Progress Edition 2022: Art at the heart of Franklin Arts Center

Where Brainerd students once dissected frogs or passed notes to a crush, local creatives now dance the salsa, glaze pots, paint canvases, sew capes or edit photographs. Visitors can shop for yarn, receive acupuncture, strike yoga poses, enter the world of virtual reality, engage in art therapy and soon, even get a haircut — all in one day, if they’d like.

 Franklin Arts Center in Brainerd
Franklin Arts Center, seen here Thursday, Aug. 11, 2022, in Brainerd, is home to 44 commercial tenants and 25 apartment units.
Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

BRAINERD — One doesn’t need detective skills to unearth Franklin Arts Center’s past: lockers line the halls, walls feature chalk-dusted blackboards and carved acts of rebellion add character to cupboard doors and window sills.

Where Brainerd students once dissected frogs or passed notes to a crush, local creatives now dance the salsa, glaze pots, paint canvases, sew capes or edit photographs. Visitors can shop for yarn, receive acupuncture, strike yoga poses, enter the world of virtual reality, engage in art therapy and soon, even get a haircut — all in one day, if they’d like.

Nearly succumbing to the churn of progress after its days as Franklin Junior High faded into memory, the 90,000-square-foot brown brick building in north Brainerd found new life thanks to the relentless advocacy efforts of civic-minded residents. Remodeling by the owner Artspace divided the decommissioned school into both a 25-unit apartment complex and a patchwork of businesses, nonprofit organizations and personal artist studios. These days, a full 44 tenants operate within the commercial wing, ranging from architectural designers to composers to painters.

A Brainerd-themed mural hangs above lockers
A Brainerd-themed mural hangs above lockers once used by junior high students at the Franklin Arts Center on Thursday, Aug. 11, 2022, in Brainerd.
Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch
Artwork created by clients of Rothvanni hangs across lockers
Artwork created by clients of Rothvanni hangs across lockers once used by junior high students at the Franklin Arts Center on Thursday, Aug. 11, 2022, in Brainerd.
Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

Sixteen years after its birth, the vision of a community space dedicated to the arts is thriving, tenants say, buoyed by boundless reinvention.

Tiffany Sustercich is capturing that spirit as she adds her spin to one of center’s original commercial spaces. In recent years, the Brainerd woman rekindled a passion for shaping clay that first emerged as a teen. Now, she’s transforming the pottery studio into a multifunctional mecca for clay artists of all ability levels.


“It is artists, hobbyists — people looking to develop their craft further, not production potters,” Sustercich said of the clientele she hopes to attract. “So really trying to keep the inspiration of art going versus making 100 of something.”

Tiffany Sustercich stands in the Lakes Area Pottery studio with pottery wheels in the background
Tiffany Sustercich explains her plans for the Lakes Area Pottery studio July 7, 2022, at Franklin Arts Center in Brainerd.
Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch
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The mission of offering shared space and equipment for local potters will continue, but Sustercich is bursting with ideas to redesign the studio and expand its reach. This mission starts with propping open the door a lot more often, inviting the clay-curious to step inside and find their muse.

In mid-July, a half-dozen potter’s wheels and three kilns were en route to support classes beginning this fall for all ages offered through Peace and Pottery, one of Sustercich’s small businesses. Subject matter will include lessons on the wheel, hand-building, jewelry-making, painting and more. So detailed are Sustercich’s plans, she envisions locally sewn aprons to give to youth students with the promise of earning patches in a scout-like fashion for mastering various pottery skills.

Some of those students might find themselves wishing to explore their creativity further, and Sustercich has thought of that, too. She’s expanded the opportunity to lease drying rack space with a communal option, where people can purchase clay directly in the studio, share glazes and use wheel-throwing tools.

Tiffany Sustercich stands in front of shelves featuring handmade pottery mugs
Tiffany Sustercich discusses her process in creating the mugs she will sell alongside others' works at Lakes Area Pottery on July 7, 2022, in Franklin Arts Center in Brainerd.
Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch

Plans also call for the doubling of the gallery space, which will feature pottery from local artists, including those learning at and using the studio. Sustercich’s own glazed mugs stamped with words or designs will be on the shelves, too. Combined with other retail offerings, the pieces form the foundation of a little store carrying one-of-a-kind art.

Sustercich’s ambitions for Lakes Area Pottery go beyond promoting clay arts. She sees it as a gathering place, both for other commercial tenants with monthly potlucks and for the artist community at large with “Artist Connect” social hours.

“I'll have a little sitting area and a little coffee bar, and I'm hoping that artists come in and chat,” she said. “It’ll be a different feel.”

That feeling — one of camaraderie and connection — is a welcome one after the pandemic kept the doors locked and much of the building dark and silent for some time, said Julie Vreeland, one of the property managers. But, in some ways its own side effect of COVID-19, studios began to fill back up as people sought the opportunity to get out of the house.


“I think what's happened in the last year is that people kind of got tired of working at home, so they were looking for a space to move to,” Vreeland said. “And because we're so unique, they knew we were here and kind of gravitated this way.”

Karen Knierim displays a Renaissance-inspired garment
Karen Knierim displays a Renaissance-inspired garment July 7, 2022, she sewed in her Ethereal Threads studio at Franklin Arts Center in Brainerd.
Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch

For Karen Knierim, stepping away from home to work on her craft means a short walk down the hall, sometimes with a wagon. The clothing designer and her husband Chuck live in one of the apartments on the eastern side of Franklin. About two years ago, Knierim decided to move the operation of Ethereal Threads — an 18-year-old business specializing in historical garb a la renaissance fairs — to a studio space.

“I can't believe how much more efficient I am at sewing without having to fold up everything on the kitchen table so we can eat,” Knierim said. “Leaving piles of stuff out when I'm working on stuff just saves so much time.”

Racks display Renaissance-era clothing
Racks display Renaissance-era clothing designed by Karen Knierim of Ethereal Threads on July 7, 2022, in Franklin Arts Center in Brainerd.
Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch

Racks bursting with the finished products of hooded coats, Vikings-era attire and capes destined for the Minnesota Renaissance Festival demonstrate Knierim’s productivity. The couple modified the studio to improve its efficiency for the sewing operation, including the addition of a wall and closets to contain the fabrics from which the hand-crafted wares are made.

Vreeland noted many of the tenants choose to modify spaces to fit their needs. Sometimes, reminders of the past classrooms are sparse, the transformation dramatic. Other times, a blackboard peeks from behind a display and one can almost imagine the neat rows of desks arranged before it.

Julie Vreeland speaks as she's showing a music studio of a resident in Franklin Arts Center
Julie Vreeland, one of the property managers at Franklin Arts Center, shows a small music studio rented by an apartment tenant during a tour of the Brainerd facility on July 7, 2022.
Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch

The age of the building — erected in sections in the 1930s, ‘50s and ‘60s — is a limiting factor in the extent of remodeling permitted. Asbestos means the floors and walls must remain intact. This doesn’t seem to limit the creativity with which some of the spaces become something new, including walls and floors built right over the originals.

The lack of running water access in some spaces is another hurdle in a facility that wasn’t designed for how it’s used now. Vreeland said with sinks at a premium, the building has not accommodated a restaurant or coffee shop that would naturally boost foot traffic.

An old science room featuring multiple sinks, however, lent itself to becoming a shared space for multiple tenants. People may rent a 10-by-10-foot cubicle there for $50 per month. Some of those taking advantage of this option are apartment renters, while others, like Sustercich, end up outgrowing their areas and taking on something larger.


 An individual studio space at Franklin Arts Center in Brainerd
One of several studios within a shared space, with each cubicle featuring its own sink in a former science room is seen July 7, 2022, in Franklin Arts Center in Brainerd.
Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch

When Rebecca Anakkala decided to rent a studio in 2010, 100 square feet wouldn’t have been an option. A massive quilting machine is the backbone of Anakkala’s The Finishing Stitch, which provides quilting services to people who’ve pieced together their own design.

“This started off as being a way to put groceries on the table,” Anakkala said. “That was my contribution while I stayed at home. It just morphed into this.”

The space she now occupies is a far cry from the days of tip-toeing around Legos while her son played on the floor next to her. Being in Franklin permitted her to create boundaries between work and home life — clients no longer must traipse through her house, for example.

Rebecca Anakkala stands next to her quilting machine
Rebecca Anakkala stands next to her quilting machine July 7, 2022, inside the studio she rents for her small business The Finishing Stitch at Franklin Arts Center in Brainerd.
Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch

“I have my own space. It feels a little bit more professional than having people come to my house,” she said. “The one thing I miss is I can’t quilt in my pajamas and slippers anymore.”

Bits of home, however, came with her: one wall in Anakkala’s studio features a plethora of county fair ribbons earned by her and her children over the years. Her husband Jason operates his tax preparation business in another Franklin studio, and her son now lives in one of the building’s apartments.

 Franklin Arts Center in Brainerd
A sign by the door of the Franklin Arts Center on Thursday, Aug. 11, 2022, in Brainerd.
Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

Tracy Miller might not be quite as settled in as Anakkala, but the studio she recently moved into already feels like an integral part of her creative process. The former Coloradoan, a fine art painter for almost three decades, hung finished canvases along the frame of a blackboard in the main area of her well-lit space. The next step is a full-blown gallery of Miller’s work, created just steps away. A smaller attached room is now her painting studio, filled with various works in progress along with a wide selection of paints and brushes.

Tracy Miller stands in her art studio surrounded by works in progress and painting equipment
Tracy Miller discusses her appreciation for her new studio space July 7, 2022, at Franklin Arts Center in Brainerd.
Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch

“This has been so wonderful for me to move into this building because I have every facet of my business right here. Every facet of it, I was able to get it all out of my house. My husband's probably very thankful, too,” Miller said with a laugh. “I had stuff in the garage and everywhere.”

Miller began her artistic career hand-painting silks, such as scarves and neckties. After 15 years, she said she wanted to try something new. A workshop on nonrepresentational abstracts set her on an entirely new course with a brush in her hand. Before long, her signature style of vibrant, colorful, abstract animals emerged. In early July, Miller was busy painting a set of six large pet portraits for a client, with each pet featured on a different denomination of paper money.


Unfinished paintings of bears and an owl
Colorful works-in-progress are seen July 7, 2022, inside Tracy Miller's studio at Franklin Arts Center in Brainerd.
Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch

Miller’s eye-catching animal portraits and other works of art aren’t only for private collectors. Her art is licensed by multiple companies nationally and internationally. Seventeen of her paintings are available for people to personalize their credit cards at, including a sloth, tree frog, buffalo and great-horned owl. For those wishing to emulate Miller’s brightly hued creations, 11 paintings became Craft-Ease Paint by Numbers kits, including some of her most frequent subjects — dogs and horses.

In-person instruction on blank canvases — in her Franklin studio, of course — is something Miller hopes to offer down the road.

“A lot of people don’t understand how to work with acrylics real well, so that’s probably what I would do is teach how to work with acrylic and also teach how to paint more abstraction in your work,” Miller said. “I’m not a realistic painter. I don’t pretend to be.”

While Miller dwells in the abstract, Bradford Folta Jr. deals in hyper-realistic detail in his corner of Franklin. Folta is the founder of Honeybadger Analytics, a company focused on locational analytics and geomatics. Practically speaking, this means Folta partners with small governments, municipalities, businesses and utilities to help them run more efficient systems. The city of Detroit Lakes is one client, and Folta took information already available to create an intricate map of the city’s water infrastructure.

Bradford Folta Jr. shows a scanned model of the Northern Pacific Center on his computer
Bradford Folta Jr. shows a scanned model of the Northern Pacific Center he created to assist the business with marketing its facilities July 7, 2022, in the Honeybadger Analytics studio at Franklin Arts Center in Brainerd.
Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch

On the geomatics end, Folta uses scanning technology and other methods to collect data and recreate buildings and more from the ground up — every angle, every texture. He’s completed scans of the entire Franklin building, for instance, along with the Northern Pacific Center, the finished product of which has been used to show potential vendors the space from afar.

“We could map Brainerd in 3-D and then drop it into our VR headset and do a walk-through and understand and see every sign,” Folta said. “If you were standing out on the lawn, we could see you and measure how tall you were to about a millimeter.”

To the uninitiated, it might seem like this line of work leaves little room for creativity. Folta views it much differently, emphasizing he believes after two decades of this kind of mapping technology, the surface is only just scratched.

“This is the thing that is running dispatch systems for the county. It’s the thing that drives our society, it’s Google Maps in the background, right?” Folta said. “ … Why don’t we use it more to do our demographics or our crime analysis? Or why is Brainerd making a significantly less … median income than Baxter? Like, what is that disparity? What is that difference? How do we bridge that gap?”


Bradford Folta Jr. stands inside one of the rooms as part of Honeybadger Analytics space
Bradford Folta Jr. gives a tour of the space used by Honeybadger Analytics on July 7, 2022, at the Franklin Arts Center in Brainerd.
Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch

Folta said people in the field tend to be narrowly focused on their own corner of the world, like police data or environmental data. But he sees potential in those different areas joining forces to build systems of all kinds that work for everybody.

This is the reason Folta rented a second space in Franklin to open the Minnesota Geospatial & Geomatics Institute. Once ready, the institute will offer a certificate program to train people in the fields, with an emphasis on how to convey the gathered information.

The act of making places safer and more accessible is also the realm of Jane Hampton and her team at Accessibility Design. The 30-year-old business modifies about 230 homes each year in Minnesota and Wisconsin, making it easier and more comfortable for people with disabilities or senior citizens to live where they’d like.

 Franklin Arts Center in Brainerd
Joe Drew, left, and Jane Hampton of Accessibility Design discuss their work outside their studio space July 7, 2022, in Franklin Arts Center in Brainerd.
Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch

“It's really nice to see people kind of light up when they realize what we can do for them, you know, as far as making their home situation where they spend most of their time a lot more conducive to them,” said Joe Drew, access designer.

In Franklin for about six years, the business consolidated into one space during the COVID-19 restrictions and expanded its footprint. Helping people live better lives in their houses in the wake of the pandemic — which normalized work-from-home situations in a way like never before in the United States — is particularly rewarding, Hampton said.

“We’ve been talking about telecommuting for years, because if the person who has a physical challenge doesn’t have to go work, they can be at home and be very proficient in computers and, you know, all sorts of things,” Hampton said. “We have one client that was on a sip-and-puff (for people without the use of their hands) and he does accounting. I mean, amazing. Now with COVID, people understand that more.”

 Franklin Arts Center in Brainerd
A sign outside Franklin Arts Center, seen Thursday, Aug. 11, 2022, in Brainerd, includes some of the artistic endeavors visitors will find inside.
Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

Hampton said people with architectural design brains not only want to be creative, but they must be. A community of other creative thinkers is a natural place for the organization to thrive.

“We can’t do cookie cutters. So this is a creative environment on all different levels,” Hampton said. “And there’s another common thread of not only are we taking our creativity through the drafting table — or the computer now — to our individuals, but if you look closely, everybody in here, for the most part … have an outreach experience.


“Their creativity is something that is helping others. And so we vibrate with them as well on that level. … It’s a lovely community, and Julie (Vreeland) does a fantastic job. So I’m glad you’re here spreading the word.”

What you’ll find at Franklin Arts Center

  • Studio No. 10 — Spirit Movement Dance Studio, with a barber shop coming soon in the same space.
  • 20 — Doctor Don.
  • 30 — Inner Healing Hypnosis.
  • 112 — Picture Day Pro!
  • 113 — A Needle Pulling Thread.
  • 114 — WonderTrek Children’s Museum.
  • 115/219 — Anakkala Tax.
  • 116 — Strong Towns.
  • 116A — Seth’s Lane.
  • 117 — Zen Fox Photography.
  • 118 — Teacher’s Lounge.
  • 119 — Better Days Acupuncture.
  • 120 — Honeybadger Analytics.
  • 121 — Tracy Miller Fine Art.
  • 122 — Jeff Mozey Photography.
  • 123 — Carrie Benson Photography.
  • 125 — The Yellow Chair.
  • 126 — Lakes Area Pottery.
  • 127 — Rothvanni Studio.
  • 200 — For Marketing.
  • 215 — True Photography.
  • 216 — Deluxe.
  • 216A — ISMS.
  • 216A — VR Odyssey.
  • 217 — Accessibility Design.
  • 218 — Conference center.
  • 220 — The Finishing Stitch.
  • 221 — Korenne Writing Studio.
  • 222 — Ethereal Threads.
  • 223 — Transformed by Love Ministries.
  • 224A — Legacy Chorale.
  • 224B — LAH Musique.
  • 224S-1 — Emily Skelton Design.
  • 224S-2 — Kathley Krueger Painting.
  • 224S-3 — Angela Anderson.
  • 224S-5 — OO Design.
  • 224S-6 — Lynch Painting.
  • 225 — Art Matters.
  • 226 — Laura Kotsmith Pottery.
  • 227 — Dead Crow Studio.
  • 228 — Lakes Area Yoga Studio.
  • 229 — Layaway Financial.

For your information

Business: Franklin Arts Center.

City: Brainerd.

Commercial tenants: 44.

Interesting fact: People frequently visit the former middle school building to find their old lockers or classrooms and reminisce, particularly in the summer months when class reunions typically take place.

“We encourage them to go downstairs, look at the cafeteria,” Vreeland said.

CHELSEY PERKINS, community editor, may be reached at 218-855-5874 or . Follow on Twitter at .

Chelsey Perkins is the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch. A lakes area native, Perkins joined the Dispatch staff in 2014. She is the Crow Wing County government beat reporter and the producer and primary host of the "Brainerd Dispatch Minute" podcast.
Reach her at or at 218-855-5874 and find @DispatchChelsey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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