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Setting the stage for rural art

Melissa Wray, founder and director of Mainspring, returned to her rural roots after a decade of living in the Twin Cities to start the community organization with a mission to make more creative space available for the rural community of Caledonia and Houston County.

The three-piece folk band Humbird performs for an audience at an outdoor concert in Caledonia, Minnesota, in July 2021.
The band Humbird performs for an audience at an outdoor concert in Caledonia in July 2021.
Contributed / Kallie Rollenhagen
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CALEDONIA, Minn. — It took a creatively driven Caledonia-native to cook up a way to infuse more art into the rural community she was raised in.

Melissa Wray, founder and director of Mainspring, returned to her rural roots after living in the Twin Cities to start the community organization with a mission to make more creative space available for the rural community of Caledonia and Houston County.

Mainspring has also brought to Main Street in Caledonia new life, in the form of an old church that is now used for community space offering performances, events and classes for all ages in Houston County.

According to its website, Mainspring programming is meant to "spur community connections, celebrate creative arts, spark new ideas, and enhance Houston County’s economic vitality."

The start of Mainspring coincides with Wray moving back to Caledonia after living in the Twin Cities for over a decade. The decision came after consulting with what she calls her "rural art friends," consisting of people close to her age who grew up in the area, and found the opportunity to connect through art to be lacking.

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"We were dreaming about this rural arts organization that could function in our small hometowns," said Wray.

Bringing new life

The organization is housed in what used to be a Presbyterian Church on Main Street in Caledonia. It stopped functioning as a church in the '80s when the congregation folded, said Wray, and the site changed hands in the '90s from a local nonprofit to the Houston County Historical Society.

Wray, whose mom works for the historical society, said it was used mostly for storage aside from an annual book sale. But the historical society was weary to sell with the possibility of the historic and unique building being razed.

"They were kind of thinking they'd like to move it into someone else's hands, but wanted that to be someone who would use it and bring it to life," said Wray.

Since moving into the space, Mainspring made renovations like building a handicap accessible entrance and adding a bathroom on the main floor. Otherwise, Wray said they are just enjoying the features of the building.

"We have beautiful blue and red geometric stained glass windows in there, and there's these nice high ceilings that make for some great sound for events," she said. "It really does feel like a cozy community space."

The Nunnery performs inside an old Presbyterian church in downtown Caledonia, which is now being used by Mainspring to hold performances and art events for the community.
The Nunnery performs inside the old Presbyterian church in downtown Caledonia, which is now being used by Mainspring to hold performances and art events for the community.
Contributed / Kallie Rollenhagen

Mainspring was open for about six months before the pandemic started, which threw off a lot of programming. But Wray said some of their main events like concerts, craft paloozas and vintage markets have continued.

"Our vintage and makers market has a couple years now in the running, which brings a lot of really phenomenal makers from the community together to sell their wares," said Wray. "But we've just done a little bit of everything — and also partner with our local library here in Caledonia to do some youth programs that we've offered virtually through the pandemic."

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Art in rural life

Wray said for art to really feel accessible to rural communities, it takes the effort of a group like Mainspring. And she said there's a hunger for it.

"I think the common narrative is that rural communities lack arts and culture, but I kind of like to push back against that, because while we're not going to have the same arts and culture access of larger cities do, I think arts and culture are inherent in a lot of things just around us and daily life," said Wray.

She used quilts as an example of rural artistry that isn't often claimed or celebrated.

"Quilts have been made for so many generations, and are these beautiful, handcrafted objects in families — and then you've got barn quilts, and it's like a new transformation happening here in farm buildings," said Wray. "A lot of those quilt makers wouldn't necessarily think of themselves as artists, but I absolutely do. And so I think some of our work in rural communities is to celebrate what is already here. In addition to of course, hopefully bringing in some new perspectives and art that pushes community conversation and growth."

The intersection of farming and art is something that interests Wray and inspired Mainspring. She said a "scarcity mindset" is almost required to work in either of the fields.

"I absolutely think that there's a lot of crossover there," said Wray of farming and art. "Those kind of intersections are really exciting."

The size of a community shouldn't regulate how the people in it are able to connect with each other, said Wray.

"Arts always get to that kind of human experience in a way that I think it does it in a more effective and quicker way than a lot of other routes," said Wray. "And so in the pandemic, when we're socially distanced, and we are so unsure of what we can or can't do, I think art has that unifying piece that can really connect to some common human experience."

Related Topics: RURAL LIFEAGRICULTUREART
Noah Fish is a multimedia journalist who creates print, online and TV content for Agweek. He's also the host of the Agweek Podcast.

While covering agriculture he's earned awards for his localized reporting on the 2018 trade war, and breaking news coverage of a fifth-generation dairy farm that was forced to sell its herd when a barn roof collapsed in the winter of 2019. His reporting focuses on the intersection of agriculture, food and culture.

He reports out of Rochester, Minnesota, and can be reached at nfish@agweek.com
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