Kate Nordstrum had pictured gatherings. Side-by-side, shoulder-to-shoulder, around a fire, inside a theater.

Instead, people will experience her first Great Northern Festival solo and staggered, from their homes and in shifts.

"We've had to repackage so much," said Nordstrum, the new executive and artistic director of the 11-day fest, which starts Thursday.

Still, Nordstrum knew that Minnesotans would welcome "a bright light" during a winter dimmed by a pandemic, so she packed the festival's schedule with all that's possible.

Streamed concerts, storytelling sessions and Q&A's. Animated art, projected onto buildings across the city. Food you can take out and a blanket you can bring home. There's a blog, too, and a podcast.

"We have funding to commission work and engage artists to be part of our festival at a time when they need work the most — and also when our audience could use these good words," Nordstrum said. "We didn't want to go dark."

This year's fest, the fifth since it was launched as an umbrella event for the St. Paul Winter Carnival, City of Lakes Loppet and U.S. Pond Hockey Championships, reveals the scale of her ambitions. Despite the constraints, her Great Northern feels deep, layered, diverse.

Known for the acclaimed Liquid Music series, Nordstrum has programmed a host of activities to broaden the festival beyond its usual complement of Winter Carnival and Loppet events. (Because of COVID, the hockey tourney won't take place this year.)

There's music, of course. A new, semi-improvised performance next Saturday pairing drummer Dave King with photographer Alec Soth is exactly the kind of genre-bending matchup Nordstrum has long cultivated. But the festival is pushing her into new directions, too, deeper into the visual arts and into issues of sustainability and climate change.

It's even gotten her to like winter.

"I had been in a place many years ago where I shut myself indoors in winter," she said. Being around winter cheerleaders has helped. (The Great Northern's co-founder, Eric Dayton, might be the season's biggest.) Shifting her mind-set has, too. ("What winter gives, rather than what it takes away.") So has winter running. ("Finding that way to be warm from the inside out.")

But she knows that "winter is a time of inwardness, too." Thus, the festival's focus on writing, on walking. While the events she's programmed fit loosely around the season as a theme, they don't ignore its shadows.

"We can be complex," Nordstrum said. "We don't need to be rah-rah about the season."

Technology meets nature

Just after dark on Wednesday, images will appear on Highlight Tower in northeast Minneapolis. A glowing, floating orb. Light separating into a rainbow.

Then, each night after that, the animation will be projected onto another building somewhere in the Twin Cities, looping every six minutes. (Follow along on Instagram.)

Marlena Myles created the piece, titled "Innerworld Prism," to illustrate an abstract journey back to our origins with nature. It's a journey that's been aided in some ways by the pandemic, she noted. Rather than "punching in and sitting in traffic," people are exploring parks and spending time with family.

A self-taught Native American artist, Myles makes digital works — including illustrations and animations — that explore her Dakota heritage.

Growing up, "I never saw anything that represented who I am," said Myles, 35, who is Mohegan, Muscogee Creek and a member of the Spirit Lake Dakota tribe. She uses modern technology to depict Native people so young people can see that their heroes are "just as cool as Spider-Man."

Myles has also created maps highlighting Twin Cities history, with Dakota villages and sacred sites.

"I grew up in the city, and I think part of my duty as a Dakota person is to re-Indigenize the urban areas," she said. "I want the kids living here to feel like this is our homeland, too, because it is."

She appreciates that the Great Northern is working with artists "who may not have been invited to previous festivals." That's something last summer's protests taught us, Myles said: "We need to be more inclusive, to listen to more community stories."

Also part of the fest: a conversation with chef Sean Sherman, known as the Sioux Chef, about foraging and a film about environmentalist Winona LaDuke. Then there's the blanket, designed by Dyani White Hawk.

"The way Minnesota has marketed itself in the past — emphasizing Scandinavian heritage above all else — is problematic," Nordstrum said. "So it is essential that this festival that spotlights winter culture shares the diversity of cultural perspectives."

Making a human connection

When Nordstrum calls, you answer, says Minnesota Orchestra violist Sam Bergman.

"I think it's safe to say that Kate changed the new music scene in this town," said Bergman, who also is part of this year's festival, with his occasional variety show Outpost.

Bergman and soprano Carrie Henneman Shaw launched the series in 2018, years after working together on a dance piece that began with Bergman on his back in an overturned chair. ("Having to roll that chair and myself while playing was the scariest thing I have ever done in my life." )

They both loved risk-taking music by living composers and felt something was missing from the Twin Cities scene. But they wondered: What can we offer that isn't already being offered?

Turns out the answer was spoken word. "How do you bring people something brand-new with lots of odd sounds that no one's ever heard before and have them walk away feeling a thing?" Henneman Shaw said. Including poems, essays and comedy "helped bridge a gap."

Amid the pandemic, they had to cancel their June performance. So their Great Northern show has a sense of bottled-up energy, with three world premieres, two new music pieces and three spoken-word performers, including Safy-Hallan Farah.

Bergman and Henneman Shaw perform together, and "there's not a super-wide repertory for voice and viola," Bergman said. So at some point they realized: "We're going to have to ask someone to write these." The resulting duet, by Daijana Wallace, is the first original commission specifically for Outpost.

The show, streamed live on Feb. 1 from the Parkway Theater, is a logistical feat they wouldn't have attempted without Nordstrum's help.

"I hope that the audience is just able to have a good time for a couple hours," Bergman said. "Isn't that what we're all looking for from entertainment right now?

"It's not necessarily escapism. Let's do something together ... and remember that we can make these human connections, and that those are still going to be there for us on the other end of this thing."

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168 • @ByJenna

Great Northern Festival

When: Jan. 28-Feb. 7.

Info: thegreatnorthernfestival.com