Located in a former Presbyterian church, Mainspring serves as an event space, bringing a community of people together over art. (Submitted photo)
Mainspring: building community through art
Mainspring / noun / ˈmain·spring /: Something that plays a principal part in motivating or maintaining a movement, process, or activity.
CALEDONIA – Much has been written about the out migration of youth from rural towns to the big city, but less about their return home.
“You Can’t Go Home Again” Thomas Wolfe wrote in his novel by the same name, claiming that nostalgia for the past can’t be relived again. Melissa Wray moved back to Caledonia after 13 years in the Twin Cities, armed with work and life experiences and a pocketful of ideas. And a determination to have an impact on her community through art.
Melissa grew up on a sheep farm near Caledonia, but it wasn’t until she went off to college that she was exposed to art.
An English major, with a minor in Mass Communications, at the University of Minnesota, she took classes in art history, ceramics and drawing. After graduation Melissa got a job at Northrop Auditorium, which exposed her to a wide range of performance art, including drama, music and dance.
A few years later, Melissa landed a job at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis in what she called “her dream job as a writer”. The Loft offers would-be writers classes, tutors, and opportunities to develop their craft. She started first in marketing but later was in charge of Community Partnerships. At the same time she finished a masters degree in Art and Cultural Leadership at the University.
The 2016 election was a catalyst for moving back to her hometown. “The national narrative was about the rural and urban divide. I loved both places. I had a supportive community in the Twin Cities, but felt I could have a greater impact for making change if I moved home.”
While in the cities, Melissa and her sister Amanda, started an online literary community called Hazel & Wren, where a network of writers could share their work and receive useful feedback.
“It was here that I got my appetite for community organizing and knew I wanted to do something similar in Caledonia,” Melissa said. “Using art and culture to make community.”
Like many social entrepreneurs, Wray saw how creating a sense of community can bring people of all backgrounds together. So, in 2019, when a Presbyterian church on Main Street in Caledonia became available, Mainspring was born. It quickly became a place for celebrating the arts.
One of the first projects included publishing the Mainspring Community Cookbook, made up of 160 recipes from people in the Driftless Region. The organization also hosted Mainspring Vintage & Makers Market and a live music event.
Melissa has taken some lessons from other small town art organizations, like Lanesboro Arts in Fillmore County, but sees Mainspring evolving in its own unique way.
“Lanesboro has a 40-year history of art programming, and has developed a strong community base of support,” Melissa said. “But Caledonia and Houston County are different communities, and we expect to evolve and develop our own community identity.”
Youth Art Collective
The pandemic disrupted programming, but a 2023 grant from the Southeastern Minnesota Art Council enabled Mainspring to create a Youth Art Collective (YAC).
Mainspring will host a free monthly gathering where teen artists can do hands-on art projects, learn from professional artists, and co-create programming and events. All art materials and snacks will be provided.
Instruction will be led by professional artist and educator Mary Beth Magyar. Magyar has decades of experience working with teens in schools all over the United States.
Magyar is the creator of smallärt, a series of mini galleries similar in size and stature to a Free Little Library. These galleries allow a low cost entry point for emerging artists, and offer the public a free and accessible way to view a variety of art. Through the program, YAC teens will work with Magyar to install a smallärt gallery in Caledonia!
Mainspring hopes to revive Reverie, a multi-disciplinary art event, first hosted before the pandemic. Reverie involves two genres of art–music and dance–performing together. It will also host the Mainspring Community Quilt Project, an ongoing set of classes, makers circles, and community quilt opportunities. More information is available on Mainspring’s programming web page.
Busy as a Bee
When Wray moved back to Caledonia, she wasn’t sure how things would work out. She soon landed a part-time programming position at Lanesboro Arts, while at the same time she was slowly bringing Mainspring to life. Today, she might be one of the busiest human beings around.
She is a full-time Program Director at Lanesboro Arts; the recipient of a two-year Rural Regenerator Fellowship from Springboard for the Arts; the Caledonia Chamber of Commerce president; and Director of Mainspring.
Melissa balances all of these obligations with lessons learned at the knees of her parents, Deb and Charlie, who owned a large animal veterinarian clinic in Caledonia. Her siblings are equal to the task as well. Her brother David is rehabbing a building in town for a possible brewery, while sister Amanda and her husband Jeremiah own and operate the The Wired Rooster Coffee Shoppe. Her twin, Michael, is one of her biggest supporters at Mainspring.
Mainspring is still in its infancy, relying primarily on volunteers.
Melissa hopes to build the organization up so that down the road she can hand it off to someone who can take it to the next level.
“Who knows what Mainspring will look like 10 years from now,” she said. “It’s exciting to think about.”
Mainspring is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to providing arts and cultural experiences to the residents and visitors of southeast Minnesota.
John Torgrimson is the editor of the Root River Current.