Big river, little artists


For Kathy Swenson, the Mississippi River is more than a scenic body of water dividing the Twin Cities. As a park ranger with the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area (MNRRA) — a 72-mile stretch of river that includes Minneapolis and St. Paul — the river represents the area’s vitality.

Swenson said since she began her involvement with the Big River Journey student learning experience, she has a renewed sense of faith in the river’s future caretakers. The Big River Journey, a classroom and river site-based comprehensive educational program, teaches Minnesota children in fourth through sixth grade about the Mississippi.

Big River Student Art
Through April 20
Mill City Museum
704 S. Second St.

“We like to connect students to the science and heritage of the river,” Swenson said. Since 1996, MNRRA has trained teachers to conduct river-focused courses. In 1998, the program first welcomed children’s artistic representations of what they learned, a departure from the more standardized classroom curriculum. Swenson has coordinated the art aspect for two years.

“Kids have all these different experiences, and the art is a way to bring all of them together,” Swenson said. The best student art each year is selected and winners are honored. Their works have been put on display each year since Mill City Museum’s opening. Twelve to 17 winners are chosen yearly, with 153 selected since 1998. Swenson said that while the art portion of the experience is promoted as a contest, winning isn’t what it’s all about.

“It makes it a little fun,” she said. “It helps inspire some kids who might just be reluctant to do art for its own sake.” Since October, 10 years of river-inspired art has been on display. To commemorate the anniversary of the program, art from each year of the program is highlighted in the museum’s gallery space. “The retrospective at the museum is kind of neat and fun,” Swenson said.

Since its beginning, the art contest has markedly grown, as well as the Big River Journey in general. In 1996, 874 students participated in the Big River Journey, a number that has nearly doubled to 1,728 participants last fall, according to MNRRA numbers. More than 6,500 children have entered the art contest, Swenson said. “It’s grown over the years,” she said. “The quality of art and messages students include in the art is improving.”

Swenson said this year, she asked the children who won the art contest to explain their individual thought processes behind the art. One girl made her picture because she wanted people to see “the beauty, serenity and strength” of the river, Swenson said. “It gives you hope for the future,” she said. “You can hope that they’ll continue to feel that way as they grow.”

Mill City Museum has continually partnered with MNRRA, Museum Manager Laura Salveson said, and this exhibit has been clearly captivating. “It’s so creative and unique that you can really see visitors being drawn into them and appreciating them,” she said.