VIRGINIA — Sara Pajunen vividly recalls traveling from Hibbing to Virginia and back again twice each week as a youth for violin lessons.
Ironworld, the Mahoning pit, the Bruce Mine headframe, and piles and piles of overburden were just some of the area’s landscapes forever etched into Pajunen’s mind.
“This was and is the landscape that ‘Iron Rangers’ (including my European immigrant family) created and have inhabited for more than 100 years,’’ she wrote on sarapajunen.com. “My parents transported me over and around this transformed terrain for violin lessons, but we always returned home to Hibbing, ‘the iron ore capital of the world’. 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.
“I left these pit lakes and constructed foothills at the age of 14, never having much considered the history of the region, what created the cultural and visual environment that I love. Now, decades later, I am embarking on a long-term project: to mine sounds from my childhood landscape and combine them with the violin I learned to play along this very same route. Using environmental recordings, image, composition and improvisation, I will learn the region in a new way and meditate on the future of our relationship with the earth — here on the Iron Range, and elsewhere.”
Her long-term project “Mine Songs’’ intends to create a new lens that asks for reflection on the stories we tell ourselves (or have been told) about history, power, identity, agency, Pajunen of Duluth stated on her website.
Pajunen was recently the featured artist with her Mine Songs exhibit at the Lyric Center for the Arts in Virginia. The September exhibit featured six original prints, three audiovisual pieces and a collection of printed cards for sale.
The artist, who was born in Virginia and moved to Hibbing as a baby, used many different ways to express her experience on the Range. Framed aerial photos were a big part of the exhibit, as were sound recordings of the environment and other music — including Pajunen on the violin. All of the material came from the eastern part of the Range, she said, along with the CN docks in Duluth.
The sound recordings provided a unique element to the exhibit, whether it was hydrophones capturing sounds under the water or contact microphones that record only vibration.
Pajunen used the different methods to capture “the sounds of the earth, both man made and natural.’’
Aerial photos using a drone flown by Pajunen, were a big part of the exhibit, as well. “Although I’m trained as a musician, I really love the visual imagery.’’
She said one of her favorite spots is the Milepost 7 tailings pond in Silver Bay. “They are incredible looking from the air and they are constantly changing. If they’re used, they’re just changing all the time’’ from hour to hour. She also flew the drone over Minntac’s tailings pond while standing on a nearby road.
The drone photos have been a hit when she exhibits.
“People really love the aerial imagery.’’
Combining so many different art elements into her work wasn’t always Pajunen’s main focus.
“I had a career in Nordic folk music for a long time. I toured a lot and recorded six albums.’’
However, she decided to go back to grad school in her mid-30s.
“I just felt that I wanted to find my own artistic voice a little bit more, outside of genre.’’
With that in mind, she went to school at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston.
“Being far away from my home place made me view it in a different way,’’ she said, including “how my family came here, how my family’s connection to land changed by coming here to the Mesabi Iron Range.’’
“When I went to the East Coast, I just became more interested in the American experience in general and then here on the Iron Range. And just thinking about connection to land and the kind of stories that are told here on the Iron Range about who we are and what we value.’’
After growing up on the Range, Pajunen moved to Minneapolis at 14, where she attended high school and college. As a young person, she moved abroad, living in Asia for a couple years and in Finland for four years.
The “Mine Songs’’ exhibit also incorporates a 1936 mining video from Oliver Mining Co., which Pajunen had digitized through University of Minnesota Duluth library. “I don’t think anyone has seen it much before. It was just on a reel.’’
The video is now combined with a sound piece that uses environmental recordings, the violin and a hardanger d'amore, which is a 10-string bowed instrument. “So there’s some Acoustic element to it too.’’
The hardanger d’amore “resonates a lot’’ and “has a very beautiful sound,’’ she added.
“Mine Songs’’ is an ongoing, long-term project, which included a trip to Finland in October, where she visited all her ancestral places dating back to the 1500s.
The unique project’s elements come up “instinctually through working with material that I’ve collected. It doesn’t start with an idea. It’s my own self expression of my life on the planet.’’
More information on Pajunen and the “Mine Songs’’ project can be found at sarapajunen.com.