Winter is here, but black cone flowers, velvet petunias, coleus and more soon will blossom in St. Paul. The blooms will be inside an ice-enclosed greenhouse, the centerpiece of this year's Great Northern Festival, which runs Jan. 27-Feb. 6.
Titled "Conservatory," the icy creation is a response to the racial reckoning that began in the summer of 2020 following the killing of George Floyd and is intended as a testament to survival despite oppression.
Great Northern's largest project to date, it cost $250,000, with funds coming through a grant by the Knight Foundation and the city of St. Paul's Cultural STAR Program.
"When we conceptualized 'Conservatory,' we weren't thinking of the concept of cold as a singular metaphor," said Speller and DuCett in a joint e-mail. "As two people who were physically separated/threatened by intense biological and sociological conditions, we were thinking of how best to represent that moment in time, knowing that there were many more who were in much more precarious situations."
The ice-enclosed greenhouse will be housed between two buildings in an alley at 340 Sibley Street in downtown St. Paul.
Speller and DuCett created the concept and design, and experimental marketing firm Street Factory Media will engineer and build the structure. St. Louis Park-based REM5 VR Lab will offer a virtual experience of the greenhouse, allowing the work to live on after the icemelts. After the project ends, all plants will be donated to Black-owned gardens.
To make the project more community-oriented and inclusive, DuCett and Speller will curate a selection of responses to the uprising from Minnesota artists who identify as Black. Those pieces will be displayed in an online gallery when the Great Northern begins.
Founded in 2017, Great Northern celebrates Minnesota's long, cold winters with 10 days of programming that encourages people to get outdoors and celebrate this special icy season.
Last year, the festival had to change because of the pandemic, with much of the programming going virtual. This year's festival is a return to normal.
"We share experiences of winter from a multitude of perspectives, creating opportunities for Minnesotans to get out and experience the season in community," said Great Northern Executive Director Kate Nordstrum. "We think visitors will find 'Conservatory' deeply meaningful, beautiful and inspiring."
For DuCett and Speller, the collaboration began during the pandemic, in June 2020 in the midst of the uprising. Bringing it out into the world now, more than a year later, feels like an accomplishment.
"Both of us (if not the world), were in deep engagement with the concept of 'maintaining,'" they said. "We were just trying to get by. Trying to find the light. But also trying to be a part of something that was larger than ourselves, that created something in this space of uncertainty, and in turn created something else with the opportunity that we were given."