WINONA, Minn. – On a recent morning in the Minnesota Marine Art Museum, a group of first-graders circled a table where Heather Casper sat with a piece of shiny gold paper.
“This takes patience and a lot of tries,” she said, demonstrating how to tear the paper into shapes for the class art project. With a few careful tears, she ripped a small gold crescent from the gold paper.
As curator of education at the museum, Casper has led countless tours every year since the museum opened in 2006. Seven years later, she knows everyone who works there — and nearly everyone who visits.
“I have an awesome job,” she said. “I work with a hundred people that I love to talk to.”
Dave Casey, the museum’s visitor experience manager, has been working with Casper for two of those years to make museum visits memorable. “She’s always very excited,” he said. “And she’s very good with kids.”
Casper spent her childhood next to the Mississippi River — 800 miles to the south. In her hometown of Memphis, the river ran fast and wide, dirty, dangerous, and off limits, unlike the narrower meanders of Winona’s river.
She got her undergraduate degree at the University of Colorado, in ceramics. “I kind of thought I would be a potter for life,” she said. “But it’s kind of lonely, just making pottery upstairs all day.”
Casper didn’t just want to work with clay; she wanted to work with people. She had the background, having looked after neighborhood kids and run back-yard summer camps since she was 10, but not the experience.
So she started by teaching children ceramics in a studio in Memphis for six years, got a master’s degree in art education in Knoxville, Tenn., then looked upriver — far upriver — for her first job.
Casper first set foot in Winona in 2007 in the middle of January. From the minute she saw the wooden riverboat sign along Hwy. 61 the edge of town, she had her apprehensions.
“I said to myself, ‘There’s no way I’m going to live in a little town with a boat on a stick,’ ” she told the Winona Daily News. “And then I got one look at Minnesota weather and thought, ‘No way this is going to happen.’ ”
She decided to give the town a chance, even though she expected she’d be back home in Tennessee sooner than later.
Soon she found her job as curator of education at the brand-new Minnesota Marine Art Museum, which opened the previous year on the banks of the Mississippi. The position had no precedent and no tradition, and Casper was an education staff of one.
When Casper was six months into the job, her Goodview house took on 41 inches of water during the August 2007 floods.
“I basically thought, ‘That’s it, good try,’ ” she said. With her first year in Winona only halfway done and her home soaking in floodwaters, she got ready to leave.
But Winona had one more surprise in store for her. After the flood, museum workers and visitors began to show up with gifts, with Cuisinarts and waffle irons.
“It was like I got married,” she said. “There was this huge outpouring of support.”
Poll: Should Justin Morneau get the final National League All-Star spot?