Nancie McCormish is pictured with her horse Zekemoouse at her farm near Steamboat Springs, Colorado. (Photo submitted)
Cornucopia: The Birth of the Lanesboro Arts Gallery
Editor’s Note: The Current Interview is a recurring series of conversations with individuals who have had a positive impact on area communities.
LANESBORO — In 1879, barely ten years after the town of Lanesboro was established, in the brick building at what is now 103 Parkway Avenue was a general store. People walked in daily to purchase everyday fare like dry goods, fabric, household items, and more. Today, thousands of people each year go into that same building—now the Lanesboro Arts Gallery—to experience (and buy) art in varied and colorful expressions. Next month—July 13-15th—a series of special events will celebrate the 30th birthday of the Gallery, now serving as a special arm of Lanesboro Arts, a nationally-known and respected rural arts organization.
The Lanesboro Arts Gallery was started in a small, quiet way by a small group of people. It’s an inspiring story (that fits a bunch of artists, right?) and there’s no one better to tell it than Nancie McCormish who played a key role in that small group. Root River Current recently asked Nancie (now living near Steamboat Springs, Colorado) to reflect on the Gallery’s birth and early days. What follows is edited portion of our conversation.
Root River Current (RRC): How did the Lanesboro Arts Gallery come to be?
Nancie McCormish (NM): In the early 1990s a number of artists living in Lanesboro were forming friendships and community. We wanted to share our art and began brainstorming about how to do that. In 1993 we used donated storefront spaces in town to display our work, including at the old cheese factory building (later the site of the Commonweal Theater). I painted a mural depicting a team of draft horses in the front window and people began to notice.
RRC: How did you personally get involved in art in Lanesboro?
NM: I grew up in Colorado, spent time in Alaska, then moved here in 1990 and started a graphic design business. I’d always been a creative person but I remember going to a Commonweal play one night where for five bucks I sat in the front row and saw “Macbeth” and was exposed to live theater for the first time in my life. It inspired me to dream about possibilities of sharing art here. But the death of my brother became the driving force of those dreams.
RRC: Tell us more about that.
NM: My younger brother, Bill, then 33, was in a terrible car accident near Bemidji. He was hit head-on at 50 miles-per-hour and ended up hospitalized for eight months in a full body cast. I was with him daily and tried to help him find courage to make it through. Later I learned he had an alcohol problem as well that complicated things. He did not make it. After he died I came back to my home here on Torkelson Creek feeling completely drained. I tried to make sense of it all and returned to that old cliché. “When life gives you a lemon, make lemonade.” My brother’s passing was the lemon. What good could come out of that? What might be the lemonade?
RRC: How did you answer that question?
NM: I realized that I did not know my brother’s demons, I would never know. But I sensed that he had never really discovered an outlet for what was inside him. He never found a way to express his gifts and talents. I wanted to help people do that in their lives. I decided to put energy into creating a local nonprofit art center where that could happen. That would be the lemonade. I didn’t know how to do that. I had no managerial experience. I had never served on a nonprofit board. But I started working on it to honor my brother’s memory. I pictured the organization as an umbrella encompassing many people and projects, a place that would allow whatever was in people to come out. My mother’s financial support became seed money. Soon we started a nonprofit artist co-op and called it “Cornucopia.”
RRC: Where did that name come from?
NM: One of our original board members, Christine Zinni, came up with it; it was a word that encompassed an all-inclusive sustenance, nourishment, and beauty. Those qualities described what we were feeling and wanted it to be. It fit well.
RRC: What did the early efforts of “Cornucopia” look like?
NM: It was all volunteer. We found small storefront places in town where people would let us put some pictures and other art-work up. We did a few small exhibits and shows and tried our hand at promotion. When the Parkway building came up for sale we got very excited but didn’t have any money! I contacted the owner who lived in Texas who was planning to live upstairs. I told him renting the downstairs to us as a nonprofit would provide him a tax benefit and he went for it. It was wonderful and offered a perfect little gallery space!
RRC: What impact did it have on local artists?
NM: The Gallery became a real spark of energy for local artists. It helped create community. We started fundraising like crazy and got some little grants to host wine-and-cheese parties, musical performances, even square dances at the Sons of Norway! Those gave us traction. Cornucopia’s gallery gave people a chance to meet, talk, network, and mutually inspire each other. A display of knitted Norwegian textiles connected with the local community, of course, but it went beyond just Lanesboro. We had people contacting us about displaying art from all around the region, even from Chicago. We focused on highlighting local, indigenous, folk art. We welcomed amazing, brilliant work! It brought people together in all kinds of fun and inspiring ways! Little by little the entire community sensed that something special was going on here.
RRC: How did your board decide what art would be in the Gallery?
NM: We sought rural-focused art from southeastern Minnesota and adjacent communities in Iowa, Wisconsin, and the Dakotas. We wanted to give a voice to rural people who didn’t normally have opportunities to share their work. It wasn’t difficult getting submissions. We had oil paintings, water colors, bronzes, woodworking, photography, textiles, sculptures. High quality was a priority; all work was juried from the beginning. Brilliant pieces came in and provided wonderful exposure to local artists. The work of one local potter became very collectible when a Chicago art lover began purchasing much of her work. Many artists were encouraged, nurtured and inspired here.
RRC: You served on the Cornucopia Arts Center board for three years as its president in the early 1990s. As you look back on those early days and see how the Art Center (and Gallery) have grown, what feelings do you have?
NM: I feel very good about all of this. I am proud of what we were able to do. I believe my brother’s memory was honored. My mom was very close to him, too, and the part she played in helping us get started is special to me. It all makes me think of a poem I love called “Go to the Limits of Your Longing,” by Rainer Maria Rilke:
God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.
These are the words we dimly hear:
You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Flare up like a flame
and make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand.
I think we “made big shadows” in Lanesboro. We made places where people could move, create, grow and learn. I feel very good about that.
And from there…
Nancie McCormish moved away from Lanesboro in 1999. In 2009 the members of the Cornucopia Art Center and the Lanesboro Art Council voted to merge the two organizations into the “Lanesboro Arts.” The programs of the Center include the Juried Sales Art Gallery, the Exhibition Gallery, the performance calendar of the St. Mane Theater, Art in the Park, and other programs and special events that aim to fulfill its mission of serving as a “…regional catalyst for artistic excellence and educational development in providing diverse art experiences for people of all ages.”
30th Anniversary Celebration Events:
- 30th Gallery Anniversary Canvas Clash
July 13 @ 6:30-8:30 p.m.
Sylvan Brewing (Lanesboro)
- 30th Gallery Anniversary Reception
July 15 @ 5:00-7:00 p.m.
Lanesboro Arts Gallery
- 30th Gallery Anniversary After-Hours Celebration
July 15 @ 7:00-9:00 p.m.
High Court Pub Back River Deck
For more information, visit Lanesboro Arts.
Steve Harris, with his wife, Sue, is a former Lanesboro innkeeper, and is a freelance writer and the author of the book Lanesboro, Minnesota.