WHITTIER — What is Will Steger doing at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design?
An exhibition on the renowned polar adventurer at first seems an odd match for an art school, something better suited to the Bell Museum of Natural History, maybe, or the Minnesota History Center. But it’s a context in which Steger feels quite comfortable, one that fits him as snugly as the moosehide moccasins on his feet.
“I’ve tried to work my entire life to be as much as possible in this creative space, a space of inspiration,” he said recently, as he looked over preparations for “An Explorer’s Mind” ahead of its opening at MCAD this month.
It is a first-ever exhibition dedicated to Steger’s work as a designer, an aspect of his life obscured, somewhat, by his dual reputation as an explorer and environmentalist. Steger, 69, made daring treks through the Arctic and Antarctic — experiences that lend credibility to his warning calls on global warming — and he did so on the strength of his innovations.
“One of the reasons I’ve been able to do what I’ve done and come back and tell about it is because of my designs: clothing and all of the small, little, intricate parts that go into keeping alive and keeping alert in the Arctic,” he explained.
Those designs are inspired by traditional forms but make free use of modern materials, like the overlapping layers of mukluks Steger wears beneath his neoprene snowsuit. There is the Sitka spruce-and-plywood dogsled Steger built for a south-to-north traverse of Greenland in 1988; modeled on Inuit technology but 70 pounds lighter, it carried him 1,600 miles on the longest-ever dogsled journey with no outside support.
The same brands that outfit winter shoppers on Nicollet Mall — including North Face, Marmot and Patagonia — have all collaborated with Steger, and the results have changed street wear. That strip of reflective fabric sewn into the back of your ski jacket? Steger said an early version might have saved the life of International Trans-Antarctica Expedition member Keizo Funatsu, who nearly disappeared while tending to sled dogs in a vicious blizzard.
Completed in 1990, that Antarctic expedition lasted 220 days and covered 3,741 miles. It was a brutal test for the six team members, who crossed mountains and crevasses and encountered wind chills as cold as -150 degrees.
“We barely survived that,” he said. “We had some very close calls.”
Steger kept a journal during the trip, writing in his tent for an hour or so each morning while he cooked breakfast on a gas stove. In excerpts included in the MCAD show, Steger remarks on the clarity of mind he is able to achieve in the wilderness.
MCAD Gallery Director Kerry Morgan said the Trans-Antarctica Expedition and his traverse of Greenland a year earlier were a crucial time for Steger. It was on those treks the explorer conceived of what he regards as his greatest design: the Steger Wilderness Center for Innovation and Leadership he is constructing near Ely.
“The design for this center has come out of that time and space when he’s on his expeditions,” Morgan said.
As Steger describes it, the center, once completed, will be a kind of multi-purpose think tank, a retreat where “leaders and decision-makers” gather in groups of six or eight, about the same size as his expedition teams.
“I’ve seen it so many times, the power of the group, of inspiration in a group, of how you’re really able to make breakthroughs,” he said. “That’s the main goal of the center.”
Under construction since 1988, the five-story, 5,000-square-foot center is designed to be largely self-sufficient and have minimal environmental impact. Represented in the MCAD exhibition by photographs, the center is also a showcase of Steger’s surprising skill as a woodworker and craftsman.
“It’s set in a total wilderness setting, and the challenge to me was to match that inspiration of the surroundings with a building that would inspire people also, which was a tall order,” he said.
The center rises from virgin forest on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, on land Steger purchased in 1964. He was 19 years old then, but had already paddled the length of the Mississippi and kayaked 3,000 miles through the Arctic Ocean and Alaskan interior. He’d already experienced that unique, crystalline lucidity he could only achieve in the wilderness.
Steger said he’s also hoping the exhibition will attract the attention he needs to finally bring the project — largely self-funded to this point — to a conclusion. He’s eager to move onto what he describes as his next design challenge, which is writing the programming for the wilderness center.
“I’m a dreamer and a doer, so what I design I put into reality,” he said. “I just don’t sketch and have all these ideas and file them away.”
An Explorer’s Mind: Survival, Innovation, Design — A Will Steger Exhibition
When: Sept. 14–Oct. 6
Where: Minneapolis College of Art and Design, 2501 Stevens Ave.
Info: 874-3700, mcad.edu