The Plume Project turns steam into an artist's canvas


Sometime this weekend, Harding High School student Sayha Theng will see his drawing projected against a giant plume overlooking St. Paul. The picture, titled Direct Connection, depicts the stars, the Earth, and a giant sun. Both the Earth and the sun have electrical outlets, with a cord connecting the two.

Theng’s picture is one of the many images that artist Asia Ward has selected to be part of the Plume Project's "Coloring Contest," the third and final part in a series utilizing the steam that flows out from and rises above the District Energy St. Paul Plant. Theng’s image is one of Ward's favorites.

“I don’t know why. It totally kicks my ass every time I see it,” she says.   The Plume Project launched in November after a group of artists received funding from the Knight Arts Challenge Grant. Together, they have partnered with St. Paul’s District Energy, an entity that creates electricity and heat through the use of wood scraps, to project images onto the steam that the plant emits.

Artists Emily Stover and Aaron Dysart have already debuted their Plume Project efforts. Now it’s Ward’s turn with "Coloring Contest." For her part in the series, Ward issued a prompt, asking each participant to create art or videos of what positive energy means to them. Folks responded in a variety of ways, demonstrating how positive energy could mean anything, including time spent with family and friends. People of all ages submitted videos, including entire classrooms, and images exploring how we can conserve energy, and ways it can influence the environment, were also received.  

“For me the steam plume is a platform,” Ward says. “Anything goes.”

Ward intends to include all of the submissions, and people will be able to see what times their video will be projected on the website.


If you plan on visiting the Winter Carnival in St. Paul, you’ll be able to see the projections there. Otherwise, Ward hopes to be able to stream live footage of the plume for people unable to view it in person.

For outreach, Ward has been handing out postcards to people that work in downtown businesses. While some responses have been positive, there’s also been misinformation about District Energy St. Paul. 

“Many people are uninformed about it,” Ward says. “I’m not hired by District Energy, but I’ve worked with them a lot.” Through her renewable energy education company, Ward has led tours through the plant, which has won awards for what a U.S. utility company should look like. Still, it does have a footprint, and sometimes the steam that the plant produces can alarm people who aren't familiar with the facility, which used to burn coal. Today, District Energy mostly runs on biofuel, which gets its energy from recycled wood chips.

Part of the idea behind the Plume Project, she says, is to raise awareness of what District Energy is all about. While the artists are neutral, the series organizers want to provide information in a not-too-technical way about the resource.  

"Coloring Contest" pieces can be seen Thursday, January 28 through February 7 from 5:30 to 9 p.m. each night. All work will run for two minutes. The schedule for the event will be up at