Home News & Events Cultivating Community During COVID-19

Cultivating Community During COVID-19

How one Midwest organization grew community in the middle of a pandemic through Hope Jahren’s book Lab Girl.

ArtReach St. Croix director Heather Rutledge (far left) speaks about “Lab Girl” with members of the St. Croix River Valley Community. Photos by Laurie Schneider.

When ArtReach St. Croix was planning for April 2020, they envisioned community-wide gatherings around Hope Jahren’s book, Lab Girl — the story of a botanist who finds salvation in growing things. They were planning staged plays and book discussions, keynote speakers, crowded galleries, and group events. This was all part of their National Endowment for the Arts Big Read grant, a community-wide reading program centered on sharing the power and joy of a good book.

Just a few weeks before they launched their program, COVID-19 began to make its way across the United States.

Everything was put on hold.

But ArtReach didn’t want to completely cancel their plans. Instead, they wanted to find a way to come together safely, knowing the importance of creativity and connection as we all experience the sadness and distance brought on by the pandemic. So the ArtReach team rescheduled their NEA Big Read to August and re-imagined how their audiences might come together.

There were no crowded and boisterous indoor opening or closing receptions, but rather events on the lawn, at local parks, and indoors with limited attendees wearing masks and maintaining distance.

(Left) A Star Tribune article features ArtReach St. Croix’s mobile gallery in a piece about art spaces cautiously reopening in the pandemic. (Right) Ceramicist Jenn Angell speaks about her work featured in the Specimen exhibition. Photos by Laurie Schneider.

Lab Girl is a work of art about nature — an interplay that’s important to life in the St. Croix Valley, and right where ArtReach loves to operate. It was also the theme of the gallery exhibition of sculpture and scientific illustrations that was part of this year’s NEA Big Read.

The exhibition featured the work of two female artists: ceramic sculptor Jenn Angell and the botanical illustration embroiderer Karen Gustafson. Angell’s vessels are filled with objects that represent emotions and trauma and are preserved like biological specimens. Gustafson’s embroidery reminds viewers of the dawn of modern science when careful illustrations were critical to documenting the natural world.

(Left) A vessel by Jenn Angell on display in the ArtReach St. Croix gallery. (Right) Community members take in Karen Gustafson’s botanical illustrations. Photos by Laurie Schneider.

While some events allowed for safe outdoor gatherings, others were conducted over streaming video.

The original plan called for a large keynote presentation featuring Shawn Otto, a local author with a national reputation for writing about science. When that option was off the table, ArtReach adapted. They still wanted to feature Otto but they also wanted to emulate that feeling of coming together at a live event – capturing that spontaneity, that feeling of something fleeting.

(Left) Scientist Shawn Otto used Zoom as a platform to express alarm that science has been ignored and even denied in our response to the pandemic. (Right) Singer-songwriter John Gorka, also featured on the call, balanced Otto’s foreboding message with songs of hope and learning. Photos by Laurie Schneider.

“I saw a sea of people, both particle and wave
Teach the ones who came before, a new way to behave
I saw a sea of people, both particle and wave
Wash over the world. Their very lives to save.”

“Particle & Wave,” John Gorka

“Live events are ephemeral, existing only for the people in the room,” says Heather Rutledge, director of ArtReach St. Croix. So they invited local folk singer and songwriter John Gorka to the presentation – making it an evening of science and song.

The two were a perfect balance. Otto’s message expressed alarm that science has been dismissed in our nation’s response to the pandemic. He remarked, “America needs to integrate science into democratic process. Science used to be as American as apple pie.”

In contrast, Gorka shared smart, hopeful songs about how we can learn from each other. His music offered a salve to spirits alarmed by the information shared by Otto.

A socially distant audience experiences a reading of “Silent Sky,” staged against a backdrop of a summer evening in Minnesota. Photo by Laurie Schneider.

ArtReach also worked with longtime partner St. Croix Festival Theatre to stage the play Silent Sky, about the life of the groundbreaking astronomer Henrietta Leavitt. An homage to Leavitt’s legacy, the play tells the story of this accomplished scientist, whose work at Harvard University in the late 19th and early 20th centuries helped open doors that Hope Jahren would walk through a century later. It offers a treatise on the often hidden work of female scientists.

Originally planned as a staged production in the troupe’s St. Croix Falls black box theatre, Festival Theatre pivoted to a staged reading that could be produced outdoors. Once again, a challenge became an opportunity for the NEA Big Read and Silent Sky was performed at three different venues throughout the valley.

“It actually provided an opportunity to take the show on the road,” Rutledge says. “It’s easier to take a staged reading on tour than a fully produced theater production.”

Performers and audience members delighted in the chance to experience live theater during the COVID-19 pandemic, with readings of “Silent Sky” offered at three, large outdoor locations across the St. Croix River Valley. Photos by Laurie Schneider.

At Belwin Conservancy, where nature is protected and preserved, the play was performed near an astronomical observatory operated in partnership with the Minnesota Astronomical Society. Yet beyond the partnerships, the pivoting, and the many ways in which ArtReach responded to the challenges of the pandemic, perhaps most fitting to the occasion is this reflection:

One of Leavitt’s scientific contributions was calculating a method of determining the distance from Earth to other celestial bodies.

As we all become acutely aware of the distance between people during the pandemic, it feels especially meaningful to reserve a socially-distanced spot on a lawn and experience a rare bit of live art during this lonely year.

We’ve all learned this year that a new world requires new ways of thinking. And thanks to organizations like ArtReach St. Croix, who have worked tirelessly to reimagine their NEA Big Read events, our communities can start to reckon with this profound radical change through art and the kind of conversation only creativity can cultivate.

Members of the St. Croix Festival Theatre pose outside the astronomical observatory at Belwin Conservancy, a setting that perfectly complements their play about notable astronomer Henrietta Leavitt. Photo by Laurie Schneider.

Arts Midwest extends our thanks to the ArtReach St. Croix team for their patience, imagination, and commitment to finding new ways to bring creativity to Midwestern communities during the pandemic and beyond. Story by Greg Seitz, photos by Laurie Schneider, and direction by Heather Rutledge.