Inspiration Alcona blends natural beauty and art

In rural Alcona County, Inspiration Alcona provides residents with a host of unique arts opportunities, ranging from weekly classes to after-school programs to retreats. The small nonprofit is also striving to include the charm and beauty of the county landscape as part of its efforts. The organization is committed to “the premise that the natural beauty of the area will serve as a perfect backdrop for those wishing to engage in creative pursuits.”

The festivals, workshops and other events draw not only locals but also people from all over Michigan. “We’re all about creativity,” says Will St. John, Inspiration Alcona’s board president.  “The headline on the website says ‘creative fun up north’ and that’s what we do.”

How did Inspiration Alcona begin: Inspiration Alcona was born out of an MSU Extension Conference in 2011 on local leadership. All the founding board members were a part of that conference. The program also included taking on a real project and completing it. Initially, the plan was to create a music festival but that didn’t work out. St. John and his wife, Judy, came up with a creative alternative: an arts retreat. “My wife is an artist and has been to lots of art retreats,” he says, “so we knew how to do that, so that’s what we did the first year.” That first event, the Alcona Arts Retreat, was a success, drawing 37 students. The group’s second effort focused on an enrichment program for elementary students in Alcona Community Schools.  “Dancing Through the Eras” taught kids about American history through period-specific dances. Since then, the organization has grown to provide more programs to enrich the Alcona County community. 

Events and Festivals: The debut art retreat project paved the way for more retreats,  including an annual writers retreat and, most recently, a songwriters retreat. This summer, Inspiration Alcona is hosting two weekly outdoor music concerts, one a local musicians’ open-mic jam session, the other performances by professional singers.

Inspiration Alcona has also grown to sponsor festivals, including in July 2022 the Sunrise Side Wine, Brew and Food Festival, which brings more than a thousand visitors each year. 

Inspiration Alcona will again help sponsor the day-long Sunrise Side Music Festival in August. And this year Inspiration Alcona will produce a second day of music all about highlighting local musicians, many picked from the open-mic night events. There’s more to Alcona County than festivals, however. Inspiration Alcona is also responsible for fun family outings, promoting a fall color tour, which will return this  October. 

Accomplishments:  The success of the arts retreat over the last decade is one of the achievements Will St. John is most proud of. “We typically get about 40 people from across the state and far away to come to that each year,” he says. “We’re also very proud of all our school programs,” St. John adds. Alcona is an isolated county with an older population, which makes it all the more important to “try to expand the horizons for kids.”

Inspiration Alcona is also the fiduciary for a project that created a “pocket park” in downtown Harrisville. The park is a landscaped area on East Main Street between the railroad tracks and a former pharmacy.  The park was finished last year and is open now with blooming flowers awaiting visitors. Inspiration Alpena sees the park as “a place to rest and play for all ages, a site for small music presentations and a reason for travelers to stop in Harrisville.” “That’ll draw people,” St. John says. “And you can see the park from US 23 as you drive through town, so we think that’ll be a popular spot.”

What resources have you used: The organization has received grants from about a dozen organizations over the years. The grants used most frequently come from the Michigan Arts and Culture Council, annually the biggest single grant (including National Endowment for the Arts pass-through money); the Michigan Humanities Council, which helps us bring assembly shows to school kids and, occasionally, support for music concerts; and the Community Foundation for Northeast Michigan, which has several times given seed money for a new project.