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American Made Series: Kiyoshi Mino, Farmer & Felt Sculptor

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Photo by The Weaver House.

Interestingly, it took leaving the States for Chicago-native Kiyoshi Mino to become an American Maker. While on two deployments to Afghanistan with the U.S. Army, Kiyoshi was inspired by the simplicity of life within the remote villages of the Paktika province, an area along the Afghan-Paskistani border.

“They live almost the exact same way today as they did a thousand years ago,” Kiyoshi says. “They work hard when there’s work to be done in their fields, but otherwise they’re spending free time with neighbors and family.”

After his deployments, Kiyoshi returned to Afghanistan as a civilian contractor for USAID. So moved by the Pashtun tribesmen’s value of family and community, he, along with his wife Emma, decided to “give up the rat race and become a farmer.” While making the transition from former soldier to farmer, Kiyoshi discovered an extraordinary passion (and gift!) for needle-felting. Read on to hear the rest of Kiyoshi’s American Made story.

Then what happened? Tell us a bit about your farm.

Since neither [my wife nor I] knew anything about farming, we decided to go to The Farm School, a year-long apprenticeship and instructional program in organic farming located in Massachusetts. For the past year and a half, we’ve been running a small diversified farm in Central Illinois called Lucky Duck Farm. We raise a small flock of Icelandic sheep, two steers, five pigs, 150 laying hens, 40 ducks and about a half-acre of Asian vegetables. We sell at a farmers market in Chicago and run a meat CSA in the fall and winter.

How did you get involved in fiber arts?

My desire to become a farmer led me to needle felting. The Farm School’s wide variety of livestock includes a flock of sheep, so we had a series of classes on wool processing, from shearing to spinning yarn and felting. I learned about the existence of needle felting during a class in which I made Emma a goofy little chicken. After that, I was hooked and began spending all my free time making new animals.

Photo by Kelty Luber.

What about being a maker do you love?

I’m still trying to improve my technique with each piece I do. I enjoy the challenge of taking on a new animal or simply trying to make each piece as lifelike as possible. I love being able to create an actual object that you can pick up and touch. Needle-felting is the perfect medium for depicting animals, especially furry or feathery ones. I’ve always loved nature and animals – from mollusks to mammals. I feel like most people relate to some animal, so I think it’s cool that my work can be something that always reminds them of that animal or that favorite pet.

What’s one of your favorite sculptures to date?

Last year, I was commissioned to do a series of animals for a really cool Canadian company called Rocky Mountain Soap. They’re basically like an all-natural and environmentally conscious version of The Body Shop. They were opening a new store and wanted some of my animals to decorate it. They wanted them to be grey scale, almost like a black-and-white photo. I was kind of skeptical because I thought that color was one of the most important elements to the sculptures, but they turned out looking pretty cool! I particularly liked the life-size barn owl. It was huge, the largest I’d ever made, so I was able to get a ton of detail in the face. I’d love to do more large pieces in the future because of the amount of detail I can get, but they take a lot more time and therefore have to be more expensive.

What kinds of responses have your pieces received? Any memorable experiences with buyers?

There was one time a buyer asked me to make a sculpture of his family dog that had recently passed away to give as a gift to his son. He told me that when he gave it to his son, a grown man, he started to cry. My work doesn’t usually have quite that effect!

Follow @americanmadesmsl on instagram to meet other Makers, or share your American Made story with us at americanmade@marthastewart.com.

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Kelsey Mirando is an Editorial Assistant in Books and Special Projects at Martha Stewart. She’s endlessly inspired by art, travel, and life in the Big Apple. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @kmirando.

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