Shawn Nicholas once spent his days working as a nurse at a surgical clinic in Duluth, but these days he spends much of his time upstairs at his Esko home with a tufting gun creating unique, personalized rugs.

Nicholas, 34, left his job last fall to pursue more creative opportunities including, but not limited to, making rugs.

Like many people in the area, Nicholas was laid off in March as the COVID-19 pandemic gripped the nation. He and his wife, Lisa, took the opportunity to convert a vehicle into a camper van. Nicholas said he loves hands-on and do-it-yourself projects, and working on the van gave him an opportunity to do something he wasn’t able to as a nurse.

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The van allowed the couple to travel — particularly to national parks — while continuing to social distance.

“At first, it seems kind of crazy to think of traveling during COVID, but even if you travel locally, it’s kind of a genius way to do it,” he said. “You’re kind of isolating yourself in this self-sufficient little capsule, and you don’t really have to interact with other people.”

The couple was able to travel to Yosemite, Yellowstone, Grand Teton and Badlands national parks, allowing Nicholas to engage in one of his favorite hobbies, photography.

A camper van built by Shawn Nicholas and his wife sits in Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming this summer. The couple converted the van in the early days of the pandemic so they could travel and maintain social distancing. (Photo by Shawn Nicholas)
A camper van built by Shawn Nicholas and his wife sits in Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming this summer. The couple converted the van in the early days of the pandemic so they could travel and maintain social distancing. (Photo by Shawn Nicholas)

When the clinic opened back up, Nicholas went back to work as a nurse, but said he felt that something had always been missing.

“I think I wasn’t happy with my career,” Nicholas said. “I’d been putting off all of these creative passions and stuff for many years and COVID was like the final push to get away from what I was doing.”

Nicholas said he had seen TikTok videos of unusual and artistic rugs being made and he showed them to his wife. Lisa was a little concerned about her husband giving up his full-time job, but she could tell he wasn’t satisfied and it wasn’t long before she told him to leave his day job.

“At first I thought he was a little crazy,” Lisa said. “But then I was like, you know what, if we’re going to do it, this year is the year to do it."

In October, Nicholas left his job as a nurse and began working on some samples. He used a photo of his dog, Milo; projected it onto a rub backing; and traced it with a marker. Then he used the tufting gun to add color.

One of Shawn Nicholas's first projects was to create a rug from a photo of his dog Milo (pictured). The goal was to see how much detail he could achieve with his tufting gun. (Photo by Shawn Nicholas)
One of Shawn Nicholas's first projects was to create a rug from a photo of his dog Milo (pictured). The goal was to see how much detail he could achieve with his tufting gun. (Photo by Shawn Nicholas)

The first rugs were smaller and more of an experiment to see what level of detail he could achieve with the tufting gun.

“It was a learning experience initially,” Nicholas said. “Then the other thing is I just wanted to try to make something that people locally would like but that wasn’t large and too expensive. Ultimately, what I’ve been trying to do is head toward is making more area size rugs and runners with more abstract designs.”

Since those first experiments, Nicholas has sold most of the pieces he’s made and even had some requests from people who want a rug made in their own pet's likeness.

The only piece he hasn’t sold yet is the “ripple rug,” an aquatic image that was inspired by Lake Superior. Nicholas said he tries to incorporate the lake and the natural beauty of northern Minnesota into much of his art. He’s also uploading time lapse TikTok videos of him making the rugs to help with marketing. He created an etsy.com shop called FarmhouseCraftsMinn to sell his work.

In addition to making rugs and his photography, Nicholas has a number of interests he hopes to try out, including woodworking. He’s also not opposed to a return to nursing at some point, but for now he’s happy trying something new.

“I had done it for five or six years, and the whole time I was kind of searching for my place within that health care setting and I never really found it ... I'm not necessarily closing that door completely but taking a break from it and trying something else,” he said.