Great Northern Offers New Inspiration to Embrace Winter
Marlena Myles will project large-scale digital animated artwork on city buildings throughout the Great Northern festival. Marlena Myles

Great Northern Offers New Inspiration to Embrace Winter

Covid set back the Great Northern’s goal of making Minnesota a tourist draw in January, but in a pandemic year when outside is all we’ve got, the 10-day winter festival is poised to show locals that there are ways to celebrate the coldest days beyond a ski hill or ice rink.

The Great Northern today announces a schedule, Jan. 28 to Feb. 7, packed with winter walks curated by architects and artists, winter birding, outdoor art installations, and virtual conversations about climate change. Despite these weird times, the roster delivers big names in art and culture: the fest will kick off with famed chef Yia Vang of Union Hmong Kitchen and Vinai serving up takeout at a live fire grilling event in view of Marlena Myles’ animated artwork projected on Highlight Tower in Northeast Minneapolis. Renowned photographer Alec Soth will collaborate for the first time with drummer/composer Dave King on The Palms, a live streamed performance on Jan. 30 described as storytelling, photo sharing and semi-improvised new music.

“We are prompting people to be intentional this time of year to use winter as a period of invigoration for mind, body, and spirit,” said Great Northern executive and artistic director Kate Nordstrum (read more about her on the TCB100 list for 2021). An accomplished curator nationally known for her music collaborations with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and Los Angeles Philharmonic, Nordstrum’s appointment last December signaled the organization’s intention to go beyond serving as an umbrella organization for three legacy festivals—Saint Paul Winter Carnival, City of Lakes Loppet, and U.S. Pond Hockey Championships. Her goal, she said then, was to shine a bright light on our region through outdoor gatherings of all kinds at a time of year that can be challenging for the hospitality industry.

An ambitious agenda in a typical year, but Nordstrum has spent most of 2020 figuring out how to create connections and excitement around winter—from a distance, in the midst of a pandemic. U.S. Pond Hockey Championships cancelled its 2021 games due to Covid-19. The Winter Carnival’s annual ice carving competition and snow sculpture contest will pivot to drive through events at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds.

“There’s a lot of apprehension leading into winter—it’s been so heartening to see people embracing the environment and spending more time in nature; others are dreading it,” Nordstrum said. “I feel very motivated to be a positive factor in giving people options and prompts to get outside that will extend beyond the festival. We’re shining a light on winter culture in Minneapolis and St. Paul. It’s an opportunity for learning, convening, trying new things.”

Those new things may include winter birding, with a virtual conversation on ways to attract birds to your backyard and the best Minnesota field trips for winter bird watching. Or exploring a new part of town, with a map provided by award-winning architecture/art duo Dream the Combine who are designing a series of experimental walks meant to “highlight sensorial experiences of winter.”

Great Northern founder and board chairman Eric Dayton didn’t need a pandemic push to get out in the cold—he’s long advocated a shift in the Minnesotan mindset—to embracing, rather than apologizing for, our coldest, snowiest months. He’s a vocal advocate of curbing climate change, and Nordstrum found ways to weave that mission into the festival through arts. The Great Northern will partner with the Walker Art Center and Cincinnati Symphony on a livestream concert and event themed around climate change; the festival is teaming up with Minnesota Public Radio and Westminster Town Hall Forum on a week of “lunchtime learning” broadcasts about climate solutions. MSP Film teamed up with the Great Northern on a virtual film festival that speaks to the climate conversation.

Nordstrum dreams of filling Orchestra Hall with world experts and advocates for such events in the future, but for now, she’s focused on setting the festival’s mission for the future. “This year is a wonderful opportunity to share the direction we’re headed.”

That direction requires funding, and Covid-19 hasn’t prevented Nordstrum from bringing on new sponsors including the McKnight Foundation, U.S. Bank, General Mills’ brand Nature Valley, and the Carlson Family Foundation.

View the full festival schedule at