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Local artist group creating organic boats to float on St. Croix River

Since last fall, a local artist group has been making paper boats with the materials gathered from the Apple River, adding nothing else.1 / 2
Some examples of the organic boats that will be floated down the river along with various messages. Photo by Jo Leir2 / 2

ROBERTS - A St. Croix Valley art group made up of 20 local artists has been working on a project to give a voice to the rivers of the area.

"We feel as local artists we have a responsibility to continually explore what the integrity, stability and beauty of the community means and all of that is an integral part of the soil, waters, fauna and flora," said Barbara Bend, "What We Need is Here" group member and Roberts resident.

The group wanted to do a community project that had minimal impact on the river while increasing awareness of the river's health.

Last fall, five artists paddled down the Apple River to gather vegetation that was found in and around the river.

"We each took materials home, chopped them up, cooked them with soda ash and rinsed. Then we got together monthly during the winter at Color Crossing (in Roberts) and ground the mash up into pulp to make paper. We shaped the paper into boats," Bend said.

At the end of May, boats made solely of materials found along the Apple River will act as vessels for messages to float on and into the St. Croix River.

Bend said the project's purpose is to create "a journey of exploring sustainable practices, learning, pondering our relationship to the river and involving the community." They started in boats searching for what the river has to offer and will end with boats carrying thoughts, blessings and some lessons learned," said a "What We Need is Here" press release.

The group has made more than 60 boats ranging from 5 inches to 36 inches long.

Only the 5- to 8-inch long boats will journey to the river while the larger boats will be on display in the Atrium Gallery at the Phipps Center in Hudson through June 12.

"We made larger boats from other organic materials that will be displayed at the Phipps during May, the Living Green Expo on May 7-8 at the Minnesota State Fair Grounds and at the Interstate 94 By Ways Show in St. Joseph, Minn. We also have smaller exhibits in local libraries," Bend said.

The organic boats are scheduled to be floated down the St. Croix River on three different occasions. On May 23 there will be an invitational launching at Martell Landing. The next is on June 16 at 6:30 p.m. at Lakeside Park in Hudson with the Heart of the Beast Puppet Theater and students of Just Add Water art class.

'What We Need is Here'

The group grew from an initiative created by the Visual Arts Committee of the Phipps Center under the direction of Anastasia Shartin.

"They wanted to explore our rural landscape, how it shapes us and how to preserve the integrity of the life that we value, from the visual artists' perspective," Bend said.

Artist discussions led to the umbrella title of "What We Need Is Here," based on a poem by Wendell Berry.

"This program explores sustainable practices and reaching out to our local and regional communities for our needs," Bend said.

In 2007, Shartin created an artist group that would explore sustainable practices. The artists' role, "connect some of the ideas to our greater community," said Bend.

The idea for the paper boat project came from Barb Erickson of Star Prairie, while camping with a few local artists.

"She lives on the Apple River and wanted to explore its beauty to counteract some of the negative press the river gets," Bend said.

Bend said a new group of around 20 people is started once a year and artists interested are encouraged to join at the beginning of each session.

"We have many who don't call themselves artists but love the arts. If you are interested call Anastasia at the Phipps. A new group will be started next fall," Bend said.

Although the group meetings are held at the Phipps Center, the group has work sessions for different projects at local sites, like Color Crossing.


When the boats are launched there will be messages written on paper that dissolves in water "and the graphite continues to float so the words may float on for a while after the boat sinks," Bend said.

She said the messages will come from individuals' connection to the river through their life experiences and their hopes for the future of (the river's) health.

Bend is hoping for plenty of messages to send down the river.

"The more messages the better," she said. "This is about our love for the river, to honor it, understand and remember what it does for all of life and continue to learn how to take care of it."

Bend said anyone can join the group.

While the May launch is by invitation only, Bend said she's "more than happy to invite someone or a group that might be interested.

You can contact her via email at or call 715-749-3579.

For more information about "Voices on the River" events, go to http://artful, and click on the "Voices on the River" tab toward the bottom of the page.