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The organizer: Millie Engisch-Morris cultivates a Brainerd arts scene

BRAINERD, Minn. — Over the past year alone, under Engisch-Morris’s leadership, The Crossing Arts Alliance has had a hand in organizing or promoting more than two dozen events.

Millie Engisch-Morris, the artistic director of the Crossing Arts Alliance in Brainerd, in the organization’s gallery and gift shop.
MinnPost photo by Gregg Aamot

While covering important events in our civic and cultural life, journalists typically focus on facts, controversies, issues and their impact. They rarely look through the lens of understanding leaders and leadership: who is leading the causes and creating change, how those leaders were motivated to tackle tough problems and create opportunities for their communities, and how they worked through the challenges that arose.

In this series, “Driving Change: A Lens on Leadership,” MinnPost is profiling such leaders in order to provide new insights — and, we hope in some cases, inspiration — for our readers. Each profile is paired with comments from experts and scholars. (See x) The project is made possible by a grant from the Bush Foundation.

BRAINERD, Minn. — On Jan. 12, three dozen people, braving icy roads and a bitter Minnesota wind, turned out for a writer’s workshop at the Franklin Arts Center, gathering in a converted junior high classroom where two sisters discussed their memoir of young life on a dairy farm.

It looked like the daylong event might fall through when people began to call and cancel, saying they couldn’t make it because of the nasty weather. But the waiting list of literary enthusiasts was long enough that the women, Candace Simar and Angela F. Foster, read from “Farm Girls” to a full house.

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For would-be writers and book lovers in this central Minnesota town, a gathering of like-minded souls in the pursuit of a literary experience was not to be missed.

“It was really great,” said Millie Engisch-Morris, the artistic director of the Crossing Arts Alliance, a nonprofit organization that sponsored the event. “Normally, people would have to go to St. Cloud or Duluth or probably Minneapolis for something like this. So it was a really nice option.”

Since 2009, Engisch-Morris has been working to create artistic options of all kinds – from exhibits to concerts to summer art camps – in a region of Minnesota that is best-known for ice fishing and big resorts but also home to a wide range of artists and craftsmen.

Asked about this creative milieu, Engisch-Morris said: “There is just something about being around the water and in the woods that is energizing, I think. It brings out the creativity in people.”

An unlikely hub

The Crossing Arts Alliance, which was created in 2000, is housed at the Franklin Arts Center, a reimagined junior high school that nearly met the demolisher’s ball.

After a new middle school opened in town in 2005, the two-story brownstone sat empty in an east Brainerd neighborhood, just north of U.S. Highway 210, among densely clustered homes from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

franklin arts center brownstone
MinnPost photo by Gregg Aamot
The Franklin Arts Center in Brainerd is a reimagined junior high school that first opened in 1932.

Today, thanks to a group of artists, civic boosters and educators who pushed for its preservation, the school is an artist’s colony of sorts, comprising apartments, studios and galleries. A few tenants are essentially “artists-in-residence” who live in apartments on the second floor and hone their craft in studios on the first. Artspace, headquarted in Minneapolis, owns and manages the building.

In essence, the center has become the improbable hub of a re-energized local arts scene that includes the work of painters, sculptors, pottery and jewelry makers, writers and others.

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“This area is full of visual artists and literary artists and poets, and when we opened up, we were really excited that all the arts could be represented here,” said Evelyn Matthies, a retired Central Lakes College art instructor who displays her paintings and gives lessons at her studio in the Franklin Arts Center. “We feel it’s been successful, even though it’s still very new.”

Evelyn Matthies portrait
MinnPost photo by Gregg Aamot
Retired Central Lakes College art instructor Evelyn Matthies is pictured in her gallery at the Franklin Arts Center. The painting in the background is of a scene in the city of Holbaek, Denmark.

Over the past year alone, under Engisch-Morris’s leadership, the Crossing Arts Alliance has had a hand in organizing or promoting more than two dozen events, some at The Franklin Arts Center and others at venues in small towns around Brainerd. The events include the Flipside Summer Art Camp; the Nisswa Stamman Scandinavian Folkmusic Festival; Artists on Deck (at the Gull Lake Yacht Club); and a popular 55-and-over production known as “The Geritol Frolics.”

Tuesday Sampler: Taste of the Arts

Engisch-Morris has also helped to develop a late-summer event known as the Tuesday Sampler: Taste of the Arts, a weekly showcase of a local artist’s work that is coupled with a farmers market on the Franklin Arts Center’s grounds.

One highly anticipated annual event is Salute to the Arts, a juried exhibition for local artists who display work that they have created over the last year but have yet to display publicly. This year, all kinds of art will be displayed – paintings, photographs, pottery, writing pieces, even music selections – for about a month beginning in June; a poetry reading will kick off the opening reception.

It’s an important exhibit for artists like Greg Rosenberg, a popular stained glass maker and copper sculptor who runs the Shining Light Studio in The Franklin Arts Center.

“The one thing I really like about this event is that it is fresh and new,” Engisch-Morris said. “Greg is already working on something new for Salute because he likes to be challenged to do something new and different.”

The big picture

The drive north on U.S. Highway 371 to Brainerd is a gradual journey from plains to forest, from farm fields bordering the highway to stands of towering pine trees that nearly reach the road. Brainerd, itself, seems buried in deep woods, a large village on the cusp of the Whitefish Chain of Lakes, one of the state’s best-known and most physically attractive tourist regions.

At the Franklin Arts Center on a snowy late February morning, Engisch-Morris has just returned to her office after visiting with one of the artists in a studio. She is dressed stylishly in black leggings and boots and a black blouse. A white scarf completes the outfit – and helps to keep out the cold. (“I don’t like winter anymore,” she said).

Engisch-Morris wears many hats as the creative inspiration of The Crossing Arts Alliance: grant writer, fundraiser, goodwill ambassador, artist. In the last year alone, she has written at least a dozen grant requests and made her share of appearances before organizations like Rotary, Nisswa Women of Today and Alpha Delta Kappa, rarely turning down a chance to promote the local arts scene and the work being done at The Franklin Arts Center.

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She has also helped to recruit 450 paid members of the alliance and regularly reaches out to local businesses for sponsorships – the kind of necessary begging that she would rather not do.

Vicki Chepulis, the grants coordinator for the Five Wings Arts Council, an arts support agency in Staples, said Engisch-Morris is “at the top of the list” when it comes to people who are working to bring arts to the region.

“She sees the big picture. Franklin has really become the hub under her leadership,” Chepulis said. She added: “She is very smart and tuned in to what the community needs and is looking for. She just has a way of engaging a lot of people and making them feel they are important. And she can talk about so many art forms: media, visual, performing arts. That’s so important in her role.”

Beauty in the local

Engisch-Morris was born in Japan to a Japanese mother and an American father from Superior, Wis. When she was in kindergarten, her family moved to Brainerd, where she grew up and graduated from high school. She went to St. Cloud State University and lived in St. Cloud for about a decade; otherwise, Brainerd has been her lifelong home.

Engisch-Morris has spent many vacations roaming the world’s great cities – New York, Chicago, Tokyo, London, Instanbul, Rome. She is a fan of art and architecture, rarely passing up a chance to visit museums or explore great buildings on these trips. Yet some of her favorite explorations have been of the art in public spaces, such as Bernini’s fountains in Rome.

In February, Engisch-Morris, who is married and has two children, traveled to New York, where she visited her son, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren – and managed, of course, to fit in a trip to the Museum of Modern Art. She had a chance to see a favorite painting: the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch’s iconic “The Scream.” (Asked what it was like to see the original, she said: “I thought, ‘Oh, well, here it is,’” she said with a shrug and a laugh. It just didn’t have the vivid colors that she had imagined.)

She returned to small-town Minnesota energized, as is often the case, and with a renewed appreciation for the uniqueness and beauty of the local.

“You know, when you are away from Brainerd and then come back, you look around and it’s … so flat!” she said.

She was browsing on Facebook shortly after she returned and noticed a link to some images of courthouses in Texas. “It made me realize that I just love our courthouse here in Brainerd, and I had never really thought about it before. It is really beautiful and I just appreciate those things.”

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Engisch-Morris once applied for a research grant – and got the money – to plan an unusual piece of public art herself: projected images of fish flopping on the bowl of Brainerd’s flashlight-shaped cement water tower. She hasn’t given up on the idea and hopes, some Fourth of July, to see fish splashing on the tower, framed by fireworks exploding into the Minnesota sky.

Leaving a Legacy

In 2008, Minnesota voters passed the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment, a state constitutional amendment designed to generate a consistent source of funds for the protection and promotion of both the natural environment and the unique culture of Minnesota. It’s essentially a 25-year sales tax for a fund that supports an array of loosely related pursuits; about 20 percent of the revenue is used for arts activities like education and cultural heritage protection, according to the Legacy fund’s website.

Chepulis said the Five Wings Arts Council is giving out three to four times the amount of grant money that it distributed each year before the Legacy amendment was passed. “What I was so stunned about after having moved here from the Fargo-Moorhead area is how engaged people are in so much arts and cultural activity, and a lot of that is due to (the) Legacy (amendment),” she said.

Engisch-Morris has made sure that The Crossing Arts Alliance has capitalized on the fund. The alliance has an annual budget of roughly $130,000 – about a third of which comes from Legacy amendment funding (much of the rest comes from donations and charitable gambling).

“It’s huge. It’s absolutely huge,” she said of the amendment’s local impact. In early March, Engisch-Morris and other arts advocates planned to pay a visit to the state Capitol. What would be her message to any lawmaker willing to listen? 

“Just how much (the Legacy funding source) means to our community and how thankful we are and how it affects a lot of people – not just artists but art appreciators, too,” she said.

The artist as organizer

The brick and stone entrance of the Franklin Art Center, at the intersection of Kingwood St. and North 10th St., is bordered by massive pine trees. A statue of a bull painted with a fierce grin in a mess of colors stands guard.

MinnPost photo by Gregg Aamot
The sitting area of the Franklin Arts Center
currently showcases a work by Brainerd native
and environmental artist Robert Mansfield.

The entry opens to a sitting area whose centerpiece is another unusual work – colored metal of various shapes flowering upward, by Brainerd native and environmental artist Robert Mansfield.

Dark wood, arched doorways and smooth floors speckled with colored stone appear to have changed little since the building opened in 1932. The classrooms, however, have been transformed into galleries and studios, with banners and flags that announce their names: Shining Light Studio; Franklin Pottery; Kid Venture; Art Matters; The Q Gallery; The Finishing Stitch (where quilts are sewed); RedHouse Media.

Engisch-Morris said an immediate goal is to increase foot traffic to the center itself, something that waxes and wanes along with Minnesota’s seasons.

“Part of being an artist is to be financially stable, but not a lot can actually make a living at it. It’s the lucky few who can do that while many others need help to sell their work,” she said. “Artists aren’t always the greatest at marketing their own work, so one thing we can do is try to help them to do that.” 

When she isn’t planning events or working on ideas with artists, Engisch-Morris is often tucked over a stack of papers, writing a grant proposal. “It’s the least favorite part of my job. You really have to concentrate and pay attention to detail and I’m not really a numbers kind of person. So, for me, it takes a lot of discipline,” she said.

She thought for a moment and added: “I end up doing a lot of that at home because I can’t take distraction, but then I have to make the cats go outside. Yeah, even the cats are a distraction.”

As an artist herself, Engisch-Morris has done a lot of acrylic painting. Currently, she is sculpting contemporary figures out of aluminum, working out of a friend’s roomy airplane hangar at the Brainerd airport, where she keeps a plasma cutter, a bender and other tools.

But only when she has the time. During an interview with MinnPost, in the sitting area of the Franklin Arts Center, she began to explain an upcoming event when Matthies, the former college teacher, walked by, stopped and interrupted the conversation.

She pointed at Engisch-Morris and said, “She’s a hard worker.”  Then, gesturing with her arms wide and looking about, as if to take in all of the surroundings, she added: “She is the best thing to happen to the Franklin Arts Center.”