Posts Tagged: driftless region artists

More Than a Hobby: Tim Blanski


Tim Blanski of Granary Woodshops, Spring Grove, Minnesota

Story and photos by Kristine Jepsen • Originally published in the Fall 2015 Inspire(d)

Historic dream home you’d finally saved up for? Check.

Corporate tech jobs and a community of friends provisioning a predictable retirement? Check.

Logical next-step: Give it all up for an acreage in the rural Driftless, funded by woodworking skills dated to junior high?

Wait. What?

TimBlanski“It’s true,” Tim Blanski of Granary Woodshops says. “We hadn’t been in our dream house in St. Paul nine months – a house we’d walked past for years and saved to buy – when an ad for this acreage caught my eye in the paper.” One tour of the 1880 brick farmhouse and outbuildings at 18666 County Road 4, north of Spring Grove, Minnesota, had both Tim and his wife, Lisa Catton, testing fate. “We got back in the car, and she asked, ‘Do we make an offer tonight, or tomorrow?’”

MoreThanHobbyLogoThe problem was, they’d have to make a different living to make the move. As a marketing executive with an eye for salable detail, Tim set up a woodworking shop in the acreage’s original granary and turned his attention to the growing trend of artisan crafts made from reclaimed antique wood. “At first I made just gift boxes, picture frames. I’m not God’s gift to woodworking – this was stuff straight out of your average school shop class,” he says with a laugh.

Lisa, who continued contract tech consulting part-time, pitched in with varnishing and managing the fledgling business’s public relations, and they peddled their first goods at craft shows across the Upper Midwest. Soon, Tim found his niche: a rare patience for not only salvaging historic barns and sheds but in working the wood just enough to let its story shine.


“All my wood is trouble,” he says, explaining that he’ll spend days matching up weather-worn grooves at the mitered corners of a box, or travel a state over to have a one-ton white oak burl sawn into slabs with the live edge (the outermost bark or surface) intact. “I’m giving people the story of this wood, its history,” he says, “and that means not shearing it down to its smooth heart. I leave the saw marks, the nicks and grooves mice have worn a passageway through.” He also believes in letting the material’s colors create their own mosaic. “I don’t paint or stain anything. I work with the texture of the wood’s original paint or patina.”

Now specializing in custom furniture, particularly farm tables and decorative side pieces, Tom will build four or more buildings into a single piece: walnut for the base, cherry for the upright table trestle, rare 1-inch-by-12-inch barn siding across the top, oak trim fumed to a deep mahogany color by the ammonia of its previous installation: a horse stall.

LiveEdgeWood BlanskiShop

He also aims to give his furniture a full life of its own, calling in the mechanical expertise of other craftsmen to make the leaves in his tables sturdy, for example. “This is mortise and tenon,” he says, pointing to tiny rectangles inset in a table’s edge, “and these hold a single oak bridge across the leaves when fully extended,” he says, jigging a discrete set of polymer tension knobs just out of sight. “Reclaimed, antique wood is some of the sturdiest, most valuable wood to grow on earth,” he says. “Its worth is not just in looking pretty. It’s in doing a job, part of daily life.”


As his finished pieces have expanded in size and notoriety – it’s been nearly 15 years since that first handmade gift box – Tim has pared back art show travel, preferring instead to host prospective customers at the farm, where they can walk with him through his neatly stacked trove of woods in his barn and express exactly what they envision for their table or chair or entryway mirror frame. He makes a steady stream of contacts through his website,, and on, where clients are looking for something a little extraordinary.

“I started out woodworking to make a living, almost a desperate living,” Tim says. “And instead I found a passion. Creativity came pouring out of me. I get up every day excited about what I get to make next.”

Learn more about Tim’s work at or by setting up a visit to The Granary Woodshops in rural Spring Grove, Minnesota.


Kristine Jepsen understands the compulsion to ‘make things,’ as evidenced by whole drawers in her home of light-gage wire, glitter, beads, fabric scraps, papers and, especially, writing instruments. She’s proud to call the Driftless home, where creatives are far from the exception.


Check out Tim’s work in Lanesboro!

Lanesboro Arts presents “Story Wood: Combining Nature & Rural History”, an exhibit of 3D woodwork by Tim Blanski. The exhibit opens with an artist reception on Saturday, April 16, 2016, from 6-8 p.m., and runs through June 12, 2016. The reception will include wine and hors d’oeuvres, as well as live music. Always free and open to the public, the Lanesboro Arts Gallery is open five days a week through May and six days a week through December. Inspire(d) is a proud sponsor of this exhibit! 🙂


Artist Feature: Carl Homstad


By Benji Nichols • Photos courtesy Carl Homstad
Originally published in the October/November 2009 Inspire(d)

Many people in the upper Midwest can recognize the unique wood cut prints of Decorah artist Carl Homstad – and perhaps even more have seen some of his 40 plus murals on the sides of buildings from Osceola to Calmar. But as this successful local artist can attest, the artist’s path is not usually one of riches and fame, but of honest hard work and creativity – both on the canvas, and off the beaten trail.

CarlHeadshotIt was in the late 1960s that Carl Homstad traveled from Denver, Colorado to Northeast Iowa on a visit to Luther College, the very school where his parents had met decades earlier. But it wasn’t exactly an introduction to Decorah’s institute of higher learning that sold him on later returning to Luther as a student. “I came out for my sister’s graduation, and instead of going to the ceremony, I floated down the river in a canoe – that was pretty much it,” he says. “Denver was a thousand miles away, and that seemed about right.”

Of course it didn’t seem to hurt that the counterculture of the late 1960s was also alive and well at Luther when Homstad showed up that perfect spring day, but he also sites a noticeable crop of both teachers and students, particularly in the arts, that helped lure him to Decorah. Amongst the most notable art educators at Luther during that time were Orville Running and Dean Schwartz – both instrumental in getting an Art Major recognized at the College just a decade earlier – and the young, new educator Doug Eckheart.

Homstad spent much time honing his skills both with his mentors at Luther and also studying abroad. A year with the Institute of European Studies included a class on mural painting in Vienna, amongst many other opportunities. Upon returning to the US and finishing his degree at Luther, Homstad found interesting opportunities close to home. The Iowa Arts Council, then led by Nan Stillians, was in its hay day with Touring Art Team projects. It was within this program that Homstad began to shape his style and ideas for recreating the Iowa landscapes and scenes that he is now well known for.


The Touring Art Teams of the progressively-led Iowa Arts Council of the 1970s read like a who’s-who of now well-known Midwestern artists. Each summer, a team of eight to 10 Iowa artists would visit 20 towns that had fewer than 1500 people. The first day in a new town they would show off their crafts and skills for the residents to see, and on the second day they would teach classes and then have them present their own show that night – and Homstad says the creativity that came out of these rural Iowa communities was a revelation

“What it really did was showed that art was for everyone – and people really noticed. It was amazing some of the talent that we found – competing kitchen bands from neighboring towns, incredible painters, musicians…” he says, trailing off.

It was also during this time that Homstad began working through the Comprehensive Employment Training Act (CETA) program. “The town of Jefferson, Iowa, wanted a mural, and through the channels I was picked as the person to do it – even though I hadn’t actually done a large scale outdoor mural! It was one of, if not the biggest, murals I have ever done. I had taken a class – a study really – on murals in Vienna and knew how to do it, but hadn’t actually done one – so it was my first outdoor landscape mural. I’ve learned a lot since then…”


The humble artist now has an impressive collective body of mural-works across the upper Midwest that is really nothing short of a legacy. Most of the works are commissioned scenes of historical landscapes or locations and Homstad enjoys explaining the almost Zen process of designing, implementing, and creating the murals. “I always tell people that murals, just like house paint, are not permanent. They have to be worked on every few years if you want to keep them – otherwise the scenes just fade back into time,” he says.


(Newton Printshop – painted in 7 Days!)

As Homstad continued to mature as an artist he found that his studio in Northeast Iowa offered him an life that he was short to find anywhere else. The natural beauty and changing seasons provided not only a lot of fun outdoor activities, but also a vast array of scenes to call up in his woodcuts. “It was Orville Running who showed me that the woodcut prints could be a decent way to make a living – as even though they take some time to create, as an artist you can then print many of them and have them in various galleries all at once – versus having one painting in one place at a time.”

The process that goes into Homstad’s woodcut prints is something he enjoys. Generally four different plates are carved of the same scene depicting different reliefs that are then inked by hand and printed in sequence. “It’s kind of like making a picture into a jigsaw puzzle, drawing it, cutting it up into pieces, and then putting them back together,” says Homstad of the tedious printing process. “It’s not really drudgery though – it’s interesting work.”

Through his art, Homstad has drawn from his past and yet pushed forward in style and mediums. He says he has noticed a change in his compositions over the last decade – now following a more organic, flowing shape and utilizing empty space. “The hardest thing is to be simple – I’ve been creating art for the better part of 50 years and learning the whole way,” he says. “But now I sort of have to un-learn a lot of those things to find the space and simplicity.”


Much of this he attributes to his travels and study of Chinese and Japanese woodcuts as well as ink wash painting. Homstad has also found himself at a place in life where he has rediscovered other mediums. It was an invitation by good friend Mike Noonan of Unified Jazz Ensemble fame that brought him back to oil painting.

“Mike invited me out to see a Winslow Homer retrospective in DC –he is one of my favorite artists. While I was there I realized that Winslow didn’t really start oil painting until he was 45, and I thought, I’m 45, I could still do this! I mean, trying to make a living as an oil painter is like being a quarterback in the NFL – it’s out there, but it’s pretty hard to do. Luckily because of some of my other artwork I am now afforded the chance to come back to painting.”

Taking shape from many events in Homstad’s life, his oil paintings share stories from rail riding across the west as a young man, to serene and mature landscapes of Japan, the Midwest, and many points between. It is within these landscapes that Homstad confesses his true goal in his artistic life, with only a slight grin on his wild and honest face, “What I’m ultimately working toward is a zen painting of a corn field.”

Carl Homstad’s rural Decorah studio is open by appointment and will also be featured on the Northeast Iowa Studio Tour. Visit for more information about the artist, as well as world of famous hermit and social commentator Art Kuntsler.


Benji Nichols has a not-so-secret passion for collecting woodcut prints of local artists, and believes we are incredibly luck to have a great history of such art here in NE Iowa.

Lori Biwer-Stewart, linocut printmaker


More than a hobby: Lori Biwer-Stewart, linocut printmaker
Story and photos by Sara Friedl-Putnam • Originally published in the Fall 2015 Inspire(d)
Artwork by Lori Biwer-Stewart

lori_horizontalLike many artists, Lori Biwer-Stewart discovered her calling very early in life.

“I’ve loved to express myself artistically for as long as I can remember,” she says, recalling long, happy hours doodling and drawing as a child growing up on a farm outside Elma, Iowa. “It’s the only thing I ever thought I could do really well.”

That cMoreThanHobbyLogoonviction – and a naturally curious mind – led Lori to a commercial design degree at Hawkeye Institute of Technology in Waterloo, Iowa, and, a few years later, a basic printmaking class at MacNider Art Museum in Mason City. Armed with an abundance of natural talent, an expansive library of reference books, a deep love of the art form, and, yes, two printing presses, she began making (and selling) linocut prints out of her home in Osage, Iowa, more than 20 years ago.

Today she is known across the Midwest for her crisp, whimsical work, which explores themes like youth and innocence, relationships, and spiritual awakenings through the use of symbolic images like birds, doors, or keys. “The carving process is very therapeutic for me and has gotten me through many bad moments,” Lori says, candidly referring to her longtime struggle with depression. “Some people can write well or tell interesting stories – I much prefer to speak through the images and symbolism in my linocuts.”


Popularized by the likes of Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso in the early- to mid-1900s, linocut is a deceptively simple, relatively inexpensive “relief” printmaking technique in which the artist uses a knife or gouge to carve a design into a sheet of linoleum (sometimes mounted on a wood block), inks the linoleum with a brayer (i.e. roller), and impresses the image onto paper either by hand or with a press. It was the ability to use the technique to create bold, decorative designs that first piqued Lori’s interest.

“Linocut printing enables artistic expression like no other art form – the cut of the knife creates a primitive feel that only adds to the intent and intensity of the message being communicated,” she says. “Sometimes my work is dark and sometimes it’s fun, but it’s always thought-provoking; whatever the image is, my goal is always to make the viewer think and question.”

meyou2 fireflies

ShinyThingsShe does exactly that in pieces likeMe and You,” in which a floating red balloon tied to an empty yellow chair symbolizes the yin and yang found in so many relationships…and “Fireflies,” in which a jar of fireflies nestled among wildflowers conjures up childhood memories of capturing the magical insects on hot summer nights…and “Shiny Things,” in which crows hording small gleaming objects suggest the tendency of so many to collect things they don’t really need. The three works are among more than 70 linocuts currently displayed on her website,

Her always eye-catching work has earned Lori, who also works as a graphic artist at Curries in Mason City, more than a few awards at art festivals over the past two decades. Yet, despite the accolades, she admits she still struggles with the challenges of “getting out there” and marketing her work, especially through social media. She encourages other artists just starting out to stay on top of current social-media trends and to do what she has done from the start – stay true to self. “Do what really interests you – whatever subject that is, whatever medium that is,” she says. “You will never find joy in your art if you are just creating what you think people will buy.”


Sara Friedl-Putnam has never considered herself particularly “artsy” or “craftsy,” but after being inspired by the talented women she profiled in this issue is seriously contemplating making a few gifts this coming holiday season.


Biwer-Stewart will display her work at the Wausau, Wisconsin, Festival of Arts on September 12-13 and the Autumn Artistry in Osage on September 19. Her work is also available in galleries across the Driftless Region and online at


“More Than a Hobby” is a special section of the Fall 2015 Inspire(d) Magazine. We’ve highlighted doers and makers in the Driftless region who are turning what they do like to do into so much more than a hobby – it’s a living! We love that. Stay tuned for additional More Than a Hobby features online in the coming weeks!