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COMMUNITY

BUILDERS

Melissa Wray Caledonia, MN

I

BY SARA WALTERS

n the woods of her family’s sheep farm, above Caledonia, Minnesota’s Winnebago Valley, Melissa Wray found plenty of space throughout childhood to let her imagination run wild. But as can sometimes happen in rural communities, there wasn’t always an outlet for a creative, quiet, artsy kid. “While the outdoors has always been a key part of creative inspiration for me, I often struggled to find my place here in my teen years,” Melissa explains.  Now, after leaving home and spending 13 years in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, Melissa returned to create that place. “My work has always centered around storytelling and community, and my Master’s degree is in Arts & Cultural Leadership,” she says. “I started dreaming about an organization that fit all of those interests and skills.”  With this dream – and lots of planning and help – Melissa created Mainspring, a non-profit organization that offers space, performances, and events in a historic former church in downtown Caledonia.  “People often talk about the brain drain of rural places with young people leaving for larger cities. I think there is a countermovement to that of people staying or coming back to invest in their hometowns to build for a more vibrant future, and that excites me,” she says. “I want young folks to know they can create community and participate in the arts right here in Houston County and Fillmore County.” A network of “rural arts folks” who were already making things happen in surrounding communities served as resources and inspiration, and with the help of a core group of founding board members, Mainspring became a 501c3 in 2019. Melissa serves as the Founder and Director, and she is passionate about this place and 26

Fall 2021 / iloveinspired.com

Melissa Wray poses in front of the Lanesboro Arts mural / Photo by Kara Maloney. Below, The Nunnery performs at Mainspring / courtesy photo

the community around it. The board, which is made up entirely of volunteers, has been incredibly dedicated to the work, bringing a variety of skills and experience to the table: economic development, arts nonprofit leadership, grant and development writing, small business and financial management acumen, organizational skills, and more. They meet monthly to discuss and plan ideas and details, big and small. This past summer Mainspring hosted an outdoor concert series, Small Town Saturday Night, featuring singer-songwriters from the Driftless. They hosted virtual art classes for all ages as well, and collaborated on creating and printing a Mainspring Community Cookbook, filled with more than 160 local recipe favorites, that launched in time for the 2020 holidays. In addition to arts programming, Mainspring offers its space for rental so community groups can gather, connect, and spark new ideas. For Melissa, the space itself helped contribute to the idea of Mainspring in the first place. “I knew of this vacant church building on Main Street and was fascinated by the idea of transforming this specific type of community gathering space into a different type of community space, centered around art and culture. The pulpit became a stage, and the congregation became an audience,” she says. Melissa continues to learn from Caledonia and other communities in the Driftless. In fact, just as she was planning her move back to the area, a Program Director position opened up at nearby Lanesboro Arts, and she applied and got the job. People she longadmired as rural arts leaders were now her colleagues, and the knowledge she’s gained in her role has been invaluable. While Mainspring is in its infancy, Lanesboro Arts has been part of its community for 40 years.

Profile for Inspire(d) Media

Inspire(d) Fall 2021  

Change is Good! Inspire(d)’s 14th Anniversary Issue! • Decorah Prairie • Community Builders: Craig & Sara Neuzil • Melissa Wray • Josh Herte...

Inspire(d) Fall 2021  

Change is Good! Inspire(d)’s 14th Anniversary Issue! • Decorah Prairie • Community Builders: Craig & Sara Neuzil • Melissa Wray • Josh Herte...

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