If you walk into The Blue Boat, located in Civic Center Plaza, it can be hard to know where to look first. The “eco-retail gallery” features art from a dozen local artists, ranging from beautiful hand-carved wooden bowls to intricate sketches of sailboats and lighthouses. There’s infused honey from Lakota Made, pottery shaped out of colorful Blue Earth River clay and sparkling multi-colored glassware.
Perhaps more impressive than the gallery’s wide range of artwork and art styles is the fact that owner Julie Johnson Fahrforth started featuring many of the artists after they simply stumbled onto her store.
“A lot of them, like [some] musicians, will stumble upon this place and say, ‘What’s this?’” Fahrforth explained. “Some have just walked in off the street. They really dig it, and I dig it, too.”
Fahrforth opened The Blue Boat in October 2019, envisioning a space that could be an “eco-retail gallery-music-café.” But more than offering local artists a spot to showcase their creations and collaborating with area farmers for organic café food, Fahrforth wanted to raise the community’s awareness of a very real issue in southern Minnesota—water conservation.
Not only are we an eco-retail gallery-music-café, we’re very strong on water issues. Part of that, all those passions, are wrapped up into the Blue Boat, which is a metaphor for the earth.Julie Johnson Fahrforth
“Not only are we an eco-retail gallery-music-café, we’re very strong on water issues,” Fahrforth said. “Part of that, all those passions, are wrapped up into The Blue Boat, which is a metaphor for the earth.”
A Growing Passion
Fahrforth grew up in New Ulm and spent some time in Colorado before relocating back to the southern Minnesota area. She worked on an art degree from MSU-Mankato and, while she didn’t pursue art on a full-time basis afterwards, she became involved with the local art community through gallery showings and other projects. One of her own oil paintings is hanging in The Blue Boat gallery, too.
Fahrforth and her husband lived on Lake Washington for nine years, and she said her experience on the water opened her eyes to what an issue water conservation is for the state and the continent.
“I watched [Lake Washington] turn green and brown during the summer, and I could feel it—I could feel not well myself, just watching it,” she said. “We need to make sure that the earth is protected. Water is really important [for] swimming, recreation, fishing, drinking… There’s something that we can all do, [and] we all need to figure out what that is.”
I knew I was passionate about water and art and the arts. I really wanted to put it together and offer the finer things in life: eating well, taking care of yourself and the planet, enjoying the arts, enjoying music.Julie Johnson Fahrforth
Fahrforth became involved with the Minnesota River Congress, a citizen-led group that started in New Ulm in 2014 and focuses on the natural resource and economic health of the Minnesota River Basin. The Blue Boat has hosted events for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the MSU-Mankato Water Resource Center.
While Fahrforth attended monthly meetings with the Minnesota River Congress, she eventually decided that she wanted to go a step farther and open her own business.
“I realized I needed brick and mortar,” she explained. “I needed people to go into a place and actually experience it. There’s all this information out there about water, [but] I felt very strongly that people should come in and learn about it and actually have that experience.”
But there was more to what Fahrforth wanted to offer. As an artist herself and someone passionate about all aspects of the arts, she also wanted to find a way to support local artists. The trick was to find a way to combine her two interests.
“I knew I was passionate about water and art and the arts,” she said. “I really wanted to put it together and offer the finer things in life: eating well, taking care of yourself and the planet, enjoying the arts, enjoying music. All of those things just sort of sifted to the top, more or less.”
Showcasing Local Talent
A large part of The Blue Boat is simply the retail/gallery space, which currently features about 10-15 local artists and a wide variety of products for sale. Fahrforth said that she is always working to include more artists, especially different ethnic groups.
Fahrforth’s products range from hand-carved sumac walking sticks that double as giant flutes to a book by local author Cathy Brennan. There are also hemp chew toys, hand-crafted mugs and bamboo-fiber shirts. Almost everything featured is local, though some artists hail from farther away in the state. But they all share a commitment to sustainable and eco-friendly artwork that’s “good for you and the planet,” as Fahrforth explained it.
In the back of the gallery space, Fahrforth has also set up an easel and drop cloth, with plans to bring in paints for artists to use if they need a creative space.
“I’m going to get some paints in here and just invite artists to hang out and paint,” she said.
While The Blue Boat’s doors had to be shut for a few months during the stay-at-home order, Fahrforth said she was picking up a good amount of business beforehand, and customers are already coming back since her reopening June 1. Right now, she is only open by appointment, and people can call her if they’re interested in visiting. They can also follow The Blue Boat on Facebook for updates and information.
Fahrforth said she also hopes to one day offer a full breakfast-through-dinner menu, though some days may have more limited offerings, and she also plans to one day apply for an on-sale liquor license. Her goal is to work with local farmers to use organic and sustainably grown food, as well as collaborating with ethnic groups in the area to offer a diverse menu. In addition, she hopes to feature live local music on Fridays and Saturdays as part of a “music bar.”
“I’d like to see this as a music hall entertainment [location],” Fahrforth said. “I just want people to listen.”
The space is also available for private parties and events. Customers can utilize their own catering services and make use of seating that’s available both indoors and on Fahrforth’s patio. She has already hosted MPCA and Minnesota River Congress meetings in the space, as well as birthday parties and other gatherings. She said she hopes to use the space for wedding receptions as well.
Other plans include working with the Minnesota River Congress to have a “big water event” in the future, as well as more water-themed events. Fahrforth is also collaborating with MSU-Mankato’s Water Resource Center to bring in an interactive water kiosk for kids to use.
But while Fahrforth has countless ideas for the future of her space, she’s also open to surprises that come along the way—like the couple who visited the gallery one day and revealed themselves to be professional opera singers, offering to teach opera lessons in the event space.
“All these people just show up,” Fahrforth said. “It’s great!”