Mississippi River Stories: Translating Research to Art

April 10, 2022

Mississippi River Stories brings to life our diverse experiences of the Mississippi River through the translation of University of St. Thomas student research into art.  

The exhibit, a culmination of a multi-year collaborative project, features a collection of artwork from sixteen artists, each inspired by student research.  It opens April 18 – June 6 at the Mississippi Watershed Management Organization’s Stormwater Learning Center. 

The Research

The roots of the exhibit began in Fall 2019 through a University of St. Thomas Sustainable Communities Partnership collaboration with environmental studies students, the Mississippi Watershed Management Organization (MWMO), and the Natural Heritage Project (NHP).  

The MWMO was interested to learn more about why the river is important to people in the Mississippi River watershed.  Students in Society and Sustainability (ENVR 212), taught by Dr. Maria Dahmus, developed a research study to explore this question - with  a unique approach.  

Students collected people's stories about the Mississippi River using the "Elm Tree Story Booth."  The Elm Tree Story Booth, a ten-foot-tall tree-shaped phone booth built by Standing Cedars Workshop, traveled to numerous locations throughout the Twin Cities, including the University of St. Thomas, to gather stories from diverse voices.

PHOTO SLIDESHOW: St Thomas hosts Elm Tree Story Booth – TommieMedia

The instructions: step inside the booth, pick up the phone, and share your story. Students then transcribed and analyzed the data to identify patterns and themes in people's stories.

PHOTO SLIDESHOW: St Thomas hosts Elm Tree Story Booth – TommieMedia

Elm Tree Story Booth at the University of St. Thomas campus, Fall 2019, Tommie Media.

Translating Research into Art

Then the translation of research into art began.

Through the SCP Arts program, Society and Sustainability students and SCP Artist-in-Residence, Sarah Nelson, collaborated to communicate students' research findings about people’s experiences of the Mississippi River into art. Through an iterative process of conversation and revision, students envisioned a digital illustration, drawn by Sarah Nelson, to translate patterns students found in their research into visual art.  

Artwork of research

Illustration by SCP Artist-in-Residence, Sarah Nelson

Students chose to communicate their findings of perspective and relationship. The digital illustration conveys three primary perspectives respondents described and the different relationships with the river these perspectives evoked:

  • through a window, as an onlooker from afar;
  • walking or biking along the river trails, experiencing aesthetics and connection;
  • and a close interaction, exploring the shores and waters of the river, as a transformative experience.

Respondents that experienced a close interaction with the river were also more likely to describe a tension of pollution and beauty.

This illustration was first featured at Symbiosis in Fall 2019 in the O'Shaughnessy Educational Center Gallery.

Call to Artists

Next, exhibit partners issued a call to artists to participate in the Mississippi River Stories art exhibit.  The call:  create a work of visual art, inspired by a community member’s river story.  Fifteen artists were selected for this portion of the exhibit, and each received a different river story to bring to life.

Participating Artists:

Laura Ahola-Young, Jason Arney-O’Neil, Barbara Rogers Bridges, Amy Clark, Mark Cosimini, Wynn Davis, Sharon DeMark, MaryBeth Garrigan, Jerry Allen Gilmore, Stefanie Kiihn, Mike Klein, Kristin Maija Peterson, Joan Porter-Einsman, Ric Rosow, and Beatriz Sanchez 

Visit the virtual gallery.
View the artwork and read the river stories.

Research Outcomes

Students’ research will also inform the MWMO’s public outreach programs by contributing to understandings of why the Mississippi River is important to the community.

Exhibit Dates

April 18 - June 6
Mississippi Watershed Management Organization's Stormwater Learning Center
2522 Marshall St. NE, Minneapolis, MN 5541

Exhibit Events

Mississippi River Stories Open House
Saturday, April 23, 1-3pm
Meet the artists and learn about the University of St. Thomas student research that inspired the artwork.
Light refreshments provided.
Mississippi Watershed Management Organization
2522 Marshall St., NE, Minneapolis, MN 55418

Exhibit partners 

Mississippi River Stories is collaboration between the Sustainable Communities Partnership, the Natural Heritage Project, and the Mississippi Watershed Management Organization.

Questions?  Please contact Dr. Maria Dahmus, Director, Sustainable Communities Partnership and course instructor for Society and Sustainability (Fall 2019).