Kiyoshi Mino is a farmer who needle-felts incredibly realistic small animals for fun. The Illinois native had no intention of being an artist—or a man of the land, for that matter—but two stints in Afghanistan gave him a new perspective on personal priorities, and significantly changed the course of his life.
After studying evolutionary biology as an undergrad Mino went straight into the army, and his four years of service included one deployed abroad. "My unit was tasked with disrupting Taliban movements into Afghanistan along the border with Pakistan in the Paktika province," he tells Co.Design. "We spent three months up in the mountains going from village to village, sleeping under the stars or our Humvees. Most of these villages were so remote that we were the first foreigners they’d seen since the Russian Invasion. They live almost the exact same way today as they did a thousand years ago."
That experience led Mino to question the quality-of-life standards that most Americans are often born-and-bred to hold dear. "We’re raised with the idea that our way of life is better than those in less ‘developed countries’ and that progress is always good, so my preconceptions going in were that these people would be incredibly impoverished and kinda miserable. But talking to them and seeing how they went about their everyday lives I began to realize that they were happy living the way they were, with nothing to their names but a mud brick house, a wheat field and some goats. They worked hard when there was work to be done in the fields, but when there wasn’t any they had all the free time in the world, and they spent it hanging out and drinking tea with their neighbors and family."
Mino went back to Afghanistan after his stretch in the military and spent an additional year in Tirin Kot, the provincial capital of Uruzgan, managing a USAID project called the Alternative Livelihoods Program; there, he planned and implemented local infrastructural strategies with the help of village leaders, who provided integral insider knowledge about what would be most useful for their area, including irrigation and road improvements and flood mitigation structures.
While "incredible," this experience was eye-opening in a completely different way. "I came to realize that most of what is called ‘aid’ or ‘development’ is really just an excuse to use taxpayer money to make a bunch of U.S.-based companies rich; very little of the money reaches actual Afghans." Mino took the whole thing to heart. "I increasingly felt that instead of trying to help these Pashtun tribesmen in the mountains of Afghanistan to live more like us Americans, we should be learning to live a bit more like them: cutting out the extraneous stuff and living simply while valuing our families and communities," he says. "So I decided along with my wife Emma that we would be happier giving up the rat race and becoming farmers instead."
And thus began their journey to establish Lucky Duck Farm in Forrest, Illinois, now specializing in Asian vegetables (with chickens, ducks, sheep, cattle, and pigs, too). They learned the trade at The Farm School, which, as part of the course, offered a super basic needle-felting class. Mino had never heard of the hands-on craft, but it took a single session for him to fall in love. "I made my wife a goofy looking little chicken," he says. "And I was addicted. From then on, I spent most of my free time making new animals every week or so."
Supplies are sourced from a shop in western Massachusetts that just so happens to specialize in needle-felting, offering almost 100 different colors from a range of sheep breeds. "Coarse wool is good for the sculpted shape because it felts into a more solid mass and merino, because it is so fine, makes convincing fur and feathers," Mino says. He scours the Internet and old field guides for inspiration and to get the particulars right, and dedicates between five and 10 hours on the "simpler" beasts and fowl and up to 30 on those larger and more complex. The results are amazingly life-like; each character has genuine personality, depicted through pretty incredible detailing. Even Internet-meme-star Dramatic Prairie Dog was immortalized!
And while, to date, Mino’s done mostly custom requests for specific species (and pets!), his work is now available via Chicago-based design startup ODLCO.