Finding Beauty in a Harsh Winter

By Kate Havelin, Community Outreach 

It’s not always easy to appreciate winter. To me, Polar Vortex is a term so profane it merits an F.C.C. fine. But banning weather words wouldn’t change the thermometer. Instead, I’m working on finding the positive amid the negative temperatures. I want to appreciate and acclimatize myself to this relentless season. 
photo by Leon Kosek

So I went indoors to look for Minnesota’s true beauty. I toured the Minnesota Waters exhibit at the James J. Hill House, where the Minnesota Historical Society is featuring works from its collection. Most of the art showcases summer scenes of blue waters and green trees, flowing waterfalls, glassy lakes, placid canoes and cows. 

Winter makes an appearance in only a few paintings, and most of those scenes seem mild, with snow as soft as an old cotton sheet, dotted with colorful fish houses and pretty trees.

Only one painting on display shows winter in all its dominance.

Philip Little, Frozen Mississippi, circa 1910

Artist Philip Little’s Frozen Mississippi, circa 1910, shows an all-too familiar scene. Billowy steam clouds cast a veil over the muted Minneapolis skyline. At first glance, it’s hard to distinguish the river from the land. Both are blanketed in snow. The painting is a study in fifty shades of gray and white. It’s not a pretty picture. Daubs of white paint sit unevenly on the canvas, textured as thickly as our washboard side streets.

Little’s brave landscape isn’t as easy on the eyes as sweet scenes of greenery and summer canoes. But I admire artists who help us see art in the world as it is. Winter is too powerful to ignore. So I look again at Little’s Frozen Mississippi and see the Stone Arch Bridge as a sinewy dark curve that pops amid a world of white. 

Little’s painting opens my eyes to the art of winter. As I drive into downtown Saint Paul, the pink of the morning sun catches my eye. It seems like a light show combined with the showy plumes of steam rising from the city’s District Energy heating plant. The massive steam plume could be mistaken for a disaster -- a major fire or epic pollution. Instead, I smile, knowing that the plume is just my city’s healthy way of staying warm. Truckloads of invasive buckthorn from Coldwater Spring end up as District Energy fuel to keep downtown buildings warm.  I’m learning to see the beauty in billowy steam plumes, to see the graphic art of sunlight and shadow atop a blanket of snow. While running outside, I notice panoramic landscapes of shadow trees painted on endless snowy canvasses. 
photo by Melissa Buss

This week, I got to see our winter world a new way, from the aerie view of a friend’s 17th story riverfront apartment. Suzi and I looked out her wall of windows, gazing upon an undulating expanse of white river, framed by tawny and brown bluffs, bare trees, and cityscapes full of buildings and people. From her Highland home, we looked down on grain elevators and water towers, the downtown Minneapolis skyline, the University of Minnesota, the Witch’s Tower, Lake Street Bridge, St. Thomas, St. Kate’s, cars, houses and people. We saw runners dressed in blaze orange, warm black and bright reds striding along river road trails. We spotted what look like cross country ski tracks etched atop the snowy river. 
photo by Melissa Buss

The river is frozen; winter is harsh, but people and life continue to flow. And maybe that’s the true beauty of winter in Minnesota. In a world of white snow and ice, people bring the color and warmth.