Willow’s cup runneth over

A Wild Rice Electric Cooperative member-family is helping their teen’s mug business reach the boiling point.


Kaylee Cusack


April 24, 2024

Willow Larson’s Tuesday was like that of any Fertile, Minn., high school sophomore.

She popped on an outfit from the local thrift store, attended a day of classes, rocked the drums in the pep fest to send the basketball team to state, and then drove home to her family farm south of town. Her 16-year-old experience differed from her classmates in that she was driving a new SUV purchased with money earned by her own business – which she founded just before entering high school.

You know…sophomore stuff.

Willow is the artist behind Ivory & Sage, a small enterprise that turned big when she began her Midwest Mugs line during the pandemic. Starting with a mug for Fertile, Willow began to design illustrations depicting the best parts of small Minnesota and North Dakota towns like Erskine, Lancaster and Hillsboro. Soon, master Minnesota storyteller Boyd Huppert, a journalist for KARE 11 news in the Twin Cities, caught wind of the young artist’s growing popularity.

Artist Willow Larson displays the mug she recently designed for Minnkota Power Cooperative. (Minnkota/Michael Hoeft)

Sitting in the farm’s studio space, which is shared with her photographer parents Terry and Caty Larson of Cloud Nine Studios, Willow thought back to two years ago when Huppert visited the family with his camera man. The story went viral, earning Huppert a regional Emmy and Willow a rush of new orders.

“It was cool,” Willow said. “I didn’t actually think that the story was a big thing at all when I did it. I was just wearing just random clothes and stuff. And then afterwards, after all of that, I found out it was more important,” she added coyly.

Now 16, Willow has designed more than 500 mugs for towns, schools, hospital systems like Sanford Health, major national retailers like Scheels – even electric cooperatives like Minnkota Power Cooperative and Red River Valley Cooperative Power. Wild Rice Electric Cooperative, which serves the Larson farm, is now on the docket for its own mug, too. At any given time, Willow has a waiting list of around 40 design requests. Orders come mostly from the Upper Midwest but have stretched as far as a resort in Honduras.

Each dot on this map represents a Minnkota-territory community with a mug designed by Willow Larson.

The growth in orders necessitated a growth in everything else. Instead of a single mug press, Willow invested in an oven that can bake her designs onto more than 20 mugs at once. Her boxes of completed orders now flow out of her mug room into other portions of her parents’ studio. In fact, Willow has even hired her parents and younger brother to help with promoting, processing, pressing and packaging multiple orders a week.

“It’s evolved past 15 minutes here or there. It’s a four-hours-a-day thing, just the emails and the invoicing and that type of stuff,” Terry explained. “In order to keep it moving and progressing, she had to hire somebody.”

For a high schooler, it’s a lot to manage on top of classes, homework, extracurriculars and the simple pressures of being a teen. But with the help of her family, Willow’s business has become a well-oiled machine.

“Still today there are a lot of people who don’t really grasp it in our area. They think that she sells them in Fertile and in Gary and maybe Crookston. Maybe 10 a month,” Terry said. “They don’t hear the whole story.”

Willow Larson grabs a photo with her parents, Terry (middle) and Caty (right), in their Cloud Nine Studios space. (Minnkota/Michael Hoeft)

The beat of her own drum

Willow’s knack for design started when she was young. Or rather, young-er. Elementary school parent-teacher conferences would involve some quick conversation about Willow’s schoolwork followed by some utter amazement over her artful doodles on the back of the page.

“She is 95% self-taught on her art stuff. I take credit for 5%,” her mother Caty said. “I came in for teaching Willow shading, and complementary colors and contrast colors. Even though those were things she probably would have picked up on her own, having someone there to tell her that helped speed up her artistic process.”

Willow started with sketching and watercolors but has since moved to hand-illustrated digital design. When she receives a mug request, it usually comes to life on her iPad as she relaxes by the fireplace with the family’s dogs. She takes a list of landmarks, slogans, and other details from the client and starts forming a vision – using all her senses.

“Basically I have this thing where shapes have colors and stuff – they can only be a certain color and taste and things. It’s called synesthesia,” Willow said, beginning to trace circles in the air. “I have to have a circle, and then a circle, and then a circle. So then, I’m just like, OK, that’s how it is. And then when I have it all together, the shapes are all sounds, and it all sounds good.”

Willow removes the paper wrap from a recent batch of her Lancaster, Minn., mugs. (Minnkota/Michael Hoeft)

Music is where Willow finds her beat. As a student with ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder), she hones her focus in the rhythms of drums and design. She’s currently involved in jazz band, concert band and pep band, on top of serving as a teacher’s aide for her band teacher. She’s unsure where life will take her after she graduates in two years, but she knows she’ll orchestrate something that fits her free-spirit style.

“I don’t know if I will go to college or not. In some ways, I want to be a band teacher, but I think that’s mostly because I just want to play band. So I’ll probably just join a community band,” she said.

As for her business, Willow doesn’t foresee stopping designing anytime soon, but she’s aware that her model may have to change as her clients’ tastes change. Her mission with the Midwest Mugs line is to celebrate both rural living and the beauty of artistic creation. For right now, she won’t compromise on what’s important to her.

“My target audience is people who have appreciation for not just their town, but also my art and talents. I feel like that’s important to my business, that I’m making a piece of art, for you, from me, like a gift,” she said, cupping her hands as if offering a present.

Willow is a one-of-a-kind talent with a one-of-a-kind family. But according to her, any small-town or big-city teen has the ability to build a successful business based on what they do best. “I think everyone can do artwork,” she said. “If you can make it into something that people can understand, I feel like that’s the way.”

If you would like to see the entire Midwest Mugs collection, just follow this link.

MAIN IMAGE: Each Ivory & Sage mug is wrapped with a transferable design and baked until the colors set permanently. (Minnkota/Michael Hoeft)


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