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After CNN coverage, Minnesota teen's mug-designing business gets a whole latte love

Although she doesn't have her learner's permit yet, artist/mug designer Willow Larson, 15, is shopping for a new SUV — possibly a black Chevy Trailblazer — so she can eventually make deliveries.

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At just 15, Willow Larson of Fertile, Minn., has found impressive success with her line of small-town commemorative mugs.
Contributed / Cloud Nine Photo Studios
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FERTILE, Minn. — When Willow Larson decided her hometown of Fertile could use its own commemorative mug, she designed one — even though she doubted it would sell.

Little did the then 14-year-old artist know what that simple project would unleash. People from surrounding communities spotted the mugs and asked for similar ones for their towns. Word of mouth, social media and a cover story in The Forum helped build the audience for the teen’s whimsical cups.

Last summer, KARE 11 TV's Boyd Huppert featured Willow in his "Land of 10,000 Stories" series. The story was shown on the "NBC Nightly News" and a CNN morning show, helping to make it one of the station's most-viewed stories in 2022.  In retrospect, Willow says, “I think I would have been a lot more nervous if I knew how many people would see it."

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This Fertile mug was Willow Larson's first effort at designing commemorative mugs for a town. Since then, she has designed mugs for more than 100 different communities. Larson says she would rather make money this way than through more traditional avenues like babysitting.
Alyssa Goelzer/The Forum

Suddenly, people from Alaska to Wisconsin to Stockholm, Sweden, were reaching out to order mugs from Willow’s Ivory and Sage “production facility” — actually a tiny corner of her parents’ Cloud Nine Photo Studios on Fertile’s Main Street.

Today, Willow says she has sold well over 10,000 mugs and created 150 designs which are available in more than 120 different communities and stores. Mom Caty Larson also helps her maintain a lengthy waiting list of future mug commissions.

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Caty says Willow’s college is paid for, should she choose to go. The ninth-grader now has her own financial adviser to help her invest her windfall wisely.  And although at age 15 she hasn't received her learner’s permit yet, she is shopping for a new SUV — preferably a black Chevy Trailblazer with sunroof — so she can make deliveries when she's road-legal.

“I was looking at a Mercedes but the insurance on that was terrible,” says Willow, who sometimes sounds like any teen and sometimes sounds like a 35-year-old business owner. “So I wound up going in a more reliable direction.”

As Willow not only designs the mugs but manufactures them on a small heat-press machine, she’s had to amp up production by buying two more heat presses. And now parents, Caty and Terry Larson, along with her grandparents, routinely pitch in to help produce, pack and ship the mugs as the orders roll in.

“It’s about five orders a day and Christmas was really, really busy,” Willow says.

With schoolwork, extracurriculars and her mug-making, Willow doesn’t have a lot of free time. “I make sure I work enough every day for me to keep up with all the orders,” Willow says, adding that it’s the only option when you have your own small business.

To this day, Willow seems slightly awe-struck by the incredible popularity of her mug project. “I wondered about that … what makes people buy something from a 15-year-old in a small town? Why would people care about what I do?” she asks.

Her best guess is that people like the idea of supporting a small business, as well as the opportunity to celebrate art.

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Larson, 14, prints one of her unique designs onto a mug using a heat press machine at her parents' business, Cloud Nine Photography Studio, in Fertile, Minn., on Monday, April 25, 2022. Since then, she has added two additional heat presses to keep up with demand.
Alyssa Goelzer/The Forum

On the other hand, one could argue that it’s Willow—a blend of promising entrepreneur and charmingly unaffected teen—who has captured people's attention. So has Willow's seemingless effortless drawing style: Her community mugs are covered with stylized designs of town landmarks, breezy sketches of lakes, zipcodes, town mascots and nicknames, which are free-handed by the artist in creative fonts.

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So what does the future hold for this promising young talent? Like her namesake, one suspects she'll stand strong — regardless of which way the wind blows.

“I don’t know what I’ll do in college,” she says. “I don’t even know if I should go to college or if I should keep doing stuff like this. I would like to license my art, so I’ll see what happens.”
Learn more about Willow's art at www.ivoryandsage.net .

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Tammy has been a storyteller most of her life. Before she learned the alphabet, she told stories by drawing pictures and then dictated the narrative to her ever-patient mother. A graduate of North Dakota State University, she has worked as a Dickinson, N.D., bureau reporter, a Bismarck Tribune feature writer/columnist, a Forum feature reporter, columnist and editor, a writer in NDSU's Publications Services, a marketing/social media specialist, an education associate in public broadcasting and a communications specialist at a nonprofit.
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