Author Archive for Amy Okaya


Archive X: Train Circuit

Last month I had the opportunity to prepare a 45 min. video for use at the Northern Spark Arts Festival in St. Paul, MN. Specifically, I was asked to create a video from archival footage involving trains, that could serve as video fodder for John Keston’s Instant Cinema project. In this project, three musicians would improvise based on live A/V feed from around the festival as well as my pre-edited work.

Northern Spark is inspired by celebrations of the Summer Solstice, and so runs all night long. It’s an amazing assembly of performing arts, this year spread out across the Lowertown area and including the recently restored, but still empty, Union Depot. Attracting over 20,000 people – who seemed to be mainly 20 and 30-somethings, I found the event to have a delightful, mellow and magical vibe.

Jon Steinhorst, the Instant Cinema project’s Artistic Director, gathered archival footage from and pretty much let me loose. I loved having this excuse to experiment, and especially to play with effects much more than with my other documentary work. In many ways this was more like painting and collaging. Plus, I LOVE trains!

Making the video for this purpose was a special challenge, as I was trying to make it interesting visually, but also design the audio in a way that the band could incorporate, mixing it in and out. I had no idea what they would find most useful, but I tried to limit the narration and orchestral music that accompanied most of the footage.

The version you see here is one I’ve further edited for audio to make this even more of a stand-alone piece. There are five main “movements,” each with its own feel and theme. I had a blast making it, and hope you like it too!

PS, It’s the nature of trains to take you on a journey, so sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride.


April snowstorm

I’m probably one of the last people in Minnesota who is still happy to see snow. And snow it did yesterday – perhaps 8″ in our area.

It’s been awhile since I’ve taken my camera out for a spin, so I stopped by Tamarack Nature Center in the blustery aftermath to see what Nature had to say.

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Sunrise poem

I’ve been following the posts on North Shore photographer Bryan Hansel’s Facebook page, gaining daily inspiration from his wonderful photographs, including those of Lake Superior. Bryan has also been writing haiku to describe some of his photography experiences.

This morning I woke up with a poem forming in my head, inspired by Bryan’s photography and writing.


Superior sun

each day ascends

her limnel throne.

At her procession

we stand enthralled –

each day a new gown.


The word limnel is one I made up, based on the Greek word for lake (limne, as in limnology). Surprisingly, I was unable to find another adjective with that meaning!


Tamarack swamp

This afternoon I was out driving around taking still photos for my video on the White Bear Lake water levels. En route to a water tower, I passed a location I’ve always intended to photograph, but never had. Seeing this eerie, swampy area from a new perspective, in the strong December sun, I just had to stop and take notice!

Tamarack swamp trees


Hampton Beach Sunrise

Last week I was perusing some older photographs and came across shots I’d taken in 2008 on the beach in Hampton, NH at daybreak. Since we recently had our first snow here in Minnesota and every day brings more and more darkness, these images were a welcome, reviving sight.

Much appreciation to my good friend K.R. Seward for sharing his lovely music.




Early fall at Tamarack Nature Center

Many of the leaves have already fallen now in Minnesota, but a few weeks ago when they were just beginning to turn, I went out to do some small sketches. Here’s one of the trees in my local park, in the afternoon light.

Tree at Tamarack in fall color


Tiny Avebury

I’ve always loved miniatures, and learned this week about the Photoshop tilt-shift technique that can create this effect. Wanting to try it out, I browsed through some travel photos and selected this image I took a couple years ago in Avebury, UK, which already suggested to me a small world unto itself.

The megalithic stone in the shot seemed so at home in this domestic scene, with all due respect I couldn’t resist playing with it a little further.. 😉



Over the past year I’ve been serving as a videographer for the Suburban Community Channels TV series ‘Prairie Profiles,’ produced by Barbara Britain. During this time, Barb has been focusing on stories surrounding the U.S. – Dakota War of 1862, in conjunction with the 150th anniversary of this appalling period in Minnesota and U.S. history. We’ve done interviews with a number of different historians, to share stories of the events and individuals from that time.

Yesterday we were at the Minnesota History Center, where we had the honor of talking with Dr. Elden Lawrence, a Sisseton Wahpeton Dakota elder, historian, writer, and past President of Sisseton Wahpeton College. Elden told us the story of how his great grandfather Lorenzo Lawrence helped rescue three settler women and thirteen children who had been captured by Dakota from the Lower Sioux Agency. His actions put his own life and those of his family members at risk of being killed by other Indians and non-Indians alike. You can read a previously recorded oral history of this event here.

In sharing how he came to be a historian, Elden spoke about how, despite growing up on a reservation, he lacked knowledge of his own tribal and family history. As an adult, it became his quest to learn more, in order to better understand himself and his people. His research led him to discover with surprise his own family connection to Lorenzo Lawrence and Lorenzo’s unique story. Elden said he felt that without a sense of our own culture and history, we cannot be fully grounded. In researching his ancestors’ stories to find personal meaning, Elden has brought to light information and perspectives that are of benefit to all of us. His book The Peace Seekers, for example, tells the stories of Christian Dakota that are often missing from both white and Native accounts. The quotes I’ve read from this book are ones I find very compelling, and I’m looking forward to reading the book in its entirety.

Since I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the topic of vocation, it made me wonder whether each of us has a particular, personal quest to fulfill, whether we’re aware of it or not. Something that drives us, that we can’t help but be curious about, because it has some sort of personal significance to us. It seems like people who approach their quests with the greatest fidelity – at the risk of being shamed for being selfish or challenging the status quo – are often able to make contributions that go way beyond serving themselves, to serve many others. People like Elden.

For more information about the U.S. – Dakota War of 1862 and its historical context, I highly recommend as a starting place North Country: The Making of Minnesota by Mary Lethert Wingerd. If you don’t know about the genocide that occurred during that time, please take time to learn more.


The Lowdown on ‘Surf’s Up!’

I spent several days last week up on the North Shore of Lake Superior – this time on a retreat to try and gain a greater sense of direction related to my work life. I had the opportunity to work with life coach Marcia Hyatt, and to stay in her cheerful yellow cabin on the water’s edge.

Any career guide will tell you, the place to start in choosing a fulfilling career is to know and understand oneself, so that is where we began. Self-reflection isn’t new to me, but I was curious to know if anything else valuable might surface. So, I wrote, I drew in a visual journal, I hiked up a mountain, I did ki breathing and yoga, I talked with Marcia and played in her sandplay box, I didn’t talk with anyone else for a day, I wrote some more, I paid attention to my dreams..

By the middle of the second full day, I was tired of focusing on myself. Since the night before, prodigious waves had been crashing relentlessly, and the sky was a churning kaleidoscope of dark clouds and blinding sunlight. I thought it would be fun to send a clip of the waves to some friends, so grabbed my iPad to capture some video. Just one clip though, didn’t seem to do the scene justice, so I kept shooting more. Back at my cabin, I searched around for some video editing software for the iPad, and started throwing my clips together, making a slapdash video I ended up posting on Facebook.

All the while I felt like I was totally goofing off, and not doing the work I had come to do. Toward the end of my retreat, trying to discern what I might have accomplished, I was reminded of the Tao Te Ching – of doing without doing, of being so in harmony with nature that there is no sense of conscious effort. Among the insights I experienced during the week, this video and other spontaneous things I did when I was taking a “break” were at least, if not more telling than the more deliberate thinking I had done.

Who are you when you goof off?

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