Sum of Your Business: Brittany Todd

Intro by Aryn Henning Nichols • Photos by Photography by Brittany

It’s lucky that Decorah photographer Brittany Todd “never gets sick of wedding cake.” Because in the nearly seven years she’s been running Photography by Brittany, she’s surely eaten a lot of it.

Of course, weddings aren’t the only moments Brittany’s team captures – there’s also engagements, families, graduating seniors, and a shoot option called… “All Up in Your Business,” where – you guessed it – Brittany photographs your business.

Business is something Brittany has learned a lot about over the years. What started out as a hobby post-graduation has turned into a real-life career, and now encompasses a team of seven photographers, two cinematographers, and one marketing/social media expert.

Plus, the 29-year-old mother of two busy boys offers photography classes to the public, is involved in the community, and manages to, somehow, cook actual vegetables for dinner (much to her boys chagrin). On top of all that, Brittany recently moved from a home office to a studio space in Downtown Decorah. (Update: AND now husband Nathan and Brittany have added the Decorah Sugar Bowl ice cream shop to their list of businesses!)

Surely more than once, this busy woman has been requested to, “Teach us your ways of life!”

“I try to do it all and not pull my hair out, but really I am better at styling the mess on my head to cover up the craziness behind the scenes,” she writes on brittanytodd.com. “The main focus of my career is to capture YOU. Whether you are short, tall, blonde, brunette, married, single or anything in between: be that. My goal is to have you trust that being YOU is what makes you beautiful.”

The result is lovely, saturated images that speak honestly of life, love, and…well, the pursuit of happiness. We were excited to feature Brittany as our Sum of Your Business for this inspiring women issue because she is just that: Inspiring! Read on to learn more about how she manages to have her cake…and eat it too (what, too much?!).

The Basics:
Name: Brittany Todd
Age: 29
Business: Photography by Brittany
Years in Business: June 26 this year will start year seven of weddings!

1. Tell us about the “leap” moment. When/how did you decide to jump in and become your own boss?

After graduating from Luther College in January 2010, I was certain that my calling was in Residence Life. I went through a two-month marathon process of interviews with 15 different schools and became a finalist at two different colleges. We were certain we were moving to either Dubuque or Green Bay. In April, however, everything changed.  I was informed by both schools, within one hour of each other, that I was their runner up and therefore did not have a job. At all. Anywhere. As a couple, we decided to stay in Decorah for another year since we were getting married that July and at least had some connections to odd jobs while we waited for a full-time opportunity. During that waiting process my photo-shoots became more frequent and more substantial. I wasn’t just photographing my friends’ kids anymore; clients were actually hiring me to shoot their wedding day, and I was loving every second of it! In August 2011, our first son, Carter, was born, and we decided it would be much easier to raise a baby with a photography career than in a college dorm. I slowly stepped away from a career in Residence Life, to a newfound dream career in photography. Fast-forward to 2013, and shooting was officially something that paid the bills, supported my family, and gave me great joy on a daily basis. It was then that I became my own boss and officially launched Photography by Brittany… in an office next to our living room.

2. What’s the best thing about being your own boss?

There are countless perks! I get to travel throughout the United States doing what I love! I get to choose my own hours. Yes, sometimes this means I am the last one to leave downtown at 1 am, but it also means I can take a day off to celebrate my kids’ birthdays, go on a last-minute trip with my husband, or spend an entire day focusing on filling my own cup, whether that means a lunch date with a friend, yoga sculpt at Reefuel, shopping downtown Decorah, or binge watching online classes or even Netflix. I can dress up on days I am with clients and wear sweatpants and slippers on days in the studio. A major perk is that through this seven-year journey, my kids have been a part of almost every single work day in the office, whether that office was in our living room or downtown in the new studio. They have their moments, of course, but sometimes the brutal honesty of a three or five-year-old is exactly what I need when it comes to choosing a location, setting up a shoot or just choosing treats from Beyond the Bar or Java John’s Coffee House for a client meeting. I know not every profession allows the flexibility that mine does, but just think how much more productive everyone could be if they could work during their personal prime time hours (I am a night owl) and be with their family as much as possible?

3. How about the worst?

Some days this list seems longer than the previous one, but I promise the good always outweighs the bad! I am the HR department, secretary, coordinator, president, CEO, and maintenance crew all rolled into one person. There is no guaranteed salary. There are no work benefits. Nobody gives me health, dental, or life insurance. There are no paid vacation days, paid sick days or even a single moment of paid maternity leave. When I first started, I took on any shoot that would come my way, including a family shoot the day before I went into labor with Carter as well as a wedding 13 days after he was born. (That is a story for another time, but, in short, Carter did great. Pumping in the doorway of a boat bathroom? Not one of my favorite life moments. 😉 )

There is not anyone to celebrate successes with in person. Cake in the break room is just not as exciting when it is your own birthday and you are eating it alone. Do not get me wrong, I love my days alone when I can crank the music and sing aloud while I edit, but there are many days when I wish there was someone here to celebrate with during the successes, and someone here to always get input from.

4. Was there ever a hurdle where you just thought, “I can’t do this?” How did you overcome it?

Not a specific hurdle, but there are definitely days and sometimes weeks that I stare at my work and think that I will never be as good others already are. If you think Pinterest is hard from a parent or teacher perspective, try looking at it through the eyes of a photographer (or a photographer mother!). Pinterest is amazing, and Pinterest is awful. I often remind myself that if I didn’t think there was someone better than me, I wouldn’t have anything to strive towards. The moments I doubt myself are the moments that make me a better photographer, business owner, and family member.

5. Any mentors/role models you look to/have looked to?

I highly recommend everyone start following Jeremy Cowart on Facebook, Instagram, or any other way possible. If you haven’t heard of “The Purpose Hotel” look it up! Jeremy is taking his talents of photography and expanding them into a vision that will help MANY people for decades, if not centuries, to come. His ability to run a business, expand the business and yet keep his wife and family as his number ONE priority is not only inspiring, but something we should all strive toward daily.

6. What’s the one thing you wish you had known before you started?

Dear High School and College Self:

Your grades matter in order to keep your scholarships, but then they will be irrelevant. Stop writing down every single word that goes on the board and take a moment to truly LISTEN to those teaching. Social networking is everything. Relationships are going to build a business faster than money can buy one. Equipment is important, but without a solid work ethic, support from those closest to you, and an incredible client base, you will not be successful. That family and friend-base you have now? They’re going to support you every step of the way. Keep being kind to those around you, because those professors, classmates, mentors, friends, and acquaintances are all going to be clients of yours someday. Each will leave a photo session with a part of your heart, and give you a little more sense of self-worth.

7. How do you manage your life/work balance? You worked out of your house originally, and have recently moved to a space in downtown Decorah – what are the pros and cons to the move?

Working from home was fantastic. If you ever get the opportunity to do so I highly recommend it, even if it is just for a few weeks. While having a home office I would do laundry, make lunches, start dinner, vacuum, grocery shop, and play with my kids in between checking emails, editing, making phone calls, and creating online albums for client review. When the workday was over, so were all of our daily life tasks. Having a space downtown has been quite an adjustment to that, but I love it in a completely different way. I get to see more people (especially more adults) on a daily basis. I can still take my kids to the library as I used to, but when we return to the studio downtown I immediately have a sense to work, instead of picking up around the house. Although it is tempting to respond to an email as soon as I see that it has been sent, it is much easier to leave work at work, and be home when I am at home (check out Peter Awad’s “Slow Hustle” podcast for more on that concept!).

8. What keeps you inspired? Any quotes that keep you going?

It is a hard concept to perfect at first, but I have gotten better about telling myself that I cannot serve others if my own cup is empty. Giving myself an opportunity to remember that I will be successful today, in this moment, could be as simple as a 15 minute break with Pinterest or an hour long Skype chat with a friend to collaborate on fresh ideas. Occasionally, I feel like these activities put me further behind in my to do list, so I remind myself that if I do not take time to enjoy life, my family, and my friends, there is no purpose to my career. Yes, we need money to pay bills, but if we are not enjoying life as it happens, we are guaranteeing ourselves missed memories. I would be a hypocrite if I encouraged others to prioritize their memories, if I, myself, was not creating any. Because of this, my job inspires me during every shoot. Every client has chosen me over any other photographer to capture one of their most important moments in life. These occasions may be as extravagant as a wedding day or as simple as an annual family session, but to my clients, and to me, it is so much more than just a shoot. You never know when a session is going to be your last as a family, exactly are you as you are right now, so embrace the NOW! There is no greater inspiration than to know that this gift I have been given (and am constantly trying to perfect) is something that positively impacts those around me, with the simple click of a button.

15+ Boredom-Busting Kids’ Activities in the Driftless

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And the Livin’ is Easy: 15+ Boredom-Busting Kids’ Activities in the Driftless
By Kristine Jepsen • Originally published in the Summer 2015 Inspire(d)

So, school’s out, and the snow clothes have been washed and pushed to the back of the closet (finally). Light plays out longer in the evenings, breathing extra life into after-dinner games of tag, dog-walking, and park-going.

Sounds magical, right? Like everyone in your family should understand summer to mean shade-sitting. And catching up on reads that friends have been recommending. Or leisurely picking of wildflowers. Surely?

More likely, I – er, you – won’t make it through one golden evening before the summertime chorus starts up: “I’m bored!”

If this refrain has you locking yourself in the bathroom for a sanity check, try these kid-friendly pursuits in the Driftless. From spelunking to strawberry picking, there’s something for every pint-size naysayer. Best of all, many activities are free.

INTO THE WILDS: EXPLORING NATIVE LANDSCAPES

Driftless Safari
Best for: Anyone!
Open: Memorial Day through Halloween
www.driftless-safari.org

Rare trees and prairie plants, springs to splash in, wildlife tracks. Driftless Safari is both a self-guided tour of natural resources in Northeast Iowa, Southeast Minnesota, and Southwest Wisconsin and an introduction to community programs that support educational adventures for families.

To get started, pick up your guidebook and map packet for this year’s destinations from a public library in Winneshiek County (or print one online), then visit sites in any order. Prove you were in each location by making a crayon rubbing in your guidebook of the ‘marker’ placed there (crayons provided in your packet). When you have 15 or more rubbings, you may return your guidebook to the library to register for awesome prizes.

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Eagle Bluff Environmental Learning Center
Location: Lanesboro, Minnesota
Best for: 6+ (Kids able to hike some distance without whining! Ability to read is also a bonus.)
Open: June – August (by appointment in off-season)
www.eagle-bluff.org

Located on nearly 100 acres of Root River bottom, limestone bluffs, and tall-grass prairie, Eagle Bluff Environmental Learning Center offers organized outdoor education courses for kids during the school year and family programming and multi-age ropes/zipline courses on Saturdays and Tuesdays ($25/person) in the summer months. Free stuff includes its nearly nine miles of hiking trails and public geocaching course, as well as access to the Schroeder Visitor’s Center.

The center also hosts River Roots Skills School courses for teens 15 and older and adults (generally $40/person) ranging from orienteering to Amish bread-baking to taxidermy basics. Follow the directions online, rather than your GPS, to avoid sometimes-impassable back roads.

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Driftless Area Wetland Centre
Location: Marquette, Iowa
Best for: Anyone!
Open: Year-round
www.driftlessareawetlandcentre.com

The Driftless Area Wetlands Centre opened its doors in August 2013 with one goal in mind: To connect people of all ages to the natural world and empower them to positively impact their local environments. The facility provides a shared environmental education and community gathering space, covered plaza area, and 24/7 bathroom, in addition to the beautiful, man-made Wetland and viewing platform. See a full story on the Centre on page 14 of the Summer 2015 Inspire(d).

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DRIFTLESS REGION FISH HATCHERIES
Best for: Anyone
Open: Sunrise to sunset year-round

The Driftless is home to renowned fishing along its creeks and winding rivers, and some of those fish (hundreds of thousands, actually) are stocked from Department of Natural Resources fish hatcheries in the summer months. Many hatcheries are open year-round, allowing kids to feed varying ages of brook, brown, lake and rainbow trout a quarter’s worth of pellet food, available from gumball-like dispensers. Tips: Bring a small bucket or cup to hold the food, and wear closed-toed shoes suitable for walking.

FishHatchery

Locations and hours:
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IOWA
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Decorah Fish Hatchery (Decorah)
This facility raises around 150,000 “catchable” rainbow and brook trout annually. Features include their stately limestone office, built in the 1930s as a Civilian Conservation Corps project, and family-friendly (clean) bathrooms. Group tours are available 7:30 am – 4 pm daily by calling the office at 563-382-8324.

Big Spring Fish Hatchery (Elkader)
Located on the Turkey River and fed by the largest cold-water spring in Iowa, this hatchery raises 150,000 rainbow and brook trout from 2” in length to 10-12” over 15 months on average. The Big Spring Watershed is nationally renowned among researchers of karst (limestone) groundwater activity. River access at the hatchery is open for trout fishing and primitive camping, featuring a new angler access trail, a trout pond open for public fishing, and Iowa’s first kids’ fishing pond for anglers 15 and under. Fisherpeople must have appropriate licensure. Group tours are available 7:30 am – 4 pm daily by calling the office at 563-245-2446.

Guttenburg Fish Hatchery (Guttenburg)
This hatchery spawns Northern Pike fry in the spring, then operates the kid-friendly Guttenburg Aquarium and Fish Management Station May – October 8 am – 4 pm. See 35 species of fish, fresh-water mussels and turtles native to the Mississippi River ecosystem and its tributaries. Admission to this Great River Road Interpretive Network educational site is free. Call ahead for tour information and special events: 563-252-1156.

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MINNESOTA
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Lanesboro Fish Hatchery (Lanesboro)
This spring-fed hatchery produces a jaw-dropping 120,000 pounds of trout per year:
450,000 brown trout fingerlings (spring or fall of their first year)
24,000 brown trout yearlings (spring following their hatching)
85,000 rainbow trout fingerlings and 200,000 rainbow trout yearlings
Guided group tours are available by reservation (507-467-3771). Hours for self-guided tours are 7 am – 3:30 pm Monday – Friday.

Peterson State Fish Hatchery (Peterson)
This hatchery specializes in spawning lake trout, stocked to deep, cold lakes in northern Minnesota, and rainbow trout stocked in the Driftless and urban lakes in the Twin Cities. Self-guided and curated tours are available 7am – 3:30 pm Monday – Friday: 507-875-2625.

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WISCONSIN
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Genoa National Fish Hatchery
Located on both sides of the Great River Road Scenic Byway (State Highway 35), three miles south of Genoa, Wisconsin. Visitors should first head to the office (west side of the highway) to check in and learn about operations. There are 13 species of fish reared on site and a number of mussel species common to the upper Mississippi River basin. You’ll also find a 1,000 gallon aquarium, a wetland and native prairie boardwalk with outdoor classroom area, a walking trail , and culture buildings housing 24 species of fish, freshwater mussels, and amphibians. Call 608-689-2605 to schedule group tours, generally provided 7 am – 3:30 p.m. Monday – Friday.

CAVE SYSTEMS
Locations: McGregor, Iowa, Preston, Minnesota, and Harmony, Minnesota.
Best for: Anyone, but best for kids who don’t mind cool, damp conditions and close enclosures.
Open: May through October
The Driftless Region’s craggy bluff topography offers stunning viewscapes underground, too, where water has carved formations and caverns into the area’s soft(ish) bedrock.

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Spook Cave & Campground near McGregor, Iowa, offers 35-minute curated boat tours 9 am to 5:30 pm daily. No walking is required, as you travel by boat through the cave chambers. With a free picnic area and reasonable camping hook-ups and cabins on site, Spook Cave suits families, especially those with small children and seniors in the mix. Be sure to dress for the coolness (literally) of the cave itself, which remains 47 degrees year-round. Tour admission is $11 for adults 13 and older; $8 for kids ages 4-12, and free for kids 3 and under. spookcave.com

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Mystery Cave, managed by the Department of Natural Resources, lies between Spring Valley and Preston, Minnesota, and is the longest cave system in the state, at nearly 13 miles. Park naturalists lead curated tours of the stalactites, stalagmites, flowstone, fossils, and iridescent underground pools, where flash photography is allowed, if you’re up to it.

Programs range from a scenic tour for all ages and degrees of mobility (available daily; $12/adults, $7 ages 5-12, youngers are free) to flashlight and geology expeditions for children 8 and older ($13-$20/person). If your teen can’t resist mud or physical challenge, check out the Wild Caving tour, a four-hour exploration of undeveloped sections of the cave system, outfitted with real spelunking gear ($75/person; 13 and older; group maximum of five people).

Reservations for Mystery Cave tours are recommended and available online (dnr.state.mn.us/mystery_cave) or by calling the Minnesota DNR at 866-857-2757.

Photography, Wild Caving and advanced geology tours are arranged by calling cave personnel directly at 507-937-3251. Follow guidelines for appropriate dress (48 degrees underground!) and be sure to consult the GPS-defying travel directions online.

Mystery Cave is located in a state park and requires a park day pass ($5) or sticker valid for the year ($25). While you’re in the gate, consider visiting Forestville, a living history replica of the settlement before railroad development in Minnesota.

Uniquely Minnesota

WaterfallNiagara Cave near Harmony, Minnesota, boasts a one-hour, one-mile, guided tour April through October (see niagaracave.com for current hours). Visitors climb down a set of stairs into another world – there’s an underground stream leading to a waterfall nearly 60 feet high, tiny and massive stalactites, calcite flowstone, and fossils that have been dated to more than 400 million years old. There’s also an in-cave wedding chapel where more than 400 weddings have been performed. After the tour, take your minis for mini-golf or gemstone mining. Reservations for tours ($14 / $8 for 4-12 / youngers are free) are recommended, but not required. 507-886-6606.

Check out Inspire(d)’s in-depth (haha) Driftless cave feature from 2012.

Splash Down: Awesome Swim Facilities
Locations: Spring Grove, Minnesota and Hokah, Minnesota
Open: June – August (or, when the lifeguards go back to school)

There are city pools, and then there are swim destinations. Spring Grove Swim Center, in quaint Spring Grove, Minnesota, offers a toddler slide, waterfalls and a zero-depth entry wading area for younger kids, and more thrilling two-story water slides, drop slides and diving boards for, you know, older guests who usually beg off getting in the water. If you’re willing to let carb and sodium counts slide for a day, you can find a whole meal at the poolside snack bar.

Admission is $4/person; ages 62+ or 2 and under are free. Hours are 1-6 pm Monday through Sunday, and a cool-deal $2 admission 7-9 pm on Fridays. Toward the beginning and end of season or whenever weather might interfere, call ahead at 507-498-7946 to check pool hours. www.springgrovemn.com/swimcenter (Spring Grove pool photos courtesy Marlene Deschler.)

SpringGrovePool_Marlene Deschler

If chlorine isn’t your thing, head over to 20 Como Street in Hokah, Minnesota, where you’ll find a natural phenomenon uncommon beyond the Yellowstone Caldera of the West: a sand-bottom, spring-fed swimming area. The Hokah ‘pool’ offers diving boards, an in-water volleyball court, snack concessions and sandy banks for land-locked ‘beach’ play. Admission is $3/person Monday-Saturday 12-5 pm and Sunday 11 am–3 pm. Get in for $1 on Wednesday nights 5-7 pm. Call ahead to confirm pool hours at 507-894-4557. www.facebook.com/HokahPool

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STICK A FORK IN IT: FOOD ADVENTURES WITH A DRIFTLESS TWIST

Wold Strawberries
Location: Rural Mabel, Minnesota
Best for: Anyone who can pick more than s/he eats.
Open: Daily when berries are ripe. Call ahead for details.
woldstrawberries.com

Summertime means seasonal food-a-palooza in the Driftless. If you’re looking to dig in beyond visiting your local farmers’ market, check out Wold Strawberries between Decorah and Mabel, Minnesota. Established in 1973 as a pick-your-own strawberry farm, the Wold plantation now offers ready-picked and pick-your-own varieties of strawberries in early to mid-June; raspberries (red, black and purple) in mid-July and late-blooming red raspberries again in mid-August.

If you’re on top of the season’s optimal weather for berry harvest, you might also get in on their sought-after blueberries and currants in mid-July through early August. (Hint: Call Wold’s at 507-493-5897 each week for peak picking forecasts, or follow them on Facebook.) In 2015, the highway entrance to the Wold farm is under construction, so follow alternate directions on their site (woldstrawberries.com) to get picking.

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Northeast Iowa Dairy Center
Location: Calmar, Iowa
Best for: All ages
Open: Daily
www.iowadairycenter.com

Read about robotic milking or seen it on YouTube? It’s here in Iowa – and truly hands-off – as the newest innovation in dairy science. At the nationally acclaimed Iowa Dairy Center, cows produce more milk when they self-select when to enter the robotic milking parlor – up to six times per day. Get a bird’s-eye view from the visitor platform, open 24/7. The center also has a human-powered milking parlor for another 140 cows, where visitors can watch the process three times per day – 4 am, 12 noon, and 8 pm. The adjacent calf barn gives you a peek at doe-eyed dairy youngsters, and if you’re lucky, you might see a calf born in the transition barn.

Don’t miss the annual free/free-will donation Breakfast on the Farm. Fill up on ‘Dad’s Belgian waffles,’ sausage and dairy products made in Northeast Iowa before exploring the center’s educational exhibits, including a curated tram tour of the barns. For more info, call the center coordinator at 563-534-9957 ext. 107.

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Seed Savers Exchange Heritage Farm
Location: Decorah, Iowa
Best for: Mobile kids or those content to traipse about in a backpack or sling
Open: Daily 10am-5pm March 1 through October 31
seedsavers.org

If your kids are just getting the food-to-earth connection, visit the internationally renowned Seed Savers Exchange Heritage Farm north of Decorah, especially at the height of summer, for a look at where a diverse diet comes from. Spread over 890 acres, the farm is home to display gardens growing 1,000 seed varieties of heritage vegetables and flowers; an orchard (preserving 950 apple varieties); a herd of Ancient White Park cattle; and heritage breeds of turkeys, chickens, ducks and geese.

Explore eight miles of hiking trails or cool your heels in bubbling Pine Spring Creek (where trout fishing is allowed). If your kids are game, you could spend a good day getting between the growing areas. Pack a lunch and regroup at the Lillian Goldman Visitor Center, which offers picnic facilities, (air-conditioned) bathrooms, a water fountain, and a gift shop. Check online or call ahead to dial in the best times to catch up with the cattle herd, for example, and to learn about special events that may affect visiting hours.

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Cooking Classes at Oneota Community Food Co-op
Location: Decorah, Iowa
Best for: Ages designated in course descriptions (young’uns through teens)
oneotacoop.com

Someone brilliant once suggested that we parents should let kids do the cleaning while they still think it’s fun. The same might also go for cooking and kitchen skills.

To give your kid a knife (with supervision!) and encourage an interest in cooking with fresh healthful ingredients, try a summer session from Oneota Community Food Co-op. Courses cater to little ones through teens, and use the co-op’s stylish new cooking classroom, adjacent to the store on Water Street. Register for classes online (starting at $40) and check out the co-op’s free educational kids’ booth at the Winneshiek Farmer’s Market most Saturdays in May, June and July.

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SHOW TIME: SUMMER ARTS OPPORTUNITIES

ArtHaus Camps, Mud Club at The Clay Studio, and Drama (of course!)
Location: Decorah, Iowa
Best for: Ages designated by course descriptions (ages 2 through teens)

Do you find yourself confiscating all the household writing or snipping tools from your little artist(s)? Sanctioning the Playdough? Send them to an ArtHaus camp or Clay Studio class, where professionals with more patience will help channel their creative impulses. Read about ArtHaus classes – from Saturday morning art studio for tots to Art Innovations Camp for kids ages 6 through 12 – and register online at arthausdecorah.org.

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Mud Club at The Clay Studio in Decorah is a monthly night in for kids ages 5-13 featuring a project-based lesson, art games, and a snack. Sign up online at theclaystudiodecorah.com for upcoming Mud Club events (6-8 pm occasional Saturdays). Note: Register at least a day in advance; online sign-up is not available the day of an event. (Photos courtesy ArtHaus & Clay Studio)

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If your kids are more at home on the stage, don’t miss summer productions by area community theaters. The region is also home to outstanding professional companies, including the Commonweal Theatre  in Lanesboro, Minnesota, and the Great River Shakespeare Festival in Winona, Minnesota. Great River Shakespeare Festival even offers summer youth education programs like Shakespeare for Young Actors or Creative Drama and “Chill with Will” (Shakespeare, of course) free performances for ages 10-18. Me thinks there’s an alchemy in the warm night air, bright stage lights and stories from far-off places.

Check out these area theatre options for current shows:
Wisc. Community Theatre for Youth
New Minowa Players
Elkader Opera House Players
Ye Olde Opera House

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Photo by Kathy Greden Christenson – Shakespeare for Young Actors, 2014, The Tempest.

 

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Kristine Jepsen is definitely one of those parents in need of a go-to guide for kids’ activities in the warm season. When she’s not hunched over her laptop, writing on assignment and for herself (kristinejepsen.com), she’s outdoors drumming up something to do with her family, including her daughter, Eliza.

Anna Bolz / Pastry Chef

 

Inspiring Women Series: Anna Bolz / Pastry Chef
By Sara Friedl-Putnam • Originally published in the Spring 2017 Inspire(d) Magazine

Even though Decorah native Anna Bolz lives in New York City, a metropolis brimming with 8.5 million people, her heart is deeply rooted in community. And each table of diners at Per Se, where Anna holds the title of pastry chef, offers up a different story of community and an opportunity for connection. Anna’s part in the evening’s story comes last – sometimes the literal icing on the cake – through the mouth-watering desserts she and her team of eight concoct at the Michelin three-star restaurant.

Anna takes that role seriously: It’s so much more than an evening afterthought.

“Because all the items are served at the same time, I strive to achieve an ideal balance of flavors, textures, temperatures, and colors,” says Bolz. “I want to ensure that the whole experience offers diners as much sense variety as possible.”

Recent pairings have featured a “bright, cold, and refreshing” hibiscus and pear dessert, pistachio ice cream that’s “rich, luxurious, and garnished with rose,” and a “sweeter, softer, more modern” chocolate dessert.

Anna credits her environment – “the city that never sleeps” – with providing all the inspiration she needs. “I will take a walk and smell the flowers, visit a gallery and see how a work of art is put together, or go out to eat and check out what other people are ordering,” she says. “I live in a very inspiring world, and it’s all about opening my eyes and being receptive to it.”

It wasn’t all that long ago that this small-town girl was learning the restaurant basics at a Water Street eatery in Decorah.

In December 2005, Anna – then a senior music major at Luther College – had her sights set on graduate school in trumpet performance when a part-time job at Hart’s Tea and Tarts morphed into something much bigger. After the restaurant’s chef abruptly quit right before the holiday season, she pitched in to help out.

The experience changed her life forever.

“I realized that while the music room was fun, it also lost its sparkle for me after six or seven hours,” says Anna, the daughter of Lloyd Bolz and Mary Steele, both of Decorah. “The kitchen, in contrast, felt like play – even though I was putting in 14- to 16-hour days, it never felt like work, and I started wondering how far I could push that.”

Quite far, it turns out.

Since 2009, Anna has focused her natural creativity and boundless curiosity on her work at Per Se, the NYC counterpart to Chef Thomas Keller’s fabled California-based French Laundry. Originally hired as chef de partie (section cook), Anna honed her craft under renowned pastry chef Elwyn Boyles, advancing to pastry sous chef in 2011 and then, in 2015, to pastry chef.

Anna has worked hard to earn the respect of her colleagues – she is one of only two women on the restaurant’s executive team, and oversees her own team that’s responsible for Per Se’s palate-pleasing array of desserts. And it’s a good bet she won’t stop there.

“I’m constantly looking at how I can do my job better, help others be better at their jobs, and make an impact on people around me that’s not just about creating beautiful food,” says Anna, who typically arrives at work in the Time Warner Center before noon and rarely leaves before 1:30 in the morning. “My goal is to guide the next generation, collaborate fully with my colleagues, and be a contributing force at this destination restaurant.”

Anna attributes her tireless work ethic to her parents, especially her father, Lloyd, a construction firm owner under whose watchful eye she learned how to swing a hammer and wield a saw.

“My parents taught me very early in life to work for what I wanted,” she says. “I started out doing minor cleaning projects for my dad and eventually graduated to construction.”

Those skills came in handy when, after earning her bachelor’s degree from Luther in May 2006, she decided to spend the next nine months doing construction full-time to save up for the move to New York. The goal: Attend the French Culinary Institute (now the International Culinary Center).

“I had never been to New York,” she says, “but I knew it had a lot of restaurants and a lot of opportunity and thought it would be the best place for me to learn the trade.”

Those instincts proved correct, and, after settling in New York in February 2007, Anna took full advantage of the city’s culinary landscape, spending her days attending classes, her nights “externing” at Jean-Georges (another acclaimed Michelin three-star restaurant), and her weekends plating and finishing desserts at the Porter House steakhouse.

“I was putting in 75 to 80 hours a week among the three,” she recalls. “My friends and family thought I was crazy, but it was what I wanted to do.”

That unbridled passion and undeniable talent didn’t go unnoticed. Johnny Iuzzini, Jean-George’s executive pastry chef, offered her a full-time job at Jean-Georges. (If Iuzzini’s name sounds familiar, there’s a reason – he served two seasons as head judge on the Bravo TV show Top Chef: Just Desserts.) Though Anna had intended to move closer to home after wrapping up her studies, she quickly changed course.

Two years later, when Anna felt it was time to move on, her well-connected boss was right there to help, setting up trials (a working audition of sorts) in the kitchens of two of the city’s top restaurants: Daniel and Per Se.

“Working at Jean-Georges opened up a lot of other options for me,” she says. “Johnny helped me realize what was possible for me in the industry and set me on the right path.”

That path, of course, led to Per Se, where Bolz particularly enjoys the “systematic, detailed, imaginative work” involved in creating the finale of the nine-course, prix-fixe, French-influenced tasting menu ($325+ per person). The menu’s “assortment of desserts” comprises fruit, ice cream, and chocolate treats as well as candies. (Dessert lovers, rejoice! The restaurant also has a five-course dessert tasting menu – $70+ per person – at Salon, its walk-ins-only dining room.)

In February 2017, Anna was one of two pastry chefs recognized by the restaurant-industry magazine StarChefs with its Rising Star Award. And while the accolades are nice, this Driftless native says the best part about her work is that it doesn’t feel like work at all.

“My day is never the same because I respond to what’s happening in the restaurant and the needs of the people around me,” she says. “I love being constantly challenged to be creative, and I honestly cannot imagine doing anything else.”

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Sara Friedl-Putnam loves all kinds of desserts–especially any involving chocolate!–and hopes to one day indulge in a full plate of Anna Bolz’s culinary creations.