Art of the North: Experiencing a winter night at Belwin

By Greg Seitz
A luminaria, the observatory, and the moon.

Winter’s long night is just starting to give way to spring’s sun in our latitudes. We are well into ten hours of daylight, and the pace of its lengthening is accelerating everyday. At Belwin Conservancy’s Annual Open House on Feb. 17, the push and pull of light and dark did their ancient dance for anyone to see.

The paths near the Belwin Outdoor Science Education Center were marked by luminarias of ice, a candle glowing in the middle. A bonfire crackled among the red pines, casting shadows on the snowy ground of people making s’mores. A crescent moon was setting a mile away — across the prairie sloping down toward Valley Creek, across the forested bottom, and above the steep bluff opposite. The night was so clear that the shadowed part of the moon was plainly visible.

The door to the Joseph J. Casby Observatory was open and a red glow from the lights inside leaked out onto the snow. The lights are tinted to reduce the impact on night vision when one wants to study the stars through a telescope.

Celestial sights

A young visitor views the moon.

Inside, a small crowd moved in the dimness between the ladder up to the eyepiece, to the members of the Minnesota Astronomical Society on hand to help and answer questions, and to quiet conversations about the cosmos.

Looking through the lenses, one’s eye could study the depth of the different craters on the moon. It created a sense of kinship with the satellite.

Along the trail back to the Education Center, visitors paused to take in the dark sky and dim landscape. Orion hung in the southern sky, just above the branches of bare oak trees. It was finally a warm enough night at 30 degrees to linger outdoors.

The days will be getting shorter, fast, this fall in the Arctic. That’s when the open house’s two speakers will spend two weeks on a ship sailing through the polar seas as participants in The Arctic Circle expedition. Minnesota painter Lindsy Halleckson and composer Mary Ellen Childs said they’re excited to see how the place and the experience affect their work.

Arctic artistic adventure

Lindsy Halleckson (left) and Mary Ellen Childs (right) talk about their Arctic Circle expedition.

As the evening’s guests sat on chairs in the Education Center’s main room, Childs started a slideshow about her work. She has participated in other artist residencies around the world, developing ideas about engaging more human senses than just hearing when composing her music. Recently, she has incorporated scents with song.

Her goal is to create a “sonic world” for her audience. The land of ice and fjords in Svalbard, an archipelago 400 miles north of Norway where she will travel this fall with artists from around the world, should be full of the sounds of ice and water, as well as the smell of the sea, and many more stimuli.

The sense of sight should also be busy. The participants will have the chance to go ashore each day via small craft, getting the chance to study up-close one of the most far-flung places on Earth. Because of the danger of polar bears, they will be required to stay with guides carrying guns.

The party will fly to the outpost of Longyearbyen, at 2,204 residents, the largest settlement on the islands, and the northernmost place in the world with more than 1,000 residents. After a day there, they will embark on a three-masted ship to circumnavigate the island.

Immersive intentions

Luminarias light the path to the bonfire.

The Arctic’s winter night will be rushing at them through the trip. At that time of year, as the region approaches 24-hours of darkness, each day will be about a half-hour shorter than the day before. When they set off on the trip, daylight will last about 10 hours; by the time they return it will be just five hours.

Halleckson, the painter, should see some good skies. The artist creates large canvases portraying the subtle beauty of weather and sky, ice and water. She “collects colors” around the world, from Minnesota’s state parks and northern lakes to Africa’s savanna.

Both artists talked about their desire to “immerse” the audience in a work of art. Childs uses multiple senses and ambient sounds in addition to music, while Halleckson’s large format works are intended to let viewers get lost in the “environment” of the painting.

As far as the Arctic trip goes, both artists also said they didn’t have strict plans for what they wanted to work on while underway. They want to be open to the place and the experience, and see what it inspires.

When they were finished with the presentation, in true Minnesotan fashion, the first question from an attendee was what the weather will be like. Thanks to warm Atlantic currents, the temperature should be in the 20s most of the trip.

Into the outdoors

Orion is visible in the night sky.

After the Q&A, visitors headed back outside. Belwin Naturalist Lynette Anderson and May Vang from Belwin Outdoor Science led winter hikes for attendees to listen for owls and simply “enjoy the experience of a winter’s night.” More s’mores were made at the roaring bonfire. Inside the observatory, the telescope was pointed at the Orion nebula, where stars are being born.

The moon had set and the luminarias continue to burn, creating the enchanting sight of fire and ice in one flickering orange ball.

Thank you to all our guests — including many first-time visitors — and Lindsy Halleckson and Mary Ellen Childs, as well as our volunteers, for making the open house a great night.

If you attended the open house, please take a few minutes to answer 10 questions about the event. The survey will close on Friday, March 9. Thank you!