Have you ever stood in a store all by yourself reading captions on greeting cards laughing hysterically (if you have not, I highly recommend it)? How about looking at, touching, and admiring pieces of artwork which seem to understand and relate to nature? Pieces so unique to an artist they are easily identified and stand-out amongst other works?

This describes the talent of local artist Earlene McNeil Larson. I came to know Earl and her work through the G.A.R. Hall and later through showcasing and selling her work in our gallery. She has an infectious personality and sense of humor, earthiness, individuality, and a creative spirit all unique to Earl. She describes herself and her art as:

“By heart and birth, I am a crazy Dakota girl…41 years of creating, inspired by nature, my work reflects where I am at in life, so growing and changing is an experiment my patrons share with me. Out of all of this journey, a daughter, a son, and 10 lively grandchildren peak the top of my list and usually are not for sale.

Handmade paper derived from old corduroy pants, is my main medium. Whimsical, dimensional notecards, books, wall pieces, and luminaries are the by-recycled products created from this fiber…Enjoy, Earl!”

I have always wanted to know more about Earl. I wanted to know what inspired her to become an artist and what drives her to create.

Also, I was interested in the path she took and her experiences along the way leading her to the place she is now.

I called her about writing this article and scheduled an appointment. We were to meet in her studio, and I could not wait to see where her creations are “birthed”.

Driving up to the property it screamed “Earl lives here”! A log cabin built by her husband and son (obviously also talented and creative) communing in nature. The home is surrounded by beautiful gardens, a landscape friendly to nature, and visitors from the wild which frequent the property.

Earl led me to her large studio where she creates. We settled-in and began an interesting conversation about Earl and her art.

Earl grew-up in rural Aberdeen working hard on her family farm. She describes life on the farm as being “hired hands with not much time for outside activities.” Her siblings were her friends and her family were who she spent her time with. It was not until she attended kindergarten, she began making friends outside of the home. Meeting new kids and learning new things were exciting! She fondly remembers an art project the teacher had the students create. She recounts “empty Velveeta boxes filled with items to decorate the boxes with…I thought wow!”

When asked if it was from the kindergarten project, she knew she would be an artist she shared “it was not a thought-out process it just fell into place”.

Nearing graduation, Earl went to the guidance counselor’s office and was browsing through information about different colleges and universities. This is when she stumbled across a brochure about Colorado State University and it sparked her interest. Soon after, she left South Dakota for Colorado. Not knowing exactly what she wanted to do, she knew whatever she decided it would involve something with art.

After some time in Colorado, Earl decided to return to South Dakota to complete her education. She returned to Aberdeen and attended Northern State University for a year before transferring to the University of South Dakota where received her Bachelor of Fine Art.

Earl’s medium and work was originally in printmaking. She eventually moved away from printmaking to work with clay. She says “clay kept me humble. It is not very forgiving…it cracks…its demanding”. She recounted a time when she lost several pieces due to imperfect conditions. Earl still has her printmaking press and from time to time will create a print or an embossed piece. As for clay…well you get the picture.

After leaving clay, Earl began paper making. She describes working with this medium more “forgiving than clay.” She had found her niche and away she went!

Forty-one years later, Earl is still successfully working with paper. I shared with Earl as a child I remember an art project making paper with old blue-jeans and a blender. Outside of the art project, I had no idea what it takes to make paper: I was clueless. I asked if she would educate me in her process, which she was happy to oblige!

In a room adjacent to her studio is where the paper is made. There are large wooden forms/or boxes with screens and a machine that has been with her since the beginning of her journey with paper: The Hollander Beater.

Earl cuts one half inch squares from old corduroy and then puts them in the Hollander Beater. During the next three to four hours the fibers are beaten to a workable consistency and meshed together so she can form sheets.

The sheets are the basis for many of Earl’s creations. She makes one-of-a-kind greeting cards some with hilarious captions and others with positive messages. When asked about where she finds the humorous captions, she says they come from her own life experiences. “You have to be able to laugh at yourself” she says.

If you have not seen an “Earl” card I urge you to seek them out. Her cards are beautiful and uplifting and not even close to the same category of a store-bought greeting card. These cards are unique pieces of frameable art and make an amazing gift on their own.

Earl also makes books wrapped in her paper with images and captions like

her cards. She sometimes uses the artwork her grandchildren create to adorn both the cards and books. I have seen some of her grandkids work and it is obvious talent runs deep in this family!

She creates other popular pieces with paper such as her luminaries. From the large earthy wall pieces and tabletop luminaries to the smaller shaded wall lights, there are no two pieces exactly alike. In addition to paper, Earl adds elements of nature to these pieces such as twigs, leaves, pinecones, etc.

Another medium Earl works with is felting, particularly Nuno felting. Nuno felting is a wet-on-wet fabric felting technique which bonds loose fibers, typically wool, into a sheer fabric ultimately creating a lightweight felt.

Earl creates beautiful scarves with this process using Moreno wool, which is a soft wool, and saris for the lightweight fabric. In addition to scarves, she creates felted pins and coin purses, and one of a kind vintage inspired hats (I have one and wear it with pride).

I asked Earl how many hours a week she spends in her studio creating. She said, “it is more than full time with shows on the weekends…it is not a job, but a way of living or being”. I asked in addition to the Crimson Door event at the G.A.R. Hall during the Christmas holiday, our gallery, and other local venues where she sells her artwork and what shows she attends.

Earl said she and her husband attend instate shows in Spearfish, Sioux Falls Fairgrounds, and the Governor’s Hunts. They also attend out-of-state shows in Philadelphia, Pa., Atlanta, Ga., and Jackson Hole, Wy. Most of the shows are outside events and weather plays a factor, especially in the summer months with the heat.

The elements do not bother her though. They have a modern new camper with all the bells and whistles fashioned in what style I ask…? If you said retro vintage, you are correct! Would you expect Earl’s camper to be anything but artistic, colorful, and hip?

When asked where she saw herself in the future, she said spending time with her grandkids and traveling around the countryside. I asked if she has considered teaching art to others and she replied, “to my grandkids”. What a quality gift of time, togetherness, inspiration and memories she is making with her grandkids!

As I walked out of her studio and left her home, I felt myself smiling and inspired. Earl walks to the beat of her own drum; the type of humans I have always gravitated toward. The creative, unique, folks who are centered enough to accept who they are and can be themselves.

If you are not familiar with Earl’s work, I encourage you to seek it out and enjoy her creations which come from a very genuine honest place. She wants her patrons to view her art as “fun, relatable, and reasonable”. In my opinion, she has reached this ideal and so much more!