Craft Culture: An artful existence with Fox Meets Bear

Max and Johnna Holmgren of Fox Meets Bear // Photo by Tj Turner

Max and Johnna Holmgren of Fox Meets Bear and the illustration business, Bear Fox Chalk // Photo by Tj Turner

As the shell started to break apart, a mess of wet, matted feathers began to show through the opening. Late into the night, Johnna Holmgren sat on a stool in her living room with her gaze fixed on the incubator set up in front of her. After caring for the eggs inside it with her daughters for 28 long days, Johnna didn’t want to miss the moment when the duckling finally emerged into the world.

“It was such an emotional experience and there was so much anticipation after a month of caring and waiting,” says Johnna, who only slept four hours before waking up the next morning to continue tracking the hatchling’s progress with her girls. “I felt like a little child waiting for the egg to crack open.”

Nineteen hours later, the Holmgren family welcomed a duckling to its growing menagerie that—in addition to three kids—includes two cats, two dogs, and a flock of ducks and chickens. Like the proud mom she is, Johnna captured the whole thing on video. She uploaded it to Instagram where it got more than 90,000 views.

On social media, the mom of three is known as Fox Meets Bear—an ode to the monikers she and her husband, Max, picked out for one another years ago. The photos she posts chronicle their lives together. He makes art. She forages for pine needles to make tea, or juniper berries for homemade gin. They homeschool their kids together, carve out time to work on personal projects, and start as many days as they can with family meditation. The couple approaches life with a level of thoughtfulness that is infectious.

Two of Max and Johnna Holmgren's daughters play in the backyard // Photo by Tj Turner

Two of Max and Johnna Holmgren’s daughters play in the backyard // Photo by Tj Turner

Their unique lifestyle has captured the imaginations of more than 100,000 people on Instagram. There, Johnna shares heartfelt musings about peaceful parenting, mindful living, and loving. The duo’s journey to become more conscious partners, parents, and people has caught the attention of people outside the digital sphere, too. Johnna has her first book coming out this May, while Max is gearing up for the seventh year of Bear Fox Chalk, a mural and illustration company the couple started in 2011.

“We just love to create,” says Max, who recently turned 31. “We work, we cry, we laugh, we play with our girls, we strategize, and we get groceries. We don’t really have a separate ‘work life,’ ‘family life,’ or ‘social life.’ It’s all blended together into one thing—hectic, strange, and beautiful.”

Chalk work on slate by Max Holmgren // Photo via Bear Fox Chalk's Instagram

Chalk work on slate by Max Holmgren // Photo via Bear Fox Chalk’s Instagram

Before finding her niche on Instagram, Johnna worked at nearly 30 different jobs from the time she was a teenager until her mid-20s. She was a prenatal massage therapist, a gymnastics instructor, and a baker. She managed a paper goods store, and even tried working at a bank. Both her and Max tried out college, too, before realizing the four-year path wasn’t moving either of them closer to the creative careers they wanted.

In 2011, Johnna decided to pursue photography full-time. To jumpstart her new career, she attended a wedding fair and enlisted Max to draw a chalk backdrop for her photography booth. When brides-to-be saw Max’s work, the photographer was flooded with inquiries. At first, Johnna turned down women who asked if they could get a chalk illustration or backdrop for their wedding; but when the requests didn’t stop, Johnna saw an opportunity for her and Max to partner together on an endeavor neither one saw coming.

“Johnna turned around and said, ‘Okay, we do this. We do chalk!’ We handed out her business cards and chose the name ‘Bear Fox Chalk’ that night,” says Max. Within two weeks, the duo registered their new business, set up a website and created a whole new booth in time for the next wedding fair.

Three chalk works created by Max Holmgren under his business, Bear Fox Chalk // Photos via Bear Fox Chalk's Instagram

Three chalk works created by Max Holmgren under his business, Bear Fox Chalk // Photos via Bear Fox Chalk’s Instagram

It took a year of networking before the fledgling company landed its first paid client, a soon-to-be bride who wanted a small chalk drawing for her wedding. But after that, the work grew. Max started partnering with household names like Target, Minnetonka Moccasins, Shinola, and “On Being,” the award-winning podcast and radio show. He started getting larger commissions as well, like a mural for Caribou Coffee, which Max drew live at Northern Spark, the all-night Twin Cities summer arts festival.

“My goal is to transform my pain into healing, my suffering into wisdom, and my self-doubt into self-love,” says Max, who often tackles themes like mental health, etymology, and consciousness in his art. “Other people shared stuff that helped us, and now we’re just trying to return the favor and complete the circle.”

Some of the foraged nature inside their house // Photo by Tj Turner

Some of the foraged nature inside Max and Johnna’s A-frame house // Photo by Tj Turner

Nature is tucked into every corner of Max and Johnna’s A-frame home. Dried flowers, pressed leaves, and twigs hang from the ceiling in handmade wreaths or in frames on the couple’s walls. During various seasons throughout the year ingredients, like dandelions, Queen Anne’s lace, and cattails show up in Johnna’s kitchen—all foraged from spots in the neighborhood or from the woods behind her home.

“I was looking for something to do outside of being a mom,” says Johnna, who started foraging nearly six years ago when her first daughter, Luella, was born. “The magic lies in the anticipation for me: the search, the hunt, the texture, the patterns, the color, and the variation of each ingredient.”

She began researching online, watching YouTube videos, and spending more time at co-ops and natural food stores in search of unusual ingredients. She even started writing “mini book reports” to share with Max about the new plants and berries she discovered. As with most things, Johnna began posting her explorations on Instagram, sharing recipes and interesting facts she dug up about the latest ingredients making their way into her kitchen. When a friend introduced Johnna to a literary agent in New York, she sent her an idea for a cookbook titled, “Tales from a Forager’s Kitchen.”

As luck would have it, one of the editors at the publishing company already followed Johnna’s blog. The firm she worked for, Rodale Books, picked up Johnna’s book in 2016. For the next year, the couple put Bear Fox Chalk on the back burner so Johnna had time to research, write, and test ideas out in the kitchen. The hard copy, due out in May, is more than a collection of recipes; it’s a series of stories, too.

Johnna Holmgren with her children; five-year-old Luella, in blue, left, two-year-old Minoux, in yellow, right, and three-month-old Juniper // Photo by Tj Turner

Johnna Holmgren with her children; five-year-old Luella, in blue, left, two-year-old Minoux, in yellow, right, and three-month-old Juniper // Photo by Tj Turner

“My hope is that the book connects anyone, anywhere to earth-grown goods,” says Johnna. “Many of the ingredients can be found in a field, along a roadside, or in a backyard, but a lot of those same ingredients can be purchased at a farmers market, a co-op, or even a traditional grocery store.”

With her book ready to publish, Johnna is settling back into a slower pace with Max and their three girls: five-year-old Luella, two-year-old Minoux, and three-month-old Juniper. After a few years of success, the creative duo still can’t believe that the gamble they took to strike out on Instagram and launch Bear Fox Chalk is paying off. “It has been an adventure, messy but wonderful,” says Max. While every turn hasn’t been expected, Johnna and Max aren’t afraid to jump in wholeheartedly to whatever comes next.