Cimarron Corpé quickly caught the attention of coffee-enthusiasts and Houston County residents during his weeklong visit to the southeastern Minnesota community in September.
He generally sat at a table with giant fuzzy headphones on, often sparking interest.
“It’s always exciting to travel to a new region and see everything as exotic, but when you travel to a smaller community, you get to be down on the ground and engage with local folks,” Corpé said.
Corpé was one of four citizen artists in the Crystal Creek Lodge Citizen-Artist Residency, an experimental program that brought artists to Houston County to create work based on the unique personalities and beauty of the area. Four artists were scheduled to spend three individual weeks in the county in 2017— with the exception of citizen-artists Todd Melby and Melissa Wray, who worked collaboratively on their projects.
With a $445 donation by the program’s partner Houston Arts Resource Council, a Tri-County Electric’s MiEnergy $500 grant and a $3,000 donation from the Southeast Minnesota Arts Council, the artists are expected to create their own form of inspirational work while also attending a community meet-and-greet and a community workshop.
Corpé, of Victoria, Canada, has experience in geography and multimedia artistry. His interests often focus on landscapes and the role sound and images play in our spatial orientation and construction of place.
“Artists often incorporate a sense of place through their work. It can be very personal, but it could also be shared amongst a community,” he said.
Throughout his residency, Corpé interviewed and observed community members in Houston County. He found similarities to rural communities in Canada and Australia, especially in terms of transformation.
He found many long-term residents had the strongest connection to their community and “a tighter woven sense of where they live” while younger residents are still transitioning into their communities. But they are still taking time to build relationships and connections to their new homes.
Back in town
While, multiple artists took the chance to get to know the Houston community, one artist actually returned to her hometown during the residency.
During her stint with the program, Melissa Wray interviewed 16 local business owners, civic leaders and community members in Houston County, bringing her skills for storytelling to a new format.
“A lot of my work involves community building through storytelling,” Wray said. “And this was one of the first times I really saw myself as an artist because I started to dive into a new art form, podcasts.”
Wray brought her talents as a digital journalist back to her roots. And as a 2006 graduate of Caledonia High School in Houston County, Wray, who currently lives in South Minneapolis, said she “learned a lot more” about her hometown.
“I grew up here,” she began. “And this experience let me meet with so many community members who I never met or heard of their work before. I met with people who pursue organic farming or work at the International Owl Center.”
Following interviews with different members of the community, Wray came away with one common thread about the vibrancy of this area.
“I think the key is better communication amongst all of the many things going on here,” she said. “People will come to this area for a day, drive from Houston, to Spring Grove, to Hokah to Caledonia. They just need to know what the area has to offer and what is going on at any given time.
After she produced the first season of her podcast, she hopes to expand into other parts of the state and visit other small towns and produce a series of podcasts on the challenges and how to solve them in rural Minnesota.
“I set out to better understand rural communities,” Wray said. “I wanted to better learn the nuances of life here from the people who live it. I wanted to find out what makes the community tick.”
Wray was joined by radio freelance journalist Todd Melby of Minneapolis. The pair hosted meet-and-greets in Houston and at the Caledonia library where they worked with guests on how to produce podcasts.
Wray noticed a common thread of audio elements throughout the projects during the 2017 arts residency program. She said each project emphasized similar themes in completely different formats.
“You can hear the echoes of the stories I presented in Harry Graff Kimball’s music and [Corpé’s] field recordings,” she said
The group of citizen artists for 2018 are covering a wide variety of projects. Peter Krause, of Decorah, Iowa, is bringing his culinary expertise to the locals of Houston later this summer.
“I’m really interested in diving into what the Driftless area offers for farm to table and what that could look like in other communities,” Krause said. “I’ll explore farms, talk to community members who are growing food and teach classes about what can be created in Houston.”
Krause cultivated a love for food and farming on a small farm outside Decorah where he took part in growing produce for farmers, markets and restaurants. He learned about foraging for wild foods, fishing, and ecology and found joy in the annual rhythm of preserving the harvest with canning, dehydrating and fermentation projects.
He is bringing his passion for food to Houston where Krause hopes to bring a Driftless cuisine that is celebrated and shaped in the community and made up of the native flavors of its forests, pastures and rivers, and supports the many small farms well suited to the region’s landscape.
“I grew up in the Driftless area on a vegetable farm surrounded by farmers, artists and naturalists. My hope is to bring my experiences back to this area and this residency is a great way to reconnect to those roots,” he said.
Along with Krause, two more artists will exhibit their work in 2018, including his wife Rachael Shay Button. Button is a writer, a teacher, an activist, and a place-based educator, and she holds an MFA in Creative Writing and Environment from Iowa State University. Miranda Moen, from Caledonia, will also participate with an architectural design project.
Wray was honored to be a part of the inaugural year of this arts residency, and she looks forward to seeing what other artists will develop with Houston County as their inspiration.
“This type of work is very important, and it allows us to reframe rural communities for people who lived in these communities as well as to bring people into these new regions,” she said. “Hopefully we can draw attention to the work being done outside the metro.”
By Kelsey O’Hara