When I was in fourth grade, my folks had moved us from the West Coast to Milwaukee. A friend asked me if I wanted to go up North. I remember asking, "What’s up North?"

Photo courtesy of Donna Murray-Tiedge

Donna Murray-Tiedge | Eagle River, WI

I first visited Land O’Lakes in 1969, and then every year my family vacationed up here over the Fourth of July. As a child, I dreamed of living up here, and six years ago, my dream began to come true. I live in Land O’ Lakes now.

I spent twenty-five years working for industry and running my own entrepreneurial business. My husband and I had several successes designing products for the RV industry, and I enjoyed the life of an exhibit designer, creating commercial showrooms. But something was missing. I was good at what I did; I knew how to make money, but I was looking for a product with a soul.

That’s what took me back to academia. I went back to school to gain the credentials to teach. I looked at teaching as my way of giving back and spreading seeds for growth. My husband and I don’t have any children. This plan enabled us to leave something beyond ourselves.  

Six years ago, I got involved with the Warehouse Art Center in Eagle River. It came about through a serendipitous journey to the hardware store when I went to buy a pier. I was talking to the owner, Judi Akins, who is a board member at the Warehouse, and she wanted to know what I did for a living. At the time, I was teaching art education at the University of Oshkosh, and Judi said, ‘Oh my gosh, we really need your help at the Warehouse!’ And I said, ‘What is the Warehouse?’

 She told me, ‘It’s a community arts center in Eagle River, and we could use some help with grant writing.’ And that’s how I came to know about the Warehouse. After that conversation, I taught at Oshkosh for two more years and then moved to Stevens Point to teach graphic design. When the Stevens Point program had funding issues, I moved up North permanently. 

When I returned to the hardware store, Judi just looked at me and said, ‘Donna, we’re in real trouble now; our director resigned. Do you have any time?’ I had just gotten the notice that Stevens Point no longer had funding for my position, so I was able to say, ‘You know what? I do have some time!’ The powers of the universe put me in the right place at the right time. 

My role at the Warehouse is basically the Chief Chaos Coordinator. Being the Executive Director of a small 501c3 nonprofit is a unique position, and I feel like I’ve trained my whole life for it. My entrepreneurial creative problem-solving background was the skillset the Warehouse needed. I went from designing products to designing art educators, to developing a community arts center. 

I do what’s neededwe must pay the bills, of course. We have to keep the facility running. We nurture teaching artists to cultivate and carry out our mission, to provide creative opportunities for all regardless of age, skill level, or economic situation. But the most critical aspect is to keep the center community-driven. Now in my third year, I’ve been thinking a lot about cultivating community. We find that people are attracted to the Northwoods for different reasons.

Many people come up here to be with Nature, but even those who cherish solitude enjoy a place to experience community, where somebody might know their name. A place where you can share some creative synergy in the studio or meet somebody on a Friday night to have a glass of wine or a Pepsi and witness creativity in real-time. I want the Warehouse to be a community arts center for everyone who lives and plays here and those who come to visit. That’s a goal, not something that we’ve actually achieved yet, but it is an ideal to strive for. We have participants coming all the way up from Antigo as well as the Upper Peninsula that come down. Visitors and tourism are essential, and we are happy to feed the economic vitality of our community. However, if we aren’t targeting a good portion of our programming towards people who live here, then shame on us.   

 We strive to be a Northwoods Community Arts Center by forging connections to culture, ecology, history, and self. Encounters with the arts enable a range of experiences we can have through no other source. They illuminate the awe and wonder of the life we are all a part of. At the Warehouse, we nurture the extraordinary and provoke the cultivation of lives filled with meaning. What more important job could there be than to contribute to human well-being? I found my product with a soul.

Donna’s story was produced by Carol Amour. You can learn more about the Warehouse Art Center in Eagle River here

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