Textile artist Noelle Sharp comes from a family of entrepreneurs. Her great-grandfather owned the a'Porta Cafe in Copenhagen. It's the family's last name, meaning "the door," and so she chose it for her own venture: APORTA, an artist and maker shop that just opened a retail store.
She Americanized the spelling, since people had trouble pronouncing it, but the rest of the sleek, minimalist storefront sticks with a Danish/Scandinavian aesthetic, with hints of the Southwest, a reflection of her study and travels there.
After moving back to Montana several years ago, she hunted for a physical space and "jumped on" the spot on West Front Street formerly occupied by the Laurel Creek clothing boutique.
Besides her own work, which earned her a spot on a Top 10 list from USA Today, she'll carrying work from about 70 creators, many from Montana.
"About a year ago I started carrying other designer and artisan works from people I've met from all over the world from being in the art scene and just in the interior design world," she said.
Sharp grew up in the Flathead Valley and Salt Lake City. She started studying at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago with plans to be an oil painter. After a detour into experimental sound art, the lifelong knitter discovered the fiber arts department. She'd never seen a loom before, but after one class fell in love with the art. The program, one of the few of its kind, taught students the basics and then pushed them toward conceptual art.
Sharp "became a hard-core weaver, making woven installations and having gallery shows, and then it turned into textiles. People were stopping me on the street asking where I got my scarves and my hats that I just made for myself, and that's how Aporta was born," she said.
She founded the shop in 2012 as an online store and has built a client base all over. She makes commissioned fabric pieces for clients such as hotels and private homes. The storefront shows off some art pieces she designed in Photoshop and made with a computerized loom. She also makes geometric paintings and the textile equivalent, and is represented by galleries ArtSpace and Prime Eight Art League.
The shop will also act as a workshop space for various kinds of makers. She'll teach Icelandic knitting and weaving. Navajo weavers are lined up to teach a multi-day workshop. Other topics include floral design, such as wreath-making and crown-making, plus human design and tarot readings and book-making workshops. She's thinking about in-shop residencies in the future.
Last year, she started carrying other designers and makers, mostly independent one-person or family outfits she's connected with. The products range from Turkish scarves, handmade ponchos, salves, goat-milk soap (each bar has the goat's name on it), ceramic bells, ritual candles, pointed Moroccan slippers and notebooks.
Her art and career has taken her all over since finishing school: California, Utah, the Navajo Nation in the Southwest, plus major cities like Manhattan and Detroit.
And Iceland. Drawn by her Scandinavian roots to the glacial mecca, Sharp traveled to Iceland to study the country's particular style of knitting and weaving.
"I lived on a sheep farm up in the highlands in a little village on a geothermal lake," she said. Only a handful of people spoke English, and she learned their style and learned about the sourcing. (She imports wool for her work now.)
Icelanders are famous for their Lopi sweaters and recognizable patterns. The most distinct feature is the wool: The country has strong laws about imports for agriculture, and "so their sheep have been genetically the same since the Vikings," she said, meaning it's the only wool of its kind, and is very warm and suitable for Montana. "They wear their sweaters like coats," she said.
Her fall line, coming out in September, will have 10 different styles of scarves, woven bandannas, beanies and more. It's sourced from Iceland, Wyoming and Whitefish.
During her workshops, people will be able to make beanies and sweaters, and people can try weaving with the wool themselves. Students can learn the basics and then practice at home on a small loom before they decide to invest in a large-scale one.
Her shop has two Gilmore looms right in the display windows, which seemed to be drawing eyes from pedestrians, as intended.
She hopes people feel free to come and try it. Some people are satisfied after a few minutes, and others dive in.