The Great Northern festival spans 12 days, 35 venues and 70 events. Art installations, concerts and climate change talks. Pond hockey and skiing and sauna.
But the fest's many themes will converge in a single ice fishing house on Silver Lake in St. Anthony.
There, artist and angler Seitu Jones will be helping folks capture a fish's size, shape and scales via Gyotaku, a Japanese printmaking technique. They'll target carp, talking about how climate change has affected the area's lakes. People riding fat bikes in the surrounding park will stop by, marking their own treads in the ink.
"This is one of the ways we can combine art and nature," said Jones, the St. Paul-based artist whose works have long framed the natural world. "It's a grand experiment."
Part arts event, part outdoors activity, the Jan. 22 event at Silverwood Park hints at all this expansive winter festival is attempting. What started in 2017 as the combining of three classic winter events — the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships, the City of Lakes Loppet Ski Festival and the St. Paul Winter Carnival — is now a cultural meditation on winter, with climate change as the backdrop.
"As we enjoy the outdoors, we are able to reflect on what we stand to lose, too," said Kate Nordstrum, the festival's executive and artistic director. "We are wanting people to hold these things in both hands and be moved to protect what we have as precious."
So among the performances, public art and food pop-ups is the festival's most robust series of conversations around climate change yet.
But the arts aren't extra. Nordstrum, known for curating the adventurous Liquid Music series, pointed to a recent essay by ambient music producer and ideas man Brian Eno, who will be speaking during the festival. In it, he argues that artists are "feelings-merchants." And feelings are "the beginnings of thoughts ... the whole body reacting, often before the conscious brain has got into gear. ... "
So when it comes to a knotty, data-heavy topic like climate change, artists can offer a way in.
Composer Kara-Lis Coverdale sat in a sauna floating in the Oslo Fjord and considered how she could translate it into music.
There was the structure itself — the wood stove, the sunlight, the depth and darkness of the water, "a perfectly warm womb, looking out at this frigid, cold bay," as she put it.
But she also wanted to capture the physical experience of the body. The transcendence.
"The experience of sauna, the health benefits, they're often written from a scientific perspective," Coverdale noted. With the distorted pitch of a keyboard, she could capture it in another way.
The resulting piece, "Music for Sauna," which she composed in 2019, will unfold in a large sauna with three wood-burning stoves Jan. 29. The event is part of the Great Northern's first Sauna Village, a collection of a dozen distinct saunas open to visit or rent through the festival's length.
Coverdale performed as part of last year's fest and got to talking with Nordstrum about saunas and her Estonian heritage. Nordstrum knew she needed to incorporate her piece into the next festival.
During the pandemic, Coverdale returned to the town where she grew up in rural Canada, experiencing her parents' sauna again. It sits near a swamp, at the edge of a forest.
An ever-changing structure, its stove was built by her father, its furniture built by her grandfather. The family recently dug a 20-foot well, pumping into it water that is, somehow, the perfect temperature.
"The first time I felt it, I cried," she said.
Her family lives on conservation land, careful about what they produce and what they consume, Coverdale said. She carries that ethos into her music, too.
"It comes from many years of living that way, working together with this set of values and this appreciation for things that endure the test of time — or things that can melt back into the earth, like an ice cube."
'Artists make things irresistible'
A fourth-generation Minnesotan, Jones grew up catching fish alongside his "crazy, mad fisherman father."
Jones inherited his father's portable fish house, his poles, his love of fishing no matter the season.
"Ever since Black folks have been in Minnesota, we have been engaging with the outdoors," Jones said. "This is an opportunity to connect artists, art lovers and folks who might not have grown up engaged with winter activities to enjoy and to discover."
For the event, Jones teamed up with his longtime friend and fellow bicyclist Anthony Taylor, founder of Melanin in Motion, which connects Black people to the outdoors. A week ahead of the event, his group snowshoed along the route the fat bikes would ride. The trail, the gear, even the fish are taken care of, he said, ensuring that people who are new to biking or fishing are set up for success.
Taylor has found that his most successful partnerships are with arts organizations, rather than outdoors groups: "Artists make things irresistible."
Americans tend to turn everything into a sport, he noted. But recreation can and should be an emotional experience, and "artists are always in tune with the emotional experience.
"If we can create a positive emotional experience to an event, then that becomes the net result," Taylor said. "It doesn't matter about the lack of gear or how cold you get."
A biker, paddler, cross-country skier and snowboarder, Taylor is attuned to how Minnesota's unique environment has shaped its culture. And how, because of climate change, that environment is shifting.
Last week, the fest received another reminder: Because of warm temperatures, Jones' ice house moved from the deep water to a shallow area, where the ice is frozen through.
There will no longer be an ice fishing demonstration.
Seitu Jones: Ice Fishing and Printing
About: Pre-festival event in partnership with Silverwood Park, Melanin in Motion and Juxtaposition Arts.
When: 1 p.m. Jan 22.
Where: Silver Lake at Silverwood Park, St. Anthony.