsin. She eventually landed back in the Twin Cities, working at the Guthrie Theater as a stitcher in the costume shop in the early 1990s before graduating from Macalester College in St. Paul with a degree in studio arts in 1995. That’s where she first met Stan, who has been teaching sculpture there since 1983.

Following graduation, Andrea began a sculpture-focused graduate program at the University of Minnesota. She was there for about a year before she left to design and create the bell tower on the campus of North Hennepin Community College, a commission she and Stan worked on together. After, she worked for a year as an adjunct sculpture professor at the University of Minnesota, then taught at North Hennepin. In 2005, she and Stan moved to what would eventually become Black Cat Farmstead.

Textiles have always been central to Andrea’s world. Growing up in the 1960s and early ’70s she learned to sew from her mother, who made clothes for her and her brother. Her grandmother practiced traditional Norwegian needlework and taught Andrea how to use knitting needles when she was very young. She “had a lot of creative energy,” Andrea says of her grandmother, “but, generationally, there weren’t the kinds of outlets that I have.”

Andrea Myklebust with a basket of wool yarn // Photo by Barbara O'Brien Photography

Andrea Myklebust with a basket of wool yarn // 2018©Barbara O’Brien Photography

To get the exact materials needed for her shawls, blankets, towels, rugs, and dozens of other creations, Andrea has pieced together a flock of sheep as diverse as her work. There are crossbred Icelandic, Shetland, and Gotland sheep, each purposefully assembled for their varying colors and textures. “Because I’m the primary end-user of a lot of what I produce,” Andrea says, “it’s useful for me to have a lot of variety.”

Andrea and a professional shearer collect the wool every spring, usually around the third weekend in April, shearing all the sheep in a single day. The fleece from each sheep is placed in individual bags labeled with the sheep’s name and the date. After being inspected for imperfections and burrs, each batch is delicately washed with mild water and soap. (Wool “felts” when exposed to warmth and too much agitation, the resulting interlocked fibers turning into a Velcro-like material that is difficult to work with.) From there, it’s off to the fiber studio for spinning and weaving.

In addition to raising sheep for their wool, Andrea also grows flax to spin into yarn. Her neighbors, organic farmers Robbi Bannen and Ted Fischer, who also operate AtoZ Produce and Bakery, contribute to her supply. 

The yarn-spinning process—a mesmerizing flurry of fibers being drawn out onto the spindle of a spinning wheel and twisted until they’ve reached the spinner’s desired strength—takes place in a 19th century pioneer house Andrea and Stan relocated to their property in 2012. The studio doubles as a retail space, and is chock-full of yarn, wool, and fleece of myriad colors and textures, along with some finished pieces. The unique shop attracts all sorts of craft enthusiasts. “The people who come to find me are knitters and crocheters, hand-spinners, felters, and the occasional quilter looking for exotic materials,” Andrea says. “We all find each other online [and share] our nerdy existence.” 

Left: A Spinning Wheel used to make yarn from the wool. Right: The My studio, full of yarn, wool, and textiles // Photo by Barbara O'Brian Photography

Left: A Spinning Wheel used to make yarn from the wool. Right: Andrea Myklebust and her husband Stanton Sears’ studio, full of yarn, wool, and textiles // 2018©Barbara O’Brien Photography

While she sells a little bit of her work out of the fiber studio, Andrea does most of her business out of The Purple Turtle, a craft shop in nearby Stockholm, Wisconsin, run by her friend Amanda Scholz. There, Andrea’s work appears alongside that of 60 other area craftspeople.

A giant draw loom with an in-progress linen piece fills the space between the shop and Andrea’s studio. Another loom with another unfinished project dominates the corner of the room. Just beyond the draw loom is a staircase leading to the rest of the studio, although it feels more like a museum, packed tightly with looms and spinning wheels of all different shapes, sizes, and ages, each with some sort of project in the making.

Andrea knows the story and tradition behind every loom and wheel in her collection. “Cloth is such a universal thing for people,” she says. “You can really explore cultural identities and the history of places through what people did with cloth.”

One of the draw looms at Black Cat Farmstead // Photo by Barbara O'Brian

One of the draw looms at Black Cat Farmstead //  2018©Barbara O’Brien Photography

In addition to using the machines for her work, Andrea also repairs them for other like-minded makers. She views each one as an opportunity to understand a little more about the craft, as well as the area. “There’s something intensely personal” about working with these types of old machines and ancient materials, Andrea says. She points to traditions brought by Norwegian and Swedish immigrants who relocated here during the Homestead Act of 1862. Along with their knack for farming the fertile land of the region, the Scandinavian settlers also brought with them “a treasure trove of 19th century textile tools” that are “quite soulful,” she says.

From the way she cares for and respects the land, to the way she treats her craft like the historical treasure it is, Andrea seems made for Black Cat Farmstead, and it for her. Like the farmers that worked the land before them, Andrea and Stan lean on their community and surrounding environment to make the most life off the beaten path, always aiming to leave things a little better than they found them.