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Creative entrepreneurs: U of M program helps rural artists learn to manage complex careers

Little Falls artist Heidi Jeub visiting with a guest at an exhibition of her work in St. Cloud.
MinnPost photo by Gregg Aamot
Little Falls artist Heidi Jeub visiting with a guest at an exhibition of her work in St. Cloud.

On a cold January night inside a St. Cloud art gallery, Little Falls artist Heidi Jeub shared an exhibit of paintings that she titled “Remote: An Abstract Response to Rural Flight.”  

The odd shapes and bold colors of the works were nothing like the scenes of tired Main Street buildings or rusting tractors that so often depict the rural experience (though the canvas with gray streaks on a white expanse sure gave off the feeling of a cold Minnesota winter).  

Of course, that was the point. Rather than reinforcing accepted notions about rural life, Jeub’s work challenges viewers to consider its complexity – something she knows about as a single mother and artist living in a small town.  

Her job titles, for instance, have included painter, art teacher, nonprofit director, public artist. And she’s not opposed to adding “Uber driver” to that list if need be. “I became a bit of a Renaissance person just because of my remote location,” she said.

One constant: her love of place and her commitment to promoting the arts in the nooks and crannies of central Minnesota. “Contemporary artists are in rural spaces,” she said.

A rural artist’s living

In Caledonia, in the far southeastern corner of the state, Melissa Wray runs the arts-and-culture center Mainspring out of an old Presbyterian church. Recent events at the center have included a vintage and makers market, a concert (by the Minneapolis act The Nunnery), and an arts-and-crafts day.

Jeub and Wray survive like many rural artists in today’s gig economy – selling their work, writing grant proposals, snaring public or corporate projects and often holding down other part-time work. It’s the kind of life that requires a unique skill set – and, in their cases, a decided determination in the face of popular notions about rural decline.  

Caledonia artist Melissa Wray
Courtesy of the University of Minnesota’s College of Continuing and Professional Studies
Caledonia artist Melissa Wray
Both women recently studied at the University of Minnesota’s College of Continuing and Professional Studies, graduating with master’s degrees in Arts and Cultural Leadership. They graduated a year apart, returning to their respective rural communities with the hopes of applying what they learned in their various endeavors.  

Their favorite classes included a few that might seem out of place for a couple of artsy types: finance and entrepreneurship. But they provided the kind of insight that the women needed.

Jeub recalled a scenario from a few years ago, when she was hired to be the lead artist on a project to reimagine the site of a deadly paper mill explosion in Sartell. The experience fueled her interest in learning more about the management side of the arts. (That Sartell project can be viewed here).

“It was eye opening in terms of what my skills were prior to that point and how managing a public art project is not just about the art piece,” she said. “You negotiate with the city, you negotiate with workers, you tell stories and you tell them delicately and try to understand the systems around those stories.”

Life among the bluffs

Wray lives in the thriving arts and culture scene in southeastern Minnesota – in the bluff country that made the small towns of Lanesboro and Preston tourist destinations. (A farmer in nearby Spring Grove recently added a distillery to that town’s attractions, as chronicled in this MinnPost piece). 

Wray lived in Minneapolis for 13 years before moving back to Caledonia, where she grew up.  While she was a student at the university, Wray landed an artists’ residency in Houston County, an initiative that gave her a chance to study small communities and to think about, as she put it, “what makes them thrive.” Her sister recently joined her, moving from New York City with her family and opening a coffee shop in town.

Besides her work at Mainspring, Wray is also involved with a podcast called Minnepod – an example of how artists are harnessing technology in an effort to stay locally connected and vibrant. (One recent episode looked at the state of dairy farming, another at the impact of flooding in the region in 2007).

True to their roots

Jeub recently received a McKnight Foundation grant to build a portable art studio – the Tiny School of Art and Design, as she calls it – that she plans to use to bring art to students and families in the Little Falls area.

Meanwhile, in Caledonia, Wray said she feels “a sense of urgency,” exemplified by some new restaurants and shops. She wants to be a part of it.

“There are a million versions of me in the (Twin Cities) doing this kind of work,” she said.  “There aren’t as many people here willing to do that.”

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