C.J.: Inver Grove teenager is all business about his wild side

  • Article by: C.J. , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 7, 2012 - 5:44 PM

Inver Grove Heights 15-year-old Luke Thielen is a craftsman and businessman. The son of Sandy and Jim Thielen (Mom's a Ramsey County paralegal in the criminal division and Dad's a retired Eagan police officer) owns Luke's Animal Artworks. He creates incredible African wall art, placemats, drink coasters and other products from the hides of exotic animals. His career got launched from maps he made from hide scraps in a storage space at Burnsville's Taxidermy Unlimited. The exotic scraps caught his eye when he was 11 and working at the taxidermy shop to pay off part of a personal fish taxidermy project. (He still works there.) He said the scraps would normally be thrown away.

Luke, who's been home-schooled for two years now, was in parochial school when he needed a project. His mom suggested he come up with a way to use the animal hides, and a business was born. Now when Taxidermy Unlimited customers want coasters or placemats or other unusual items, shop owners Marv and Betty Gaston turn over hides to Luke. The projects are helping Luke sock away money for college.

Luke's first showing of his artwork at a Minnesota Safari Club International event was featured in the organization's magazine, which noted he's a "young man of few words." I met Luke through Leather Works Minnesota's Kent Begnaud, who runs a shop in St. Paul Park with his wife, Lee Begnaud, and their son Nathan O'Malley. Kent and Luke began collaborating when Luke needed the placemats sewn.

"He's my boss," said Kent. "I work for him. He's very thorough." That's demonstrated in this startribune.com/video, which ends with footage of a snazzy computer bag Kent is making for Luke, following the young man's copious specs, written instructions, a drawing, etc.

Q How did you meet the taxidermist?

A When I caught two big bass at a lake in western Minnesota. I had to work to pay for part of them.

Q Your dad makes you carry your own weight?

A He does.

Q How'd you get into this hobby, which has become a business?

A Started as a school project. I made a map of Africa. [Marv Gaston of Taxidermy Unlimited] thought I could make it a little better and sell them. I started making placemats.

Q How do you make those maps of Africa?

A I cut out all the hides and put them on an art board backing. I glue all the hides on. Once they're cut out, I airbrush the edges and put a leather finish around them.

Q What are your favorite three hides?

A I would say zebra, wildebeest and cape buffalo.

Q Have you ever done any big-game hunting?

A Last year, me and my mom went for antelope out in Wyoming. And I hunted white-tailed deer up in northern Minnesota.

Q I'm guessing that you know the continent of Africa better than I do?

A Maybe. [Big smile] I know most of the countries.

Q Who's a better hunter, your mom or your dad?

A I don't know.

Q Ever had a close call with an animal you were hunting?

A No.

Q What are your hobbies?

A Hunting, horseback riding, archery.

Q What do you want to study in college?

A I'm not sure. Engineering [maybe].

Q You met Vikings Hall of Fame coach Bud Grant at a Safari Club Minnesota gathering. What'd he say about your artwork?

A He said they were neat.

C.J. can be contacted at 612.332.TIPS or cj@startribune.com and seen on Fox 9.

  • WATCH VIDEO of C.J.'s interview with Luke Thielen.
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