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Grand Marais Renaissance: A New Generation Makes A Creative Start

Walk through Grand Marais on a soft summer evening, and you feel it. Maybe it’s the sound of live music inviting you to enter an eatery or the artwork in a shop window that you stop to savor. Whatever it is, it’s everywhere.

Grand Marais
From the rooftops to the streets, Grand Marais marches to a creative beat that is drawing young people to the community. | STEPHAN HOGLUND

By the end of your walk, you’ll know something is happening here. There’s a harborside school devoted to northern arts and crafts, a year-round art colony, several eclectic galleries displaying local art, more good restaurants than you can sample in a weekend, a playhouse, and a brand-new co-op as large and busy as a mainstream grocery store, not to mention bookstores, gift shops, outdoor stores and boutiques—nearly all displaying selections of locally made products. No doubt you’ll conclude Grand Marais is super-hip.

Statistics, believe it or not, bear this out. The USDA has a Creative Class index for counties. Cook County, where Grand Marais is located, has the highest Bohemian share (artists and artisans) of any Minnesota county and highest overall creative class share of any rural county in the state. More importantly, a new generation of young creative individuals is discovering this tiny town beside the Big Lake.

Grand Marais has long attracted artists, drawn to Lake Superior and the ruggedly scenic landscape, says Amy Demmer, executive director of the Grand Marais Art Colony. The Colony was founded in 1947 by acclaimed artist Birney Quick, a faculty member at the Minneapolis School of Art (now the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.) Although Quick died in 1981, the Art Colony continued growing and now has a year-round staff and professional studio space.

The Art Colony offers a mentorship program for local high school students, which for some has proven to be a launch-pad for a creative career. Kjersti Vick, the Colony’s events and communications coordinator, was one of those students and is someone who decided to make the North Shore her home.

“I live here because I appreciate the outdoors and artistic community,” she says.

High housing costs and limited job opportunities can make it difficult for young people to stay here. Vick works a second part-time job to make ends meet. But enough 20-somethings are giving it a go that they are able to create their own scene. Vick and her boyfriend recently threw a mural-painting party to celebrate their birthdays, which are a few days apart. About 40 people showed up. She likes that there are constant artistic events and happenings. And then there’s the nightlife, which she describes as “pretty good.”

“The most amazing music comes here,” she says. “You can always find something going on.”

Throughout the year, many venues offer live music, ranging from dinner accompaniment to late-night jams. Topnotch regional and even national acts are sometimes booked for weekend gigs, but the wealth of opportunities to perform has allowed a thriving local music scene to develop as well.

Greg Wright
North house executive director Greg Wright says Cook County is the “fertile soil” that allows creative enterprise to grow. | NORTH HOUSE

A series of September events celebrates the music scene. Radio Waves, sponsored by the community radio station WTIP, features numerous local bands and musicians. Unplugged, held at the North House Folk School, draws nationally recognized songwriters and musicians. The Grand Marais vibe has even attracted National Public Radio’s Mountain Stage to the North House, where it will return this September for the third consecutive year.

Mountain Stage/Unplugged is one of several popular annual events held at North House, but executive director Greg Wright is fond of saying that while the folk school can throw a great party, such celebrations are not their mission. Instead, the school strives to provide instruction on a broad range of traditional northern arts and crafts. In the past decade, North House has shown steady growth, attracting thousands of students and instructors from near and far. Wright credits that growth to the community.

“I always think Cook County is the soil from which North House emerged,” he says. “You need fertile soil in order to grow.”

Kelly Schoenfelder
Local girl Kelly Schoenfelder decided to return to Grand Marais so she could work in her chosen field of radio journalism. | JOAN FARNAM

It isn’t surprising that students who travel to North House very often fall in love with Grand Marais and return. What is surprising is that nearly all of the school’s college interns decide to make Grand Marais their home. And they are able to find work within the creative community. Unlike many small towns, Grand Marais offers employment opportunities for young people.

Kelly Schoenfelder, program director at WTIP Radio, is a 20-something who has found work in her chosen field of radio journalism. A local girl, she interned at WTIP while in college and returned to Grand Marais after she graduated to work there.

“I grew up here, so sometimes I feel like leaving,” she says. “But I love my job, and I work with cool people. At my age, that kind of employment is hard to find.”

Stefanie Mitchell
Stefanie Mitchell moved to Grand Marais in 2010. She’s excited to live in a place where she has the opportunity to create and sell her designs. She is holding a dress by local dressmaker Corrie Steckelberg.

Schoenfelder believes opportunities to learn the ropes of her profession and work her way up the ladder are better in Grand Marais than in a big city. She can list off other 20-somethings who are choosing to make their creative start in Grand Marais with work ranging from film-making to clothing design

“For our generation, the traditional career path no longer works, so we need to pick our own path” she says. “Here, I see my friends have the opportunity to do the things they love and make money doing them.”

One place where opportunity exists is at The Garage, a local creative incubator where up-and-coming local artists and crafters can sell their wares. Stefanie Mitchell, a 20-something staffer there, recently redesigned the clothing portion of the business, known as Threads. A designer, Mitchell transformed Threads into a shop featuring locally made clothing.

“People seem really excited about what we are doing,” Mitchell says. “They like that we’re doing something fresh and different.”

Mitchell, who moved to Grand Marais in 2010, says she’s watched the community’s hip vibe evolve even in the relatively short time she’s lived here. Grand Marais has become a magnet for talented young people. North House program director, Jessa Frost, who moved to Cook County with her musician husband seven years ago, says it isn’t easy to become established in such a remote place.

Kjersti Vick
Kjersti Vick (left) and Amy Demmer enjoy working at the venerable Grand Marais Art Colony, a cornerstone of the creative community. | JOAN FARNAM

“Since I’ve moved here, I’ve seen people come and go,” she says. “But we’re at a point where there is a critical mass
of young people here, which means you can work, you can date and you can make friends.”

That doesn’t mean living on the North Shore is easy. High real estate prices make home-buying challenging. Due to the seasonal nature of the tourism industry, young people may need to work two or three jobs to get by. If you moved from somewhere else, family and friends are far away. Still, young people are making it happen. Perhaps the North House’s Wright, who with his wife Jeanneis raising a daughter in Grand Marais, sums it up the best.

“What makes a community strong? It’s when it becomes a place that people want to call home,” Wright says. “This has nothing to do with being hip. Really, it’s about economic development. If you want good things to happen, then load the creative furnace. Good things need other good things to resonate.”

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