Profile: Upstate with Kristofer Bowman
The easiest way for me to describe Kristofer Bowman's store, Upstate MN, is that it's an artist and maker-driven boutique that champions modernism but never at the expense of playfulness.
There is no visibly rigid ruleset—
A wabi-sabi sort of elegance is evident in hand-dyed scarves and socks from Martha McQuade of Scarf Shop, floral mugs from Justin Rothshank, and paint-dipped cards and notebooks from Chad and Meg Gleason of Moglea.
Amidst these subtly organic finds, ample reverence for precise, architectural form is also in attendance: in home goods from hand-painted canoe paddles and cribbage boards — from Sanborn Canoe Co. — to laser-cut boxes that ape the good looks of a milk crate (and other forms), from Andrew and Hanna Vomhof of WAAM Industries.
But the well-heeled curation of the store isn't even its most captivating facet. Instead, I think it's how Bowman is able to use a destination for northwoods modernism as a platform for creating and sustaining a sense of community — and one that absolutely isn't limited by its more far-flung location.
That impulse is pretty easy to spot on social media, where Bowman never shies away from a good opportunity to say "I love you". In the way that he casually refers to creative collaborators by name, not their business name. In hand-written notes he writes for online orders — and in the stickers (additionally tucked into each package) that read, "You are doing a good job."
While visiting Grand Marais for the very first time this summer, I discovered that there are now handmade t-shirts, mugs, and even pendants for sale at Upstate with the same phrase. But the genesis of "You are doing a good job" wasn't these artist collaborations.
It began, humbly enough, as a public, personal affirmation.
Bowman says that his social media presence has always been personal — “more personal than business” — and that during the first year of Upstate, “I was telling friends that I could see the love ripple across the water from me to them.”
In early 2020, when the pandemic’s first lock-down shuttered in-person visits to Upstate, social media continued to serve as a safe harbor for tender sentiment for Bowman. But it also evolved, even deeper, towards a focus on personal care.
Bowman says he began to write “what I needed to hear, my own pep talk" — for himself and his community of friends. "Psychologists say that there is fight, flight, or tend, and I feel like my writing started to tend [to] us, those of us connected through Upstate MN."
Stickers printed with "You are doing a good job" on brown paper covered in customer names
That initial impulse to tend to his own emotional experience — and the experience of other people — is what sparked "You are doing a good job.”
And in its most humble, sticker format, Bowman appreciates that the saying can function as a low-key reminder that everyone deserves care — at totally random points of the day. “Even if you aren't interested in reading it or hearing it, you internalize it a bit. It melts you."
Beyond the outward optimism that he expresses with “You are doing a good job”, Bowman’s instagram @upstatemn is also a vehicle for creative expression.
Everything from poetry ("I have this need to share what I witness," he says, "and there is so much metaphor here in this place") to outdoor photography, which Bowman often posts in rapid bursts that document quietly captivating moments of seasonal change.
And then there's the yard fox — yes I did just say fox — who comes around to perch on the lawn near Bowman's earth home.
His name is Timothy Shortbread.
"He started coming around about four years ago," says Bowman, before adding that there have been plenty of other foxes who have made themselves at home in his yard, but "Timothy has been the most consistent and least wary. He always seems to show up when I need a pick-me-up... "
"How can I not be the luckiest boy in the world with an [occasional] yard fox?
Almost everything Bowman shares online reflects his childlike fascination with nature. But possibly nothing more so literally than the photos he shares of himself, gleefully at work, at home in his gardens.
Gardening since he was a child, Bowman says he's "always been kind of feverish" about plants: when he was 9 or 10 years old, he ordered approximately 200 seed catalogs from different companies.
His curiosity was further rooted after spending time gardening with his grandmother.
Now, Bowman says, decades later, "I'm still the little boy I was then — who likes to be down in the moss, and watch the first tulips grow" But when asked what flowers he feels most excited to grow, he adds, it's "not the geraniums or petunias that my grandmother grew."
Instead, it's peonies (a little over 24 varieties) and crocosmia and water lilies and other flowers. And this year alone, he started 24 different seed trays — and says he's always playing with plants meant for warmer zones, an ambition that's aided by the fact that his earth home is "tucked into a hill with a great southern exposure".
After the gardening season quiets down, Bowman stays busy with the business of Upstate MN through the holidays. But afterwards, in the big, vast negative space of winter, there is a big shift.
He suddenly has a lot more time, and just for himself. Which over the years, has slowly nurtured the seed for a new creative pursuit: quilting.
I was thrilled to discover Bowman didn't begin quilting in a predictable way. Like, because he already knew how to sew. ("I didn't," he cheerfully notes.)
Instead, he graduated from college with an art history degree and started a vintage and industrial store in Indianapolis. And in the process, began collecting vintage quilts simply because he loved them.
"I love the history of textiles made for warmth," he explains, adding, "All of [the] blankets I collected were vintage wool quilt blankets, things that are warm out of necessity. Which I love."
After a while, his quilt collection wasn't just one or two or three quilts. "I might have 70 of them," he says, and after five years of collecting, he began to experiment. "I taught myself how to sew, and started doing that magic, and fixed a couple of those old quilts, which I call grafting, [converging] the old and the new."
Notably, his quilts these days are no longer that same work of grafting. They're contemporary pieces, primarily driven by a desire to communicate a sense of structure and problem-solving.
But he's still inspired by the provenance of quilting, as well as the sort of aesthetic osmosis that can happen when you make friends with other talented individuals—or as Bowman puts it, "the pressure of knowing quilters."
All of this seems to subtly convey, on Bowman's part, a desire to continually grow and shift over time, in tune with seasonal cycles of the year. And he concedes,
"I'm very attached to the seasons. And I live in an earth home. Like the roof is grass, so I'm literally in the ground," says Bowman, smiling, "But also just innately through my life I've had a connection to the earth, and the natural world."
He adds that, in rural Grand Marais, "[It's] not always the easiest roller coaster — to shift into a winter of quiet. But it's interesting. And maybe I'll never figure it out and the roller coaster is the journey. Which is also beautiful."
All photos courtesy Kristofer Bowman Return