All aboard the art train: Northern Spark at Lowertown

The all-night art festival Northern Spark occupies Union Depot this weekend to take attendees on a community journey.

Attendees crowd the Stone Arch Bridge during last years Northern Spark.

Image by Patrick Kelley

Attendees crowd the Stone Arch Bridge during last year’s Northern Spark.

Benches dotted St. Paul’s Union Depot concourse as Fred Mertz-types donned fedoras and Ethels tucked compacts into their handbags after one last touchup.  Upon hearing the distant blast of a horn, they exited en masse to greet the arrival of the streamlined Zephyr that would whisk them to Chicago.

It’s been more than 40 years since the Depot served in that capacity, but this weekend it will see the birth of a new heyday as the third Northern Spark uses it as the centerpiece for this year’s all-night art festival.   

“It’s a very old building —newly reopened but the first time a lot of people will be there,” said Sarah Peters, the associate director of Northern Spark.  “There will be art tucked into all of these little corners.”

With the newly remodeled depot and accompanying train yard occupying some 32 acres, there is plenty of space for the work of the 300-plus artists participating in this year’s festival. 

The Amtrak ticket office, empty until train service begins, will host an existential travel agency where improvisers provide philosophical consultation.   Mizna, an Arab-American journal, is sponsoring an exhibition along a portion of the carriageway that will allow patrons to spray-paint stencils inspired by street art from the Arab Spring.  There’ll even be a fantasy space camp with a dozen artist-built rocket ships, as well as film, musical theater and a signage workshop amidst all sorts of interactive experiences.

Despite the enormity of the grounds, 2013 and the year’s 76 projects see a smaller overall festival footprint.  Organizers responded to feedback from previous years requesting a walkable festival.

“The experience of wandering and stumbling into things is the most magical part of Northern Spark,” Peters said. 

Whether it’s travel in the physical or metaphysical sense, 2013’s Northern Spark is set to run you off the rails. 


What:  Northern Spark 2013

When: 8:58 p.m., Saturday

Where: Lowertown, St. Paul

Cost: Free

Age: All Ages