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Submitted photo

Wooden canoe paddle carving was one of many popular classes offered by the Marine Mills Folk School during its first year.

An organization that was founded in part to respond to a local vacuum left by a school closure in Marine on St. Croix is now celebrating a year of making memories and teaching skills to enrich the entire St. Croix Valley area.

“Our mission is to make our community stronger,” said Robin Brooksbank, founder and board chair of the Marine Mills Folk School.

The folk school’s origins lie in the aftermath of a big community controversy: the Stillwater Area Public School District’s closure of Marine Elementary School in 2017. Brooksbank said the revelation that local Marine kids in the public school system would now have to attend school is Stillwater’s Stonebridge Elementary School – a 15-to-20-minute drive, potentially made significantly longer for kids riding the bus – led to a realization among many in the community that one of the big incentives for new residents and young families locating in Marine was going away.

“People in the village recognized that closing the school put the long-term viability … of our town at risk,” she said.

Around the same time, however, Brooksbank had been following the progress of North House, a successful folk school in Grand Marais.

“I thought, ‘There are many similarities between the St. Croix Valley and the North Shore,’” she said, listing natural beauty and generations of local artists as two of the most notable. She began to think a folk school could work in Marine and function as a new way to attract people to the community, all the while supporting the community of artisans who call the area home.

Getting started

Sometimes called “schools for life,” folk schools originated in Scandinavian countries in the 1800s and first started making their way to the United States in the 1920s. While the actual topics and subjects taught at folk schools varies considerably, they share as a goal a desire to foster personal development by passing on knowledge in a setting less formal than a traditional academic environment.

At Marine Mills Folk School, the focus is on traditional arts and crafts, with classes on leather working, wooden spoon carving, weaving, and many other subjects.

“Our focus has been on finding artists who are also exceptional teachers and creating a hands-on learning experience for our students,” Brooksbank explained.

While Brooksbank was pondering the viability of a local folk school, she was also getting her master’s degree in business. As part of that degree, she developed a business plan for the nonprofit school idea, and after she graduated, she began networking with other community members to find a board willing to turn ideas into action and able to match artists with the school’s ambition. Together, they secured local partners like Franconia Sculpture Park and the new River Grove Community School (a charter school), which they co-located with starting in the fall of 2018. Brooksbank said the focus of the board was to create a “lean and mean” operation, with all volunteers and minimal overhead.

“Our class fee goes to pay for their time in teaching, and because it’s education, you can’t charge enough to truly pay for what you’re getting, and so a lot of our efforts are going into grant writing and fundraising to support the overall operating budget,” she said.

Artist connection

One of the artists who has taught and will be teaching at the folk school is Karen Engelbretson, who uses needle felting to make various sculptures, most commonly birds.

“I’ve been doing it since 2008, and I started teaching about three years ago,” she said of her craft, explaining that needle felting is a process of using a needle to bind wool fabric together, as opposed to the water-based approach of wet felting.

Engelbretson began working with the folk school after seeing an inquiry from the school asking for local artists.

“They’re very welcoming, and it was nice to start talking with them right away because it just allowed me the opportunity to meet other instructors and be part of something new, and in a school that actually teaches hand-crafted skills,” she said.

Engelbretson enjoys the crafting side of the work, believing it’s good for the soul to work with your hands, but it’s also important to her that audiences consider the wildlife portrayed in her art and reflect on what they owe and can do to keep their world habitable and filled with diverse species. It’s a privilege for her to work with an organization that can support that goal by giving her a teaching platform and a financial benefit.

“It’s really important because lots of times, your art’s just a side hustle, and to be able to do it full-time is every artist’s dream,” she said.

Brooksbank said the school administration wants to do its part to keep the local art scene vibrant.

“We see artists as helping create or enhance our quality of life here in northern Washington County, and we know and research shows that artists, their income is significantly less than average incomes, and so we want to support them because … they’re one of the reasons why we all live here,” she explained.

Today and tomorrow

In the first year of operation, about 500 people took classes at Marine Mills Folk School, and 60 to 70 teachers have either taught a class or contacted the school with interest. Some of the most popular classes include soap making, spoon carving and wooden paddle carving.

“People are interested; they’re looking for respite from their screen time both at work and how they manage their lives,” she said, adding that some of the handcrafted art classes – perhaps a wooden spoon carving class – can foster a spiritual connection with the heritage of the area. “To make one yourself and come to understand what goes in and what our ancestors did to make that spoon, you have an appreciation and insight that you didn’t have before.”

While hitting the year anniversary on Oct. 6 was exciting for those involved in the school, perhaps even more exciting was the organization’s move into the old Marine Elementary School building on Sept. 1. The move allows the school its own dedicated space, which opens up the possibility for multi-day and advanced classes, more weekday and daytime classes, and specific work areas that will allow for more specialized equipment, like a loom or kitchen appliances.

“We feel rich in our facilities,” Brooksbank said. “It’s really just been a wonderful place to have our [classes].”

In the coming year, the school hopes to improve its outreach initiatives and expand both its support of artist and its repertoire of classes and class types. Brooksbank hopes that growth results in a community institution that gives back to its users and serves as an example of what makes the St. Croix Valley a great place to live.

“We think that our mission and our classes are all things that people will want to take advantage of,” she said.

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