Finding the Art of Contentment in Small Town, MN

Minnesota morning, my fingers wrap around my coffee mug as the low light dawns. The lakes freeze over and the land disappears beneath a slow, bright quilt of snow. My kids cheer. Frost patterns the panes that hold out this display of cold. I still feel trapped. The seasons shift slowly to thaw. The days turn to the longest of the year; verdant, flowing, the water moves again. I live confined where others vacation. But a summer sun rises and I rise with it.

I cannot change my circumstances but I can change my perspective.

Since childhood my camera has been cathartic. So I did what I knew. I began to use my camera to literally photograph the hell out of my life. Within the lens I rediscover that I can create beauty from the mundane. The ordinary becomes sacred art. And so, my photography business is born on the ashes left by my journey.

International Falls Coffee Landing.jpg

At the heart of Main Street, I meet with my clients in the warm coffee shop. Here, I am reminded of the tightly woven networks that naturally exist in small towns. There is a powerful common history here. Everyone knows each other or they are related. My friends have history here. Other photographers already have roots here. I am the outsider embarking on territory where I may or may not be received. However presumptuous, attempting to compete with other photographers has never been my ambition. I am reminded of Ayn Rand when she said that “a creative man is motivated by the desire to achieve not by the desire to beat another.”

What I need is to create, to connect and to be part of something greater than myself.

Here is a story I can grow within: where business, community and friends meld. How can I learn to see the beauty here in the frozen nights? What can business teach me about catching the days amid dirty dishes and little faces? Madeleine L’Engle whispers in my ear that “we do live, all of us, on many different levels.” I hear her. I believe her. But confined in my Circle of Quiet, it is hard to believe that “the world of imagination is more real than the world of the kitchen sink.” Still, some day’s success is simply enough money to help with groceries and clothing, to put my daughter through dance or to buy books or fishing lures for my boys. This is equally real.

My biggest challenge, however, is not related to small town life. It is treating my business like a job instead of an obsession. It is finding balance between work and being mom to my kids. It is choosing between client deadlines and laundry, between social media promotion and “what’s for dinner, mom?”, between working late and rising early. Some days I spin while my kids run in circles and tug on my legs. But what will be important when I look back at this season? If I am so tired I cannot read Little House on the Prairie, what does it matter if my house fits in a magazine? If I do not slow down to smile as my children momentarily huddle together under a warm blanket, what does a business mean? For me, having a successful business is equally about spending time with my children and providing a home where they can know they are loved.

Working from the corner office in my home, it is difficult to separate business from family life. I am in the process of bringing to fruition the dream of a studio space by restoring a floor in a rare, historic building with wide open space, with wood floors and large windows for natural light, with a downtown Art District feel. There are days I have had to pinch myself at this opportunity! I believe art is a valuable tool that can help a community grow as it brings people together, further enriching it for everyone. I am eager to use this space not only for my business but to share with others who gravitate toward the arts. I would especially love to see young people use this space as a haven where they can come to freely foster their creativity.

Residential streets of small town International Falls MN after a winter storm

Residential streets of small town International Falls MN after a winter storm

I still miss the energy of the city and the transitions of traveling; Winnipeg, New Zealand and Mexico are memories. Winters feel punishingly long, dark and cold, but coffee tastes best on a cold morning. Good business in a small community is greater than myself. It is to know and love my neighbor, and build my community. It is the reason I get up every morning and the measure by which I determine success. Because Annie Dillard is right that “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” I never intended to start a small photography business in a paper mill town on the border of Canada.

I am slowly waking up to discover the art of contentment, no matter what my circumstances.

* Originally published as Ms. Small Town USA: Minnesota Photographer for CAKE + WHISKEY MAGAZINE