Artist residency report: Photographer shares river images and experiences

Time spent living and working on the river this spring gave Sarah Lilja the chance to see stunning sights and develop her skills.




4 minute read

Note: Sarah Lilja was an artist-in-residence at the Pine Needles cabin on the banks of the St. Croix River in Marine on St. Croix in April and May. The Pine Needles artist residency is operated by the St. Croix Watershed Research Station, part of the Science Museum of Minnesota.

The artist residency at Pine Needles was an outstanding experience for me, as an emerging artist in photography.  Spending three weeks in the peace and beauty of this property on the banks of the St. Croix River allowed me to intensely focus on my artistic process and to explore the countless photo opportunities.  I also spent time in the lab and interacted with a number of scientists at the St. Croix Watershed Research Station to learn about their research.  These conversations, and photographing the scientists while they work, has helped me to think more deeply about how science and art intersect and to investigate that intersection in my photographs. 

Working with Mark Edlund was really engaging.  He showed me how to collect water samples that contained microscopic diatoms and then set me up in the microscope lab so that I could photograph them.  Diatoms are incredibly beautiful and also important biological markers that help Mark and other station scientists understand more about how climates change over long periods of time.  I really enjoyed sitting side-by-side with Mark in the microscope lab, each of us exclaiming over the beautiful diatoms we were seeing on our separate slides.  Science makes it possible for us to know about diatoms, their skeletons help us to better understand climate change, and photography lets me showcase these stunning and unique one-celled alga for all to see.

Living at the edge of the St. Croix River in the middle of a pine forest gave me hours and hours to explore this special place with my camera.  Like shooting at dawn to study how the soft light of early morning illuminates fog on the river.  Or watching the full moon, framed by pine branches, rise over the river at midnight, its reflection captured in the still water.  These experiences felt magical and helped me to focus my creativity in new ways. Though I typically don’t love early mornings, my whole perspective changed while living on the edge of the river.  Each day when I awoke, I wondered what marvelous new sight I would find right outside the cabin door.  Many early mornings found me rushing outside in my pajamas and hiking boots, cameras slung around my neck, racing to capture the mist rising on the water, or a small fishing boat emerging from the fog, or the perfect dawn light on a newly blooming hepatica or trillium.

This residency gave me many opportunities to practice and improve my photography skills.  Shooting from dawn to dusk, I was able to take photographs of the same subject multiple times over many days.  In studying these images between shoots I could see how different qualities of light and composition dramatically changed the way the subject looked across changing conditions.  This deep and intense practice really helped me improve the quality of my images.

In addition to improving my photography skills, I also wanted to share the images I made at Pine Needles with the public.  One of the ways I did this was to post a different image each day on Instagram and Facebook, along with information about my experiences or the day’s shot (in fact I have so many great photographs that I will continue to post new images throughout the summer).  Angie Hong, from the Washington County Conservation District also came out to Pine Needles to see the property and interview me for a story she wrote for the Valley Life Newspaper which has a circulation across the St. Croix River Valley and watershed.  And now, I’m so pleased to have this opportunity to write about the residency here on St. Croix 360.  In August and September images from my Pine Needles residency will also be shown at a public exhibition at the Stillwater Library.  

I hope that the photographs from my artist residency at Pine Needles will inspire wonder and curiosity both about the important science work of the St. Croix Watershed Research Station and the special beauty of the St. Croix River Valley and that these images will encourage people to get outside and explore for themselves how science and art come together in the natural world.

See more of Sarah Lilja’s photos and follow her on Instagram.


One response to “Artist residency report: Photographer shares river images and experiences”

  1. Mark Hove Avatar
    Mark Hove

    Neat story and pictures!


You may republish this article online or in print under our Creative Commons license. You may not edit or shorten the text, you must attribute the article to St. Croix 360 and you must include the author’s name in your republication.

If you have any questions, please email


Creative Commons License Attribution-ShareAlikeCreative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike
Artist residency report: Photographer shares river images and experiences