Going NORTH: Art installation by Mary Ellen Childs brought Arctic environment to Carleton

NORTH is a multisensory experience encouraging reflection on our connections to northern landscapes.

Josey MacDonald ’25 19 December 2023 Posted In:
Projections of dripping ice on the walls of the NORTH installation

Campus is not yet blanketed by snow, but Carls didn’t have to travel far to enter a world of extreme cold this fall term—they just walked to the Weitz and entered the Hamlin Creative Space, where from September 12 to November 15 the installation NORTH transported viewers to an icier world. 

A work by the Minneapolis-based composer Mary Ellen Childs, NORTH recreated the environment of the Arctic through imagery, sculpture, music, and sound. The installation invited viewers to “consider our northernmost lands and their connection to all of us—wherever we live.” 

Emerging from a dark hallway, the walls of the space were covered with textured paper resembling ice. Colors and shapes floated across the walls from projectors, shifting in mood to match the music and sounds that engulfed the room. At one point, a flock of birds flew across the walls, seemingly pushed by the wind. At another, pinpoints of light fell like snow. 

NORTH was constructed to capture the feeling of the Arctic, inspired by Childs’s experience during an artist residency in Svalbard, a territory of the Arctic 10 degrees from the North Pole. Images from the trip were used in the exhibit, along with abstract paintings by Lindsy Halleckson and videography by Tamara Ober and Caitlin Hammer. 

During the residency, Childs and twenty other artists lived aboard a ship, sailing fjords and making daily landfall to experience the terrain.

“I was very curious about the experience,” said Childs. “I like to create pieces that are based on sensory experience. It’s not that I love cold environments and winter, believe it or not, even though I’ve lived in Minnesota for quite a while. I was really interested in going to a part of the world that I’d never been to before and experiencing what was there.”

After returning from the residency, Childs composed over an hour’s worth of music. The music was performed and recorded by Zeitgeist, a St. Paul quartet featuring percussion, clarinet, and piano (played by Carleton’s Dye Family Professor of Music Nikki Melville). 

People visiting the installation sit and watch. The room is filled with blue light and a picture of cracking ice is on the wall
Viewers take in NORTH during the closing reception

Childs has written works for chamber orchestra, concert band, choir, opera, percussion, and even solo accordion. She is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships for her work and her music has been performed around the world. 

Childs is especially known for creating unique multisensory pieces that bring numerous art forms together.

“I think of myself as a composer first and foremost, but increasingly I say I’m a composer and multisensory artist,” she said. “I’m really curious about how our senses interact. How does what we’re smelling affect what we’re hearing? How does what we’re seeing affect how we’re hearing?” 

The multisensory experience she’s known for was fully embodied in NORTH, which combined sound, visuals, and even a scent designed by Childs. Because she wanted the exhibit to be an environment created from sound rather than a film with musical accompaniment, the videos from the Arctic were edited to match the music. The effect caused the viewer to really feel like they had entered an immersive and three-dimensional world quite different from the one just outside. 

NORTH first premiered at the Anderson Center in Red Wing, Minnesota. One of the visitors to that installation was Steve Richardson ’86, Puzak Family Director of the Arts at Carleton. Richardson envisioned the installation fitting the Hamlin Creative Space, a location that Childs said turned out to be perfect. 

While the Arctic has always pulled on our imagination as human beings, its vulnerability to climate change has transformed our understanding of its landscapes.

“You can’t go to that part of the world without thinking about our environment,” said Childs. “[The Arctic] has such a big impact on extreme weather events around the world—the rising of the oceans, the wind patterns—so I was very much interested in all of those things.” 

However, even in such a remote place, human impacts are visible.

“People don’t live there, it’s too remote for most of the places to be settled, but even there, plastic would wash ashore,” Childs said. Seeing garbage in such a remote place made her realize the interconnectedness of the planet. 

Despite the pollution she encountered, Childs said she wanted to focus on the beauty of the Arctic, rather than citing scary facts about climate change.

“I just really want to help us have a different relationship with our planet so that we fall in love with its natural beauty all over again,” she said. 

NORTH succeeded in capturing the emotional pull of Arctic landscapes, even on people who will likely never see them in person. In doing so, it demonstrated the power of art to transform our ways of seeing and foster connections to our environment—ones that will last, even after the installation is gone.