Shanai Matteson
and Sara Pajunen:

Overburden/Overlook, 2020 Installation view

Plains Art Museum quilt
courtesy of the artist

Mine Songs, 2020 

performance piece (audio recording)
courtesy of the artist


Shanai Matteson site

Sara Pajunen site

Mine Songs site

“Northern Voices: Leah Lemm Talks with Iron Range Musician Sara Pajunen,”  KAXE public radio

“Water Works: Profiles of Sean Connaughty and Shanai Matteson,” Russ White, MPLSART

“As a child, I was carted twice a week across Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range from Hibbing to Virginia and back, past Ironworld, the Mahoning pit, the Bruce Mine headframe, and piles and piles of overburden. This was and is the landscape that Iron Rangers (including my immigrant family) created and have inhabited for over 100 years. My parents transported me over and around this transformed terrain for violin lessons, but we always returned home to Hibbing, ‘the town that moved’ for ore excavation. Had it not been for the iron ore mining that dictated this landscape of ‘home,’ none of my family might be here - in Northern Minnesota - or the United States.”

Artist and violinist Sara Pajunen’s words above lead us into the interlocking presences of land, memory, and community that anchor her Mine Songs project and her contribution to the Mine/Not Mine collaboration with Shanai Matteson. In recent years, both of these artists have returned to the Iron Range to contemplate the entwined legacies of resource extraction and community survival.

Pajunen’s work establishes how the materials, landscapes, and personal stories of home can radiate an interior, emotional reality that defamiliarizes our relationship to place or, if an outsider, our orientation to the assumptions about a region often set in stereotype. This attention to valuing forms of local, cultural life that would either be ignored or related to distancing notions of “fieldwork,” is an aesthetic shared with Matteson, whose efforts as an artist, writer, and community organizer have been a galvanizing presence across many rural and urban spaces.

In Matteson’s Mine/Not Mine contribution, an extension of her Overburden/Overlook creative research and engagement practice, Matteson gathered fabric and fiber from women in her community to create relief prints that she stitches together to create story quilts, bandanas, or flags. This fabric is also dyed with overburden, the waste rock extracted and discarded through the mining process.

The intimate, generational act of stitching becomes a foundation for considering the relationships between the extractive practices on the Iron Range and the damage they have inflicted on the peoples and communities whose lives support these industries. The sound piece Pajunen contributes here is sourced from Matteson’s dying, printing, and sewing of this fabric, and is accompanied by Matteson’s writing and voice, recorded inside a mine shovel at the Hull Rust overlook in Hibbing, Minnesota.

Writing in Mn Artists, Matteson shares the depth of the connective acts that come together in her process:

In different ways, these pieces mark what I’ve come to think of as my work site, in and outside of home. They carry phrases and symbols that are layered with meaning and relationship, as well as mineral pigment I’ve made from earth gathered at sites of violent opening and shaping.

Rather than creating objects for others to view at a distance, I’m focused on the tactile process of dyeing, sewing, or weaving with this material.

As I do this work with my hands, they become red, and I remember my
own stories.

I invite others to join me.

Both Pajunen and Matteson’s work has been widely exhibited and performed, in a range of contexts that match their expansive vision. Pajunen has presented her compositions at festivals and institutions across Europe and the United States, and she is the recipient of grants by MASS MoCA, Kone Foundation, and the American Scandinavian Foundation. Matteson is the co-founder of the Water Bar & Public Studio in Minneapolis, a McKnight Visual Arts Fellow, and her work has been supported by the National Endowment for the Arts. She is currently working with community groups in Aitkin County, Minnesota in an effort to stop the Enbridge Line 3 Pipeline.

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High Visibility is a longterm, collaborative partnership between Art of the Rural, Plains Art Museum, and individuals & organizations across the continent. Please feel welcome to join us in this work.