Mapping the Confluence of Art and Nature in the St. Croix River Valley

‘Navigate’ initiative explores the deep connections between the region’s creativity and environment.




5 minute read

Published in partnership with Navigate.

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gulls riding gray gusts
swoop over the river
painting the wind white

Look at the river. There it lays between two bluffs, an eternal column of water sliding downhill from northwest Wisconsin to the Mississippi at Prescott. Neatly contained in its valley. A muse to many, subject of countless paintings and photographs, plays and music, pots and poems. Powerful yet peaceful.

And that is not the all of the river. The main channel is inseparable from its countless tributaries and seeping springs, forests and fields, people and wildlife – the infinitely complex system that is a big part of St. Croix River country’s magic.

Even when the river is not in sight, it can be felt in the land and the people it shapes. Traveling through the valley, it is always present, a magnetic pull.

“Art and nature are braided here,” someone says at the first Navigate retreat on October 29, a day-long workshop attended by 21 of the countless people involved with art, the outdoors, conservation, and other channels in the St. Croix Valley. River comparisons come easily to the crowd. Like places where the river splits into numerous narrow channels separated by numerous narrow islands, woven together by the water, art is inspired by the land and inspires people to steward the land.

“Art is an exceptional way of connecting to the natural world,” we say. It can focus attention like a camera focuses a lens, letting us truly see what is in front of our face. This deepening understanding only inspires greater love for the land.

The five retreats held between this fall and next spring are designed to ask how art and nature intersect in the St. Croix Valley. Several participants quickly point out that it’s hard to say what is art and what is not. The same goes for nature. Aren’t people part of the world? Creativity and creation are so closely connected here that many people feel they are nearly the same thing.

“Is it lazy to use art and nature as categories?” asks lead facilitator Dylan Skybrook.

Skybrook is not inclined to lump things together. He is a student of systems, a specialist in collaboration and coalitions, usually regarding how organizations can be effective when not managed by a single strong leader. The questions he and his partner, Shawn McConneloug, pose to the Navigate group easily draw out how art is inspired by nature, or how it can change how we see our home.

It may be lazy to speak of “art” and “nature” separately. More importantly, it ignores the deep connections between the two.

Just upstream from where October’s workshop is held at The Phipps Center for the Arts, the Willow River joins the St. Croix. The confluence happens to be good for boating, fishing, and for trumpeter swans that spend the whole winter where the water stays open, singing their gentle jazz. They are popular for nature photographers, loved by people in the neighborhood and in the valley, and cared for by passionate volunteers who paddle kayaks in freezing waters to rescue sick birds. The strength of a community resides in its relationships, as the St. Croix’s power comes from the interaction between its many parts.

Art has an ability matched only by nature to inspire awe, wonder, joy, and stewardship. “Art makes a place sacred,” says Vera Wong, a painter with the Project Art for Nature group.

“The purpose of art and nature in society are entwined,” says Dale Cox, a poet and a ranger with the Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway. Other participants echo this, talking about how both can help us understand ourselves and our world. “To be fully human is to be a part of nature,” someone says. “We are compelled to do art. It’s a natural response to the environment,” another adds.

Wonder seems to flow through both art and nature. Perhaps there is no stronger similarity than the fact that trying to put either into words always seems to fail, and cheapens both. Go for a walk with your eyes wide open and you’ll learn more than you can reading or talking about it.

That’s what the Navigate folks do after lunch. We walk for a half-hour out on Hudson’s dike, instructed to not speak. It is gray and windy. Waves lap against the rocks, gulls and geese ride the air currents. The fresh air aids digestion and the quiet is welcome after the morning of thinking and talking and listening. Now we listen only to the river.

Everyone hears and sees something different. No one can miss the few trees with full crowns of yellow, orange and red. But while one saw a dead fish skin on the rocks, another smells a scent that reminds them of canoe trips they had taken in autumns long ago. Some are distracted by the manmade environment of the dike, others are happy to find a toilet when nature calls.

Who knows what the joggers and dog-walkers thought of seeing a silent strolling mob of 20 people going up and down the dike that Thursday afternoon. But everyone was smiling. Sharing the river can bridge the chasms between people in ways no words can.

When he was younger, ranger Dale Cox went canoeing with his uncle on a river in Wisconsin. As they went downstream, his uncle suddenly steered them into an eddy, where the water was calm, and pointed out the first bald eagle he had seen in 30 years. Then, he started talking about World War II, and his participation in the Battle of the Bulge. He had never talked about the war to Dale before. They sat in the eddy and shared a profound moment of connection through those stories.

Angie Hong, an East Metro Water educator, talks about going to the Prado museum in Madrid and seeing Picasso’s paintings of the Spanish Civil War. The horror and the empathy still lives clearly in her memory.

About 700-1,000 years ago, people we call the Oneota lived at a village on the river on the east side of Rice Lake. They hunted and fished and made distinctive pottery, big jugs made possible by mixing ground-up mussel shells from the river into the clay to strengthen it. Some centuries later, native paddlers painted canoes and handprints and creatures on rock faces up and down the river. Those are only some of the earliest peoples we know anything about. Art has been happening in the St. Croix Valley for a very long time. Conversations about art and the natural world have been happening here for a long time, too. There were several people at Navigate who were previously involved with a coalition called “What We Need is Here,” a coalition that worked at the intersection of creative and sustainable living. The Art Bench Trail is the result of schools and students and communities collaborating on an art project that invariably portrays their relationship to the river.

Navigate participants filled a ceiling-high map of the river with Post-Its demonstrating a fraction of people and places currently found at the confluence of art and nature, all of it mingled together.

By the end of the first day, a clear idea was emerging about what is already happening with art and nature in the St. Croix Valley. Relationships were forming. Everyone was starting to speak a common parlance. To keep things interesting, more folks are being invited to join the workshop during the next two morning meetings.

Rooted in the place and the present, Navigate will now set out to chart the next leg of the journey. First, we have to figure out where we want to go.

step out of your head
through the St. Croix scenery
into the canvas

Navigate was organized by ArtReach St. Croix and Arts Midwest. It is funded by The Saint Paul Foundation, Mardag Foundation, Bigelow Foundation, The McKnight Foundation, the Bush Foundation, and Arts Midwest. Additional funding was provided by the Hugh J. Andersen Foundation, Fred C. and Katherine B. Andersen Foundation, the Water Street Inn, and ArtReach St. Croix.

Questions? Contact Heather Rutledge, ArtReach St. Croix, at, or Sharon Rodning Bash, Arts Midwest, at For comments on this article, Greg Seitz can be reached at


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One response to “Mapping the Confluence of Art and Nature in the St. Croix River Valley”

  1. […] Valley gathered at the Phipps Center for the Arts in Hudson as part of a new initiative known as Navigate, led by ArtReach St. Croix and Arts Midwest. Over the course of five retreats, the group will […]


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Mapping the Confluence of Art and Nature in the St. Croix River Valley