When Aaron Dysart lived in St. Paul, he would often see the billowing plume coming off the District Energy building downtown.

“It looked like this never-ending river of cumulus clouds,” he said.

Now, it’s going to be the vehicle for an art project, of all things.

Dysart, a longtime instructor at Anoka-Ramsey Community College, and three fellow Twin Cities artists recently received a $35,000 Knight Arts Challenge Grant for their plans to project displays onto the plume. They need to raise matching funds by next fall, after which they’ll have another year to complete their work.

People often assume the giant plume emitted from the square District Energy building is smoke, said Dysart. It’s actually steam.

The nonprofit energy provider recaptures excess steam from electricity generation, usually lost in energy production, for additional heating to increase efficiency. The utility’s cooling towers release the residual steam after that process.

The rising plume is often about the size of a house — about two stories high and 40 to 50 feet wide — estimates Nina Axelson, vice president of communications at District Energy.

On that huge canvas of steam, the artists will project their work.

Images from NASA

The artists are in the idea stage, working on three prototypes. For his main project, Dysart hopes to create a light show that replicates the surface of the sun. The idea is to create a computer program that will use images from the NASA Solar Dynamics Observatory feed and translate those into projections. It will create a “kind of flashy light show on the plume,” he said, that relates to “what was going on on the sun a day ago.”

“I’ve always been fascinated with surface images of the sun,” said Dysart. “The sun is the power plant of our universe.”

Asia Ward, of Minneapolis, is one of the other artists involved in the project. She is thinking of putting out an open call for locals to post photos, videos and drawings online. The artists would then select from the submissions and schedule a certain number to be projected onto the plume during specific time slots.

Dysart said St. Paul artist Andrea Steudel got the project rolling when she invited people over to a campfire and they practiced projecting lights onto steam generated by the fire.

Test run last summer

After more brainstorming sessions, they met at 10:30 one night this past summer on top of the power plant for an initial test run.

They tried out projections of movie clips, footage of shadow puppet plays, an eye chart to see how clear words would appear and a color spinning wheel to see how the colors would translate.

“It actually is pretty high resolution,” said Dysart, and Ward said that symbols were “clear and crisp.”

“The plume wasn’t that big because of the summer,” said Dysart. “The plume is more spectacular when it is cold out.”

“If it is a very frigid day,” said Axelson, “it will just seem to hover above the plant as opposed to drifting off.” Frigid conditions tend to keep the plume more concentrated, she said, as it slows vapor dispersion.

Still, said Dysart, “It was pretty fantastic.”

Art-science collaboration

The four artists involved are fellows in City Art Collaboratory, a new art-science program that aims to promote collaboration between local artists and scientists and engineers.

“It’s kind of a think tank approach to art making,” said Emily Stover, of St. Paul, the project’s fourth artist. Stover recently worked on a large-scale projection project displayed on the Northrup King Building in Minneapolis called “Light Plays.”

Dysart, who now lives in Minneapolis, appreciates that the project highlights the attributes of District Energy, which has won several awards over the past decade for efficiency and renewable energy initiatives. In 2011, the plant received a federal stimulus grant to build solar panels on the nearby RiverCentre, creating the first solar hot water project in the country to be integrated into a district heating system.

Dysart has worked at Anoka-Ramsey for nine years. Instructors are encouraged to be working artists, and he has received and done numerous fellowships during his time there.

His work as a whole often deals with how humans interact with nature, and it often highlights the way humans are disconnected from nature. For example, in 2010, he made a boat out of soap and rowed it down the Mississippi River, in order to highlight how people’s notions of clean differ from what is environmentally clean.

“Our notion of clean is very problematic,” he said.

He has created artificial limbs for trees that have lost them in storms to bring attention to the human desire to “fix” things that occur naturally, and at Franconia Sculpture Park in Shafer, Minn., he displayed a tree with hot rod flames to bring attention to the way humans tend to customize the environment.

Dysart said the artists have hired a fundraiser to help them come up with the matching funds through private donations. After that, they will have until September 2016 to complete the projects, which they will likely do during cooler times — fall, winter, and spring — for prime plume conditions.

Once the projects are underway, Axelson said, the plume will likely be visible from at least a mile away.

“I’m thinking they will be able to see it on the other side of the river,” said Dysart. “It’s going to be insanely visible. It’s going to be hovering over St. Paul as a massive spectacle.”


Liz Rolfsmeier is a Twin Cities-based freelance journalist.