Amherst Magazine

Hooked

By Katherine Duke ’05

Photos courtesy of Kiyoshi Mino ’01 and Emma Lincoln ’02

[Fiber Arts] Kiyoshi Mino ’01 is constantly surrounded by animals. When not tending to the live ducks, chickens, bees, pigs, sheep and steers on the 10-acre farm that he founded with his wife, Emma Lincoln ’02, he’s sculpting birds and mammals out of wool through a technique called needle felting.

Needle felting supplies and goose sculptureMino's needle felting supplies and goose sculpture

Mino starts with a clump of wool that is somewhat like a large cotton ball. Every time he pokes a specialized needle into it, small notches on the needle hook onto microscopic scales on the fiber and push the wool inward, making the clump smaller and tighter at a particular point. Through 10 to 30 hours of strategic prodding, Mino incorporates multiple colors and textures of wool, as well as flexible wire, until a creature emerges: A goldfinch grips a branch with its talons, wings lifted as though about to take flight. A miniature three-toed sloth dangles by its long limbs. The Dramatic Prairie Dog glares just like it does in the viral YouTube video.

Dramatic Prairie Dog sculptureDramatic Prairie Dog sculpture

Growing up in Chicago as the son of two art historians, Mino always had a casual interest in drawing and in animals. At Amherst he majored in evolutionary biology. He joined the U.S. Army after graduation—just before 9/11—and served three tours in Afghanistan.

“I liked Afghanistan,” he says. “I liked learning the language and meeting the people out in the remote areas.” After the Army he spent an additional year there as an aid worker, but he grew disillusioned with development work, finding that “a lot of it is just an excuse to make money for American companies” and that Afghan farmers and villagers seemed happy living as they had for centuries without foreigners’ help.

Meanwhile, Lincoln, then a preservation librarian, was “getting more and more horrified” as she read about the impersonal, big-business way that most of the U.S. food supply is produced. So, in 2010, the couple enrolled at The Farm School in Athol, Mass. While learning how to raise crops and livestock, they took a “sheep-to-sweater” class on shearing, processing and working with wool. That’s when Mino got hooked on needle felting.

Icelandic ram sculpture

Icelandic ram sculpture

His first project was a tiny chicken for his wife. “And then he made a rooster to go with it,” she says, followed by “a portrait of the dairy cow that we milked at Farm School, complete with udder.” A friend helped him set up an Etsy shop and a website, kiyoshimino.com, to sell his creations.

Lincoln and Mino with sheep and cow on their farmLincoln and Mino on Lucky Duck Farm

In 2011 Lincoln and Mino settled in Forrest, Ill., and became the owners and sole employees of Lucky Duck Farm. Mino kept making sculptures, including a life-sized barn owl for the Rocky Mountain Soap Co. Japanese architect Tadao Ando, a family friend, commissioned Mino to craft a “pet portrait” of his dog.

Tibetan mastiff sculpture in grassy fieldTibetan mastiff sculpture

This past winter two designers from Chicago visited the farm and bought practically every piece that Mino had on hand, to sell under their “small-batch design brand” ODLCO. As soon as they featured his work on their blog, other design bloggers followed suit, including those at Fast Company and Martha Stewart Living. “Kiyoshi Mino’s Amazing Felt Sculptures Blow Taxidermy Away” read the headline at inhabitat.com.

And the orders rolled in. “I’ve got work to do for the rest of the year, basically, just from a few commissions,” he says.

Eventually, Mino would like to try making cuttlefish, salamanders and octopi, using shinier wool to simulate slime and scales.

“Well, and our own pets would be nice,” Lincoln adds. “He’s done all these pet portraits and hasn’t had time to do our own dog and our cat.”

Cardinal sculpture perched in an evergreen treeCardinal sculpture

Duke is the assistant editor of Amherst magazine.