In the Gila Wilderness in New Mexico, Payton MacDonald kneeled in the dirt with a log to his left, large rocks in front of him, mallets in hand and a bicycle behind him. He performed "A Peace from the Action," by Travis Salim, with just percussion and a series of vocalized "ahhhs."

It was an in-the-wild concert that he performed 30 times as he covered the 2,500 miles of the Continental Divide in 2016. The athlete-musician-filmmaker commissioned pieces from 30 composers - works that could be played with rocks, sticks, the spokes of his bicycle. Then he set out on the month-long trip from New Mexico to Canada.

The project, "Sonic Divide: Art Meets Endurance," is one of three exhibitions that gets an opening reception - along with "Chholing Taha: Every Spirit Tells a Story" and Jonathan Thunder's "Suspension of Disbelief" - from 6-9 p.m. today at the Duluth Art Institute.

The exhibition will include a screening of the film that resulted from the trip and paintings by Kenneth D. Johnson of Duluth, whose work is featured in the film. (Johnson is MacDonald's father-in-law). Johnson, a local architect who was involved with projects like Amsoil Arena and the Kathryn A. Martin Library at the University of Minnesota Duluth, also painted a bicycle that will be available for playing music.

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"The question is: Is the bike a bike or a musical instrument," said Johnson, who rode part of the way with MacDonald.

"Sonic Divide" happened organically over time, said MacDonald, who lives in New Jersey and has a 30-mile round-trip bicycle commute to William Patterson University, where he is a professor of percussion. He had been doing a lot of mountain bike trips and often stopped to sing or drum along the way.

"Over time, I started to realize it might be interesting to formalize it into a bigger project," he said.

Payton started in New Mexico and followed the route, averaging about 100 miles a day. He traveled with camping gear, food, recording equipment, mallets. Every four days or so, he would stay in a motel so he could restock and back up his footage.

He met people along the way: cyclists headed in the opposite direction, or a troubadour with a flat tire. At one stop, MacDonald played percussion on pots and pans while a woman recited one of his haikus and another played violin.

MacDonald was most taken with the daily shifts in terrain, he said, and recalled a night pedaling through the Great Divide Basin.

"As I left this town, the lights faded away," he said. "I was really in the dark in the dessert. Then I looked up, and I hadn't noticed that the sky was full of stars, and this moon emerged. It was so bright, I turned my light off."

On his first night, he sat cross-legged at an empty campground as the sun was setting and performed a haiku by composer Michael Udow. He hit two rocks together to make beats. Some of the composers wrote pieces as traditional music; some created graphics. Udow had instructions: He wanted MacDonald to create a haiku-per-day.

"It was designed to spirit Payton's creativity - not just as an interpretive performer but as a composer," he said in an interview in the artist's feature-length film.

First, the project was athletically satisfying. Then, when he got the chance to sift through his recordings, he also found it artistically satisfying, he said.

MacDonald has created a TED Talk from his experience, and the film has played at six festivals. During a recent performance in Canada, a reviewer for the Telegram said his nature and bike-based percussion program "topped the charts for weird."

"I'm actually delighted that I got labeled as 'topping the charts for weird,'" he said.

Kenneth D. Johnson's painting of Wyoming is among the work featured in the "Sonic Divide" exhibition.
Kenneth D. Johnson's painting of Wyoming is among the work featured in the "Sonic Divide" exhibition.

What: “Sonic Divide: Art Meets Endurance,” “Chholing Taha: Every Spirit Tells a Story” and “Suspension of Disbelief”

When: 6-9 p.m.  today

Where: Duluth Art Institute, 506 W. Michigan St.