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Novelist Henry David Thoreau famously retreated to the woods to work on his masterpiece “Walden.” Famed photographer Dorthea Lange found solace among blue collar workers in 1930s Oklahoma.

Houston resident Erin Dorbin hopes to replicate that artistic magic in Houston County with her citizen artist residency program.

“There are roles for creative people in rural communities,” Dorbin said. “There is a lot of ingenuity in rural America. There is room for the arts and creative people to enhance rural life.”

The citizen artist residency program will bring four creative professionals to Houston County for three individual weeks to create art within the community. During their stay, there will be a meet and greet session with residents and an opportunity for 15 residents to attend a workshop with the artist.

The artists are Harry Graff Kimball of New York, a place-based songwriter; Cimarron Corpe of Victoria, Canada, a human geographer and multimedia artist; and citizen artist partners Todd Melby and Melissa Wray of Minneapolis, a media artist and journalist, and a community builder and podcaster, respectively.

The residency developed after Dorbin and her partner Taylor Harris bought the Crystal Creek Canyon Lodge a year ago. They thought the space would be an inspiration to artists.

“I hadn’t heard of a citizen artist before we started developing our residency,” Dorbin said. “We felt there was a greater use than just using it for honeymoons and anniversaries.”

The hand-hewn Norwegian cabin, which was built in the 1890s, was moved to Houston County from Viroqua, Wis. It has a new foundation and two additions that include a studio space.

After the couple advertised their program on Facebook, they received 11 solid applications. They asked the artists to provide some of their work, as well as their artistic goals while visiting the county.

“We want the citizen artists to create a partnership with the residents of the county,” Dorbin said. “We want to help define the regional identity. There’s been so much emphasis and branding on northern Minnesota. The community identity here is not fully shaped for the public at large.”

Dorbin also hopes that the citizen artists will create discourse with longtime residents.

Wray, who is originally from Caledonia, plans to focus her work on the perceived differences between urban and rural life.

“I knew immediately that I had to apply for this residency. I grew up on a sheep farm outside of Caledonia,” she said. “I have always felt a tug between my roots in Houston County and my urban life in Minneapolis ... I had already been developing ideas for creative projects that address this tension and knew that this residency was the perfect place to start, back where it all started for me—home.”

Wray will work with Melby to gather audio stories from Houston County residents. They will be in Houston County from Aug. 11- 18 during the county fair.

“I’m hoping that this project will also be a pilot for a podcast I’d like to launch in the next year that visits different rural and urban communities within the state of Minnesota to highlight areas of connection and tension,” she said.

Graff Kimball, who hopes to create an album from the experience, has never been to the Driftless Region.

“I thought it was a super interesting idea to be somewhere for a week and really focus on doing something artistic,” he said.

Graff Kimball is excited to go to Lanesboro Arts, fish and drive around the county.

“I want to spend some time on the road,” he said. “I think it’s a great way to get a universal feel of the place, by getting out and moving around.”

Dorbin has partnered with The Houston Arts Resource Council to help develop the residency. The council raised $400 for the program and have helped Dorbin apply for two grants. The Tri-County Electric’s MiEnergy granted the residency $500.


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