Sara Pajunen

July 14 – September 9, 2023


In the early days of underground mining, mules worked in the drifts below grade hauling equipment, overburden, and ore. 

The mules would come above ground only a few times a year, living mostly in the darkness. Because it took considerable effort to transport a mule underground and it could haul much more than a man ever could, the animals were very valuable - more valuable than the cheap and often exploited immigrant labor force who regularly arrived from the old country. Working men were easier to replace than the mules. 

Audio is a take of large ensemble improvisation prompted by a graphic score from Genoa underground mine map in Sparta, MN, with text instructions. Video is compiled of 3D models of underground mine maps courtesy of the Minnesota DNR.



In October 2022 I visited all the places my immigrant ancestors left behind. I went searching for graves, the parents of my grandfather, the parents of my great-grandparents. Burials that were tied to land and history, the land and history that shapes who I am - although I grew up and live over 3,000 miles and an ocean away. For centuries, my ancestors literally became a part of this earth, their bones, their flesh became the earth that then grew the food they ate, the materials they used to survive, the earth that provided their places of comfort and refuge. My ancestors were the earth they left to move here, to what we call the United States of America - earth they hadn't know, earth other humans had known. 

What happens to our relationship with land when it is new, when it no longer holds the artifacts and remains of those who gave us our genes? And how has the truncation of this centuries-old cycle allowed American culture to abuse the symbiotic and reverent customs of the people who have been here for so long? Is there any point of healing and reconnection? 

I found the grave of my great-great grandmother by accident in Oulunsalo in northern Finland. My genes as earth, by accident, in a cemetery in a method of burial brought to that area through Christian customs just hundreds of years ago. A cemetery filled with care and reverence and kindness and community. And while planting flowers at her lonely, weathered headstone, I felt the depth of the cycle of life and earth.


A pre-war mining inspection film tells stories of hierarchy in gender and race, regional and national priorities, working conditions and methods, social protocol and more.

This piece began with a field recording that captures a train carrying taconite pellets adjusting its position on an elevated ore dock (CN Docks, West Duluth). Using contact microphones to record the resonance of the train through metal, Pajunen allowed this recording to dictate the composition: placing herself as composer and instrumentalist in a supporting role. The aim is to force the ear to question our trained anthropocentric sonic focus on music and human-made instruments. 



Based on poetry by Sheila Packa, In The Water-Filled Mine Pit explores the landscape of pit lakes, huge cavities created by extractive mining that have filled with spring and rain water.



As the environmental noise floor continues to rise and we seek quiet with noise-canceling/noise-obscuring technologies, what effect do these responses have on our observance of our environs? By drawing attention to musical properties in the sounds of our surroundings, LOW GRADE asks if tuning our ears attentively to that which is around us can help us live more fully within the complexities of our histories. Violin textures and lines support the music of field recordings from mining landscapes on the Mesabi Iron Range and in the shipping port of Duluth. Video from Canadian National Docks’ taconite piles in West Duluth.


Outside of Silver Bay, Minnesota and not far from Lake Superior is a hidden taconite tailings pond called MILEPOST 7. Over three square miles in size and soon potentially expanding, Milepost 7 began housing waste for Reserve Mining's taconite operations on the shores of Lake Superior in 1980. Before building the tailings pond, Reserve Mining (now Northshore Mining) had been disposing taconite processing waste into Lake Superior - one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world - for decades, polluting the drinking water of the people who make their homes in the Twin Ports of Duluth and Superior and along the north shore of of the lake. 

Although functioning and monitored inlands tailing ponds are safer than dumping waste tailings into fresh water supplies, the increasingly covert nature of mining practices is cause for concern. The Minnesota DNR has never required Northshore to obtain a dam safety permit for the Milepost 7 dams (see link below for source). How much of our regional environment are we blocked from accessing? What exists in these hidden places, places hidden both physically and informationally? Considering the potential danger of these controlled and concealed areas, how can we have a symbiotic and holistic relationship with our surrounding environment?

Audio from Inland Steel Tailings Basin, video from Milepost 7 Tailings Pond.



Mine / Not Mine is a collaborative work with artist Shanai Matteson. Using her recorded words and sound from her construction of a quilt using fabric died with iron ore, the piece questions female identity in extraction industries - our abuse as well as our power. Part of Pajunen's long-term project "Mine Songs: Sounding an Altered Landscape," Pajunen recorded Matteson's words in a mine shovel at the Hull Rust Mahoning Mine, one of the largest open pit iron mines in the world and near Pajunen's home town of Hibbing, MN. Within imagery from LaRue pit lake in Nashwauk, MN, geologic time is ripped open. 



SPARTA was made for my grandmother Selma, who died unexpectedly and tragically in 1936. She left behind two small boys, my father and uncle, as well as grieving parents, siblings, and generations of descendants. For many years I have been visiting Sparta, a mining location on the Mesabi Iron Range built by mining companies for their workers. Between 2018-2021, through sound and image, I documented the destruction of the boarding house my Finnish immigrant great-grandparents ran for miners - the house where my grandmother was born in 1909.

In a mining location such as Sparta, workers could own the houses, but they could not own the land. To this day, when a mining company wants to mine minerals under houses, the owners are forced to leave if the company owns the mineral rights to the land. In Minnesota, mining companies own hundreds of thousands of acres.  Even in its dilapidation, this house was a sacred space for me, a place to visit as one would a gravesite. Now I can barely find the place of its foundation that I once knew so well: mining gave and mining took away, erasing yet another family history and connection with the earth. Extraction industries such as iron ore mining have long been praised for giving work to starving, impoverished immigrants. It is the story of America, the narrative we have been taught, but these industries and their values have also severed generational connections with land, both here in what we now call the United States and with land in other parts of the world. How does this truncation with our natural worlds shape our ideas of ownership and resource use and environmental stewardship in modern America? And how does it shape our attitudes towards other humans, women, marginalized populations?

Rust - aerial image from the northern Minnesota Iron Range

Image from the dark forest in northern Minnesota

Acknowledgement logos for Grant awards from Minnesota State Legislature, Minnesota State Arts Board and National Endowment for the Arts.

Sara Pajunen is a fiscal year 2023 recipient of a Creative Support for Individuals grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board. This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, thanks to a legislative appropriation by the Minnesota State Legislature; and by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

This summer we feature a solo exhibiton of Sara Pajunen's recent sound and film work about our region and her ancestral home in Finland.  Sara Pajunen is a composer-improvisor and an audiovisual artist based in what is now called Minnesota (USA). Trained as a violinist and employing locally-responsive media ranging from field recordings to drone imagery, her work is motivated by interactions between her ancestral roots, American cultural histories, and connection to our environments through sound.

A note about the images.  Each represents a still image from a video and sound piece currently on display at the gallery.  Ask us about short video clips.

Specific to this exhibition from the artist: "Sara Pajunen will present audiovisual work, sound art, and photographs from her projects “Mine Songs: Sounding an Altered Landscape” and “The Places We Know.” The connected projects use field recording, violin, aerial image, and archival material to focus on themes of long-rhythm and broken connections with environment, dominant cultural narratives, and listening as presence."


Sara Pajunen is a fiscal year 2023 recipient of a Creative Support for Individuals grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board. This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, thanks to a legislative appropriation by the Minnesota State Legislature; and by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

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