Jovan Speller Rebollar will be the new executive director of The Great Northern. Credit: Photo courtesy of Laure Vail

Nearly 13 years after moving to Minnesota to combine her interests in art and living in harmony with the land, Jovan C. Speller Rebollar will take over as executive director of The Great Northern Festival, the organization announced Tuesday. 

Launched in 2017, The Great Northern festival celebrates Minnesota’s cold winters and diverse cultural influences through public art, performances, outdoor activities, local food, and programming focused on climate change. The festival is typically held over two weeks in January and February. 

The role is a great fit for Speller Rebollar, 39, who came to Rochester around 2010 to do an artist residency on a permaculture arts campus and to teach at the Rochester Arts Center. Since then, Speller Rebollar has continued moving north. She’s lived in the Twin Cities, and now homesteads on land in Osage, near Park Rapids in northern Minnesota.

At each step, she’s fostered a relationship with the land and food systems, helped nonprofit art organizations thrive, and created art of her own. Most recently, she served as programming director for the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council. The Minneapolis Institute of Art displayed her photography exhibit “Nurturing, and Other Rituals of Protection” which focused on comfort and care in Black culture in 2022. 

“I’ve been doing this dual focus for a very long time,” she said in an interview. 

Speller Rebollar first encountered The Great Northern as a contributing artist. The question posed to artists was: what is your experience with the cold? She enjoyed that inquiry and thought of it not just in terms of shivering or delighting in the snow, but in the way cultures change seasonally. The result was working with artist Andy DuCett to create an ice-enclosed greenhouse full of plant life in downtown St. Paul called “Conservatory.” 

She was drawn to the festival’s effort to bring different communities together, and appreciated the varied ways in which the public was invited to participate.

“It was such dynamic and diverse programming that really did feel like a celebration of the north, of this place,” Speller Rebollar said.  

Born in Los Angeles, Speller Rebollar first encountered winter in Maryland, while visiting her grandparents. A snowstorm hit, and she remembers the joy of playing in the snow with her brother. But her hands became frozen, and she took shelter inside, where she ran them under hot water. The stinging pain stays with her. 

“I thought my hands were going to fall off,” she recalled.

Today, on her family’s land in Osage, Speller Rebollar finds delight in watching her garlic break through the snow in early spring, and seeing her two young sons thrive in cold winters of north central Minnesota. 

Speller Rebollar will begin her new role May 15. She plans to work remotely from her home in Osage, regularly visiting the Twin Cities. She expects to stay in the metropolitan area during the festival, which is largely held in Minneapolis and St. Paul. 

As the organization’s first sole executive director, she will focus on growing the festival’s reach through branding and strategic partnerships aimed at drawing in Minnesotans from all backgrounds and corners of the state. She will join chief programming officer Kate Nordstrum as the operational leadership core of the festival. Nordstrum formerly served as both executive and artistic director for the organization. 

“Her rich experience as a cultural entrepreneur and sustainable systems builder will serve The Great Northern and its community tremendously well. With Jovan at the helm of the organization’s operations, I look forward to focusing more fully on ambitious programmatic initiatives for the festival,” Nordstrum said in a statement. 

Speller Rebollar wants to focus on finding ways for communities to work together in response to the climate crisis. She said many people are overwhelmed by the thought of taking action alone, but can be more inspired to work together. 

“We generally lack an understanding of who we are as a collective,” she said. 

To engage Minnesotans of diverse cultural backgrounds, she plans to partner with established organizations that work in those communities to make sure they’re included and know about the various programming opportunities throughout the festival. Though an established artist, her background in nonprofit arts organizations trained her to connect with key partners and create vibrant events.

“I thrive behind the scenes,” she said. 

Her goal is to build the brand of The Great Northern to ensure that Minnesotans across the state know the festival has something to offer them. She wants to create accessible events and curate memorable experiences for families. 

Andrew Hazzard is a reporter with Sahan Journal who focuses on climate change and environmental justice issues. After starting his career in daily newspapers in Mississippi and North Dakota, Andrew returned...