Arts & Culture

A Small-Town Artist With a Big Heart


Kate Sullivan, owner of the Old School Art in Afton, Minessota

A couple of years ago, as I strolled through our tiny town of Afton, Minnesota, I stopped at the old schoolhouse built in 1867 and crossed paths with a woman whose eyes sparkled with a magnetic energy. She introduced herself as Kate Sullivan, the owner of the Old School Art Studio. She told me she had purchased the two-room schoolhouse with the vision of an artists community, where creative spirits could connect and pursue their artistic passions.

On a recent visit to the studio, Kate and I talked about her lifelong interest in art and her background as a costume designer — inspired by generations of tailors in her family. Our conversation bounced from topic to topic as artists stopped by with their sketchpads and paints.

Kate welcomed them with a smile and said, “Make yourself at home!”

Judging by Kate’s enthusiastic welcome and the eager expressions on the artists’ faces, the old rundown schoolhouse was fulfilling her dream.

On Thursdays, she explained, she opens the Old School Art Studio so artists from the community can spend time sketching and painting images of the unusual items displayed on the property. Some of the artists’ favorites are the fully furnished Gypsy wagon on the front lawn, a stagecoach in the backyard and the gardens.

Kate’s vision for the schoolhouse and its outreach is a work in progress. Soon there will be a custom-made teepee, which fits in perfectly considering that hundreds of years ago the land was home to Dakota and Ojibwe tribes. This month, a group is using the schoolhouse to make their powwow regalia. She hopes the studio will help educate people about different cultures and their arts.

When I asked Kate what contributed to the creative path she’s on, her face lit up. “I’ve always had a passion for art,” she said. “As a child I lived with my grandparents for a while. I loved sitting next to my grandpa and painting — my grandpa with his oils and me with my acrylics. I guess it’s in my soul, in my blood. Everything I see, I think, ‘What can I make out of it?'”

Over the years, Kate has explored a variety of art forms, including Chinese Raku pottery and textiles. For the most part, Kate is self-taught and always looking for ways to take herself deeper into her art.

I wondered if there had been any significant turning points in her life that had inspired her to pursue new techniques and art forms. When I asked, sadness rolled across Kate’s face as she replied: “Loss. Deaths of my mother and son.”

She explained that immersing herself in the fiber arts — a new form she knew little about — had helped heal her grief and had allowed her to rediscover her creative passion. She pushed herself to attend an Art and Yarn Festival in Sarasota, Florida, to study the technique. Alone and knowing no one at the festival, Kate overcame her fears and learned as much as she could from the two instructors about types of yarn, spinning and weaving techniques. At the age of 56, Kate was as giddy as a schoolgirl when they invited her to join them for lunch at their table.

Dettmann2The entrance to the Old School Art Studio (Photo courtesy of Diane Dettmann)

When she returned to her Old School Art Studio, Kate continued to stretch herself artistically by taking online classes, asking questions, watching YouTube videos and teaching the fiber art techniques to others. I was amazed to see how this “old school” artist wove technology and her love of art together!

Kate has learned a lot about herself as a woman and as an artist. She’s dedicated to preserving the fiber art processes of spinning, weaving and rug making that have been a tradition in the small town of Afton for generations. She opens her doors to everyone and invites artists and authors to share and sell their work in local events. She even has special days at the studio for children to take part in art activities.

Kate’s creative energy seems limitless. She’s planning an event with her weaving friends from around the world that would draw them to our quaint, historic town. She’s thrilled with the thought of hundreds of spinners and weavers gathered for a weeklong festival focused on education, history and techniques of the fiber arts world.

Kate inspires others with her energy and willingness to share her knowledge and experiences. She’s dedicated to keeping the creative spirit alive in our river valley and beyond.

When I asked her if she supports herself with her creative work, a smile rolled over her face and she answered, “My art supports me spiritually and emotionally, financially not so much, but that’s OK.”


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