CALEDONIA, Minnesota – It took a creatively driven New Caledonian to find a way to breathe more art into the rural community she grew up 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 to the rural community of Caledonia and Houston County. .
Mainspring has also given new life to Main Street in Caledonia, in the form of a former church that is now used as a community space offering shows, events and classes for all ages in Houston County.
According to its website, Mainspring’s programming is intended to “boost community bonds, celebrate the creative arts, spark new ideas, and enhance the economic vitality of Houston County.”
The start of Mainspring coincides with Wray’s return to Caledonia after living in the Twin Cities for over a decade. The decision was made after consulting with what she calls her “Rural Art Friends”, made up of people close to her age who grew up in the area and found the opportunity to connect through the lacked art.
“We dreamed of this rural arts organization that could work in our small hometowns,” Wray said.
The organization is housed in what was once a Presbyterian church on Main Street in Caledonia. It ceased to function as a church in the 1980s when the congregation folded, Wray said, and the site changed hands in the 1990s from a local nonprofit to the Houston County Historical Society. .
Wray, whose mother works for the historical society, said it was mainly used for storage apart from an annual book sale. But the historical society was tired of selling with the possibility of the historic and unique building being razed.
“They kind of thought they’d like to put it in someone else’s hands, but they wanted someone to use it and bring it to life,” Wray said.
Since moving into the space, Mainspring has made renovations like building a handicap-accessible entrance and adding a downstairs bathroom. Otherwise, Wray said they just liked the features of the building.
“We have beautiful blue and red geometric stained glass in there, and there are these beautiful high ceilings that provide great sound for events,” she said. “It really feels like a cozy community space.”
Mainspring was open for about six months before the pandemic hit, which brought a lot of programming to a halt. But Wray said some of their main events like concerts, craft paloozas and vintage markets have continued.
“Our vintage and maker marketplace has been going on for a few years, which brings together a lot of really phenomenal makers in the community to sell their wares,” Wray said. “But we’ve just done a bit of everything – and we’ve also partnered with our local library here in Caledonia to do youth programs that we’ve been offering virtually during the pandemic.”
Wray said that for the art to feel truly accessible to rural communities, it takes the effort of a group like Mainspring. And she said there was a hunger for it.
“I think the common narrative is that rural communities lack arts and culture, but I kind of like to push that away because even though we’re not going to have the same access to arts and culture as the big cities, I think arts and culture are inherent in a lot of things around us and in everyday life,” Wray said.
She used quilts as an example of rural art that is not often claimed or celebrated.
“Quilts have been made for so many generations, and they’re beautiful handcrafted items in families – and then you have barn quilts, and it’s like a new transformation happening here in farm buildings “Wray said. “A lot of these quilt makers wouldn’t necessarily consider themselves artists, but I absolutely do. And so I think part of our job in rural communities is to celebrate what’s already there. Besides, well sure to hopefully bring new perspectives and art that drives conversation and community growth.”
The intersection of agriculture and art is something that interests Wray and has inspired Mainspring. She said that a “scarcity mindset” is almost necessary to work in either field.
“I absolutely think there’s a lot of crossover there,” Wray said of farming and art. “These kind of intersections are really exciting.”
The size of a community shouldn’t regulate how the people in it can connect with each other, Wray said.
“The arts always come to that kind of human experience in a way that I think does it more efficiently and faster than a lot of other avenues,” Wray said. “And so in the pandemic, when we’re socially distant and not sure what we can or can’t do, I think art has this unifying piece that can really connect to a common human experience. “