spring flies north in flocks
ice floes crunch down the river
The stiff grip of a St. Croix Valley winter is broken each year by the sun, when rivers run, life grows, and another season of creation commences. The world is reshaped by frozen forces, and people find new things to see and new things to say.
This year, the St. Croix Valley’s artists and naturalists are awakening from an especially long winter. Having seemingly hibernated since 2020, the world is now different, and so are they. But two things are still a solid base for life and work: art and nature. These reminders of resilience were important before the COVID-19 pandemic and essential during its darkest days; they will be critical in what comes next.
“Art and nature saved my mental and emotional well-being,” said painter Emily Anderson about getting through the pandemic. She was speaking at the beginning of a recent virtual meeting about Navigate, a movement in the St. Croix Valley to bring together art and nature in new ways.
During difficult days of the past two years, art and nature helped give hope. Making something was a defiant act. Feeling awe toward the world is the opposite of fear.
hidden frogs sing
in shallow forest puddles
the sirens of spring
When spring arrived back in 2020, it was at the beginning of a bad time. In the traditional time of birth and growth, the world was overtaken by uncertainty. Nature provided peace and quiet and beauty that fed malnourished souls. Art was an outlet, a distraction, and a means to make sense of it all. The St. Croix Valley was a good place to be for both reasons.
Artists and naturalists were affected, but in many different ways, both negative and positive.
“Performing artists were shut down completely, no audience, no groups,” pointed out Syndie Sorensen, ArtReach’s program coordinator. “But if you were graphics artist or potter, or individual solo artist, you may have had more time to be involved in your art.”
The assembled had seen it all. Some participants lost the chance to pursue their passions and livelihoods, while others found they could finally focus on their work.
the sun paints the scene
in shifting color and light
its own audience
The Navigate initiative began in 2015-2016 with a series of retreats and workshops. Participants wrestled with what it means to connect art and nature, how the work is already happening, and how both can thrive in harmony and shape positive change. It wove its way through the intervening years in the work of numerous artists, conservation organizations, and others.
The region has “artistic and natural resources in spades,” said Heather Rutledge, executive director of ArtReach St. Croix, organizer of the workshop. Those resources have long influenced people in the area. Five years ago, Navigate’s original participants agreed that art and nature are bedrock values for the St. Croix Valley — like the sandstone bluffs or the basalt Dalles, these resources and beliefs help ground people. In the face of constant change, art and nature are the solid foundation for creation.
“Despite all the changes of recent years, the values of art and nature prevailed,” said Stillwater painter Charlotte Schuld. “Art and nature are keepers of cultures.”
Navigate’s ideas imbued itself in the efforts of ArtReach St. Croix, which launched its Mobile Art Gallery after Navigate to bring art outdoors, into parks and other natural spaces. The towable trailer proved particularly helpful during the pandemic, when the parks were busier than ever, and indoor events were limited.
This year, several arts and nature organizations in the region are partnering on 4Ground: Midwest Land Art Biennial, a project that will place new artworks at three outdoor sites in the St. Croix Valley, as well as across the Midwest.
With leadership from Navigate participants at Franconia Sculpture Park, Arts Midwest, The Acreage, and Belwin Conservancy, the Land Art Biennial will “ask what it means to be stewards and caretakers of the land we all share?” explained Michael Johnson of Arts Midwest. It will take its lessons from the natural world, and connect artists and environmentalists to celebrate a tradition of land-based art that stretches back thousands of years here.
crumbling sandstone cliff
water and plants fill fissures
breaking and building
Navigate has new meaning after two years of pandemic, climate change, racial reckoning, civil unrest, war, economic upheaval, and more.
This is why Rutledge said it’s also become more urgent. People have been confronted with isolation, injustice, and mortality. It makes it impossible to ignore the questions Navigate tries to answer. It shows the power of art and nature, and the force they become when connected.
“When ever anything important is happening in the world, art shows up,” one participant said.
The participants shared how they felt called to contribute, to bring more people into the movement, to model nature’s adaptability and healing power.
Many things changed in the past two years. Some were good for some people, some were bad for all people. With vaccines available and cases falling, the pandemic potentially waning, many of the Navigate participants said they wanted to be cautious about going back to “normal.” They have seen new ways of living and working, and learned to appreciate art and nature in new ways, and refuse to return to business as usual.
Talking openly about the issues and connecting with others who feel similarly offered hope that, together, something new could be created.
“I’m excited looking at the cracks that have formed from all this,” said textiles artist Barbara Bend. “Cracks are opportunities.”
Like a spindly cedar tree might grow from a narrow fissure in a sandstone bluff, fractures in society allow for new life and fresh ideas.
Spring cannot be stopped. It marches in unpredictably, sun one day and snow the next. Change may be invisible sometimes, but it never truly slows. The arts aren’t much different, patient but persistent, creative while connected to eternal cycles. Together, they make room for life and meaning.
buds not yet blooming
flowers first grow underground
soon to burst above
Publication of this article was supported by ArtReach St. Croix.