Heidi Fettig Parton is a participant in the St. Croix Master Watershed Steward program, and is writing profiles of St. Croix stewards for her capstone project. Here is the third and final installment.
“The Wild Geese”
Horseback on Sunday morning,
harvest over, we taste persimmon
and wild grape, sharp sweet
of summer’s end. In time’s maze
over fall fields, we name names
that went west from here, names
that rest on graves. We open
a persimmon seed to find the tree
that stands in promise,
pale, in the seed’s marrow.
Geese appear high over us,
pass, and the sky closes. Abandon,
as in love or sleep, holds
them to their way, clear
in the ancient faith: what we need
is here. And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye,
clear. What we need is here.
I first met Anastasia Shartin on a warm evening in June, when I and other members of the St. Croix Master Watershed Steward program were introduced to the Art Bench in Hudson, Wisconsin. The Hudson Art Bench is one of many Art Benches found throughout the St. Croix River Valley thanks to Shartin, the Visual Arts Director at The Phipps Center for the Arts. These benches provide rich examples of the kind of community-based art that has long inspired her. (The location, photos, and descriptions of these benches can be found at www.artbenchtrail.org.)
Six months after our first meeting, on an extremely cold day in mid-December, I met Shartin in the upstairs gallery space at The Phipps, which was remodeled last summer. Polished concrete floors and expansive walls, freshly coated with white paint, provide a gallery space that rivals any found in the nearby, more metropolitan Twin Cities. The space is enhanced by an abundance of large windows that look out over the St. Croix River—on that particular day, the windows framed a deep, but brilliant, blue sky.
Shartin and I both had dressed that day in two layers of sweaters. I noticed that we also both donned artisan-crafted necklaces. I felt an instant and easy connection with her as we sat down to talk at a conference table. The table, which fits snugly into a window-laden turret, is actually four tables configured into a square. The light-stained wood surface of each table boasts the blue inlay of a meandering river. I remarked that they “even had a river” on the table.
Shartin corrected me: “The river—from Taylor’s Falls to Prescott.” Shartin was excited that she’d brought the gallery space redesign in under budget, and with the savings, she’d commissioned St. Croix Valley artisan Charlie Joy of Woodstock Furniture to create the conference table. “It’s a puzzle,” Shartin told me. “But it’s not as if the four tables fit together seamlessly—more like two and two match up.”
I moved to the St. Croix River Valley just over three years ago, and I’ve been amazed to discover the vibrant arts community that resides in this valley. Shartin has had much to do with the dynamic arts community that has sprung up on both sides of the St. Croix River. But she hasn’t stopped with the visual arts, or even the arts in general. Since Shartin began her role at The Phipps in 2000, she has opened doors to organizations and individuals all over the river valley. She calls herself a “synthesizer.” When I asked her what that meant, she said that when she sees ideas unfolding and events happening, all which share commonalities, it is instinctual for her to bring them together.
Scrappy the Splashing Bass, the mascot of Hudson’s RiverFest, is one example of Shartin’s synthesizing powers at work. Scrappy’s metal fish frame is outfitted each year with new “scales” selected from the piles of garbage pulled from the St. Croix during an annual river cleanup event. This particular community art project was conceived during a planning meeting for the first RiverFest in 2013. Shartin remembers sitting at the table with other representatives of local organizations when someone threw out the idea, “Wouldn’t it be nice to have a sculpture—to have some sort of community art project—that could be connected with the festival?” The idea didn’t come from an artist; it came from a lawyer, Shartin said. Because Shartin was present, she was able to say, “I can find you an artist. Let’s make this happen.” Shartin brought in artist Mary Johnson to create the sculpture’s frame, or armature, and tapped into students from The Phipps’s “Just Add Water” class, taught by Liz Malaphany, to help outfit Scrappy with his original skin of artfully placed rubbish.
It struck me during my conversation with Shartin how often she holds a “seat at the table” of organizational meetings throughout the valley. She says “yes” to opportunities, even when it makes her job more complex than it needs to be. She tends to keep her plate fully loaded and, in doing so, has been a key player in organizations that have enriched river communities all along the St. Croix River.
Shartin often has been the sole arts person at a table of scientists, educators, environmentalists, community leaders, and advocates (although in recent years, Heather Rutledge of ArtReach St. Croix has begun to join her at the table). Shartin deeply believes that making the arts an integral part of these conversations draws people in and provides accessible avenues into meaningful and important discussions about scientific and environmental issues and concepts.
It seems rather serendipitous that Shartin ended up in this role. She came to The Phipps from the Walker Arts Center, where she interned after attending the graduate program in curatorial studies at Bard College in Upstate New York. “Coming to Minnesota,” Shartin told me, “was like coming full circle.” Her dad was born in Minneapolis, and although he and his parents moved to Southern California when he was still young, extended family remained in Minnesota. Before Shartin moved to Minneapolis, she had visited a few times for family events. She said that Minnesota always hovered at the back her mind; there was a certain sense of coming home when she moved to the Twin Cities.
Shartin’s internship turned into a full-time position when the Walker began investing in the intersection between audience and exhibition—her sweet spot. Her graduate work had been about connecting people with place. She also met her husband while at the Walker, and they began to visit friends who lived in Hudson. Increasingly drawn to the valley, Shartin and her husband moved to Hudson in 2000.
Shartin and I marveled at our mutual draw to this river valley and how, once we took the step and moved here, the river began to bestow us with its blessings. Just as Shartin was preparing to move to Hudson, the person in charge of The Phipps’s visual arts programming resigned, and a door opened for Shartin. Even today, she recognizes the serendipity of that moment. “The river is really generous. It just keeps opening up,” she said.
This wasn’t Shartin’s first relationship with a river. While in grad school, she’d lived in Barrytown—a hamlet of Annadale-on-Hudson, where Bard is located. Both towns are situated on the Hudson River, and the river, as a concept, was something Shartin became increasingly aware of while attending Bard.
Her graduate exhibition and thesis focused on Barrytown. She researched why people settled in Barrytown, and she researched the social, natural, and cultural history of the place. Her thesis brought in an understanding of how the river facilitated transit, commerce, and communications. It was all about place. The river became central to her thesis because, as she said, “Water tells so many stories about our connection to place.”
St. Croix stories began flooding The Phipps around the time Shartin began working there. As early as 2002, The Phipps featured an exhibit titled “Uncanny Visions,” which highlighted contemporary artists whose work explored humankind’s impact on the land and our relationship to the natural world. The energy around this exhibit helped initiate a community forum discussing the river, which—up to this point—had not been much of a topic of conversation. Three key organizations were involved in these discussions: The Phipps, the St. Croix Valley Foundation (then the St. Croix Valley Community Foundation), and the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. The university contributed professors and graduate students doing research about the river. The forum was quite successful and became an annual event. Over time, other organizations have entered the mix—like the St. Croix River Association.
In 2006, the word “sustainability” was introduced during one of the community forum’s brainstorming session. The collective group began to outline what a sustainable St. Croix River Valley community would look like to them. The Natural Step for Communities, a book by Sarah James and Torbjörn Lahti (2004), played a central role in these discussions. According to Shartin, The Natural Step is about environmental sustainability, economic sustainability, and social sustainability.
The focus on sustainability eventually catalyzed into the concept: “What we need is here,” which reflects a line from Wendell Berry’s poem “The Wild Geese.” The “What We Need is Here” movement has brought organizations together to harness the resources that reside within the St. Croix Valley—the genius of its people and landscape. This concept has helped valley organizations focus on the abundance that is already present. It also has provided greater impetus to protect the beautiful natural resources inherited by those of us living in this valley.
Like the confluence of two rivers, 2006 also brought forth the birth of Shartin’s Art Bench initiative, with the first two benches going up that year. The Art Benches are community art projects. Each bench is designed by community members—particularly local youth—working in concert with an artist. Shartin said, “Each bench tells great stories, and they are all completely influenced by the place. By ‘place’ I mean physical location as well as history and the local community members that worked on them.”
Shartin has seen some great things happen through the creation of these benches. “As much as the projects are about the bench,” she said, “they are also about the process of creating that bench.” The late artist Lynn Jermal, for example, designed Hudson’s bench. It’s one of the last projects she did before she passed away. Jermal’s son was active in Hudson’s Destination Imagination (DI) program, and children from the DI program helped her create the bench.
I happened to be in Hudson last July when the bench was largely submerged under river water that had escaped its banks. Shartin told me this has happened many times throughout the bench’s history. “It wasn’t planned, but it’s sort of beautiful that this happens—that it gets submerged in the river and it reemerges from the river.” Appropriately, this bench—sturdily constructed of concrete and mosaic tiles that tell stories of the river—is shaped like a fish.
The St. Croix River Valley has benefited immensely from Shartin’s tireless work. She is indeed a synthesizer who seems to possess a unique talent for bringing people and concepts together. She also has a visionary heart; she sees opportunities where others might see problems. Through her involvement in community art, Shartin has nurtured a stronger sense of this place, this stupendously beautiful St. Croix River country. Her efforts have fostered a greater collective appreciation for the rich and diversified resources that grace our valley.