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Published December 28, 2013, 10:25 AM

Marine art museum curator finds a home in Minn.

WINONA, Minn. (AP) — 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.

By: HANNAH JONES, Winona Daily News, WDAY

WINONA, Minn. (AP) — 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's art project. With a few careful tears, she ripped a small gold crescent from the gold paper.

As the Curator of Education at the museum, Casper has led countless tours every year since the museum opened in 2006. Seven years later, and 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 2 ½ of those years to make museum visits memorable. He watched her sweep along with the bubbling crowd of kids, as she helped them pack up and get ready to take their bus back to school.

"She's always very excited," he said. "And she's very good with kids."

Carol Stever, a greeter, stopped to talk to Casper on her way out after her shift.

"She's a top-notch person," she said. "We're lucky to have her."

Casper spent her own childhood next to the Mississippi River — just 800 miles to the south. In her hometown of Memphis, Tenn., 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 backyard 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 Highway 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 (http://bit.ly/1dB2ARO ). "And then I got one look at Minnesota weather and thought, 'No way this is going to happen.'"

She decided, on a lark, to give the town a chance, even though she expected she'd be back home in Tennessee sooner than later. Everything in Winona was unfamiliar, even the river.

"It's really a different river down there in Tennessee," she said.

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 composed 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 made 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."

Casper stuck it out. And today she continues to run the museum's wide variety of programs, from Toddler Tuesdays to the Spark Program, or adults with memory loss due to Alzheimer's and related dementias. She takes joy in watching both children and adults respond to the art.

"I love, love, love this job," she said. "The goal of this is really to get people to connect to the Winona region."

Since coming to Winona, Casper did get married (full disclosure: to Daily News assistant sports editor John Casper) and become a mother.

"I feel like I'm living the dream," she said, "It was a rough first year, but now I can't think of anything else. The thought of leaving makes me want to cry."

For Casper, Winona, art and the river all have a transformative effect on those who dive in.

"I want to welcome folks who haven't yet come to the museum to just give it a try," she said. "It has the power to enrich your life."

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