Until recently, Ivy Vainio didn't have a specific relationship with the St. Louis River. She didn't fish it; she didn't swim in it. Most of her contact was limited to the Minnesota Highway 23 bridge she crosses to get to her parents' house in Bruno.

In late 2015, fresh from hearing about a collaborative media project focusing on the river, she pulled over near Chambers Grove Park in Duluth's Fond du Lac neighborhood, snapped a photo with her phone and made a Facebook post about how she was considering a photography project about people and their connection to the river.

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She immediately got responses from friends with stories to tell, she said.

An exhibition of portraits and narratives by the subjects are part of "The St. Louis River: Diverse Connections by Ivy Vainio," a weeklong exhibition that opens with a reception from 5-7 p.m. Monday at the Duluth Art Institute. The pieces are inspired by One River, Many Stories, a monthlong, multimedia storytelling collaboration initiated by the journalism program at the University of Minnesota Duluth and Perfect Duluth Day.

Associate professor John Hatcher said the collaboration's organizers wanted to see what would happen if everyone - media professionals, citizen journalists, storytellers, elementary school students - all focused on a single topic with news stories, family histories, photography and video.

"I compare it to a potluck," he said. "You tell them you're going to have this event, and you hope not everybody brings the same macaroni salad."

One River, Many Stories runs through April, and UMD is aggregating the pieces at onerivermn.com.

For her project, Vainio collected subjects with different connections to the river. Paula Vang and her family fished it, and so did Stephan Witherspoon. The former is pictured with her family and fishing gear, casting into the snow. The latter brought a pole and a Bible - a nod to his father, who served as pastor at New Hope Baptist Church in Duluth.

Kristin Larsen is an environmentalist who works to protect the river. Melanie Sautbine's grandmother huddled with her family near the St. Louis River during the 1918 Cloquet Fire.

For the finale: Vainio and her husband, Arne, went to Sand Lake, which feeds into the headwaters of the St. Louis River. She captured a photo of her husband making a tobacco offering to the river, the falling pieces visible.

Vainio said that up until this project, the St. Louis River had been a mystery to her. The response to her Facebook post, the stories and the photographs have given her a new perspective.

"There is something powerful about this river that connects so many people from so many walks of life and it intrigued me," she said.

Vainio's images hang in the Depot's Great Hall alongside narratives written by the subjects and a segmented, interactive map of the St. Louis River, created by cartographers Matt Kania and Tom Hollenhorst. One map hangs in pieces on portable gallery walls, which were positioned in an approximation of the river's flow.

"We want people to get a sense of how far-reaching and giant the St. Louis estuary is," Kania said.

The mapmakers have included Post-It tabs for visitors to plot out points of interest on the map. Thursday afternoon, while the work was still in progress, a family had already contributed a jot along the river: "Adams family photo taken 3/31/16."


If you go

  • What: One River, Many Stories at the Duluth Art Institute
  • When: Opening reception, 5-7p.m. Monday
  • Where: Great Hall, Duluth Depot, 506 W. Michigan St.
  • Tickets: Free, open to the public
  • Also: Karen Sunderman of PBS North (WDSE) will be recording stories about the St. Louis River by anyone with a story to tell.


One River, Many Stories

One River, Many Stories is at onerivermn.com and on Facebook. Use #onerivermn to be included to submit pieces to the project.