Photo installation inspired by ‘The Giver’ urges viewers to see beyond

“Polar Bear Paws” is the most popular piece in Lilja’s show, “Seeing Beyond.” It was photographed in 2013 at St. Paul’s Como Zoo. Photo courtesy of Sarah Lilja

“Lenten Carnival, St. Peter Abby” was photographed in 2016 in Ghent, Belgium, and is one example of the emphasis Sarah Lilja, pictured bottom right, places on color in her work. Photo courtesy of Sarah Lilja

Lilja photographed “Millkweed Silk” in 2016 on the edge of a parking lot at Spring Lake Park in Hastings. It’s an example of her ability to see beauty that others, in the hustle and bustle of their days, can pass by. Photo courtesy of Sarah Lilja

“Peculiar Trees,” a photograph of Lake Wakatipu, was taken in 2015 in Queenstown, New Zealand. Photo courtesy of Sarah Lilja

In 2014, Sarah Lilja photographed “Pastel Tulip” at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum in Chaska. Photo courtesy of Sarah Lilja

“Skipper on Clover” was taken in 2014 in Hastings’ Lost Valley Prairie Scientific and Natural Area. Photo courtesy of Sarah Lilja

Lilja on one of her many photo excursions. submitted photo

Through photography, Sarah Lilja, an emerging artist from Maplewood, tries to capture the beauty in the world that many times others pass by without noticing. 

Lilja sees a poppy with velvet petals or a bee nuzzled face-first into a blossom that can often be missed in our busy lives, and through a collection of work currently on display at the Oakdale Library, she hopes those who stop to look will “find their own capacity to ‘see beyond.’”

In her artist statement, Lilja explained the theme of her show, “Seeing Beyond,” as well as the phrase itself, which comes from “The Giver,” by Lois Lowry. The book tells the story of a boy in a post-apocalyptic society without color, art or anything unique. He learns he has the ability to “see beyond,” which includes seeing color and more.

Lilja said she thought her show, which debuted at the Landmark Center in St. Paul a few months before moving to the library, was perfect for the library’s space because of the literary connection to “The Giver” and Lilja’s use of color.

“I love color, as you will see from my photos,” she said in her artist statement. “I do believe that color and art bring a vibrancy and joy to life which is critical to our humanness.”


Looking deeper

Lilja explained the phrase “seeing beyond” just came to her, and she knew immediately that it came from “The Giver.” She said it resonated with what she was trying to do with her photography, though added that seeing beyond is personal and means something different to everyone.

“I want people to look deeper, and I notice lots of people don’t do that,” she said.

Lilja’s photograph titled “Milkweed Silk” is an example of this — it was shot at the edge of a parking lot. Though that parking lot as a whole may not have been beautiful, in that moment the tiny world of the milkweed she photographed held beauty. Noticing what people driving by might not see, Lilja captured that miniature world.

She said “Polar Bear Paws” has been the most popular photo in the show, both at the Landmark Center and Oakdale Library. She said she thought it was interesting it’s so popular because it was taken on a busy day at the Como Zoo as people crowded the glass at the bear’s face, while no one was looking at its feet, to which she was more drawn. 

She added that a boy, around 9 years old, who saw her work at the Landmark Center, told her “Polar Bear Paws” was his favorite photo because he imagined the rest of the bear reclining with his front paws behind his head. 

Lilja noted that of course a bear couldn’t do that, though for the boy, the image inspired a story and scene.

She said that between the two showings of her collection, another comment she has gotten about her photographs, usually from adults, is that the viewer could walk right into the scene — right into the garden or right out to the sailboat.


An accidental
photo career

Lilja said she’s self-taught and has no technical photographic training, though she has always been creative. 

She explained that although cameras are very technical, numbers have never been easy for her, so she taught herself to make photos by feel. She added that she was inspired to pursue photography professionally because of the encouragement and mentorship of an artist friend. 

“It’s been accidental,” she said of falling into her career.

When she was in her 20s, her father-in-law offered her a manual camera, which was when she first started playing around with photography, seeing what she could do. She noted how it’s interesting to look back at her early photographs because she can see what she was trying to capture, though she maybe hadn’t yet learned how to do it best.

In 2011 she went with her husband, a professor, on a trip to Australia for six months while he was on sabbatical. Though she had taken hundreds of photos previously with point-and-shoot cameras, she had been disappointed with the quality, so before the trip she bought her first SLR camera and ended up shooting 80 rolls of film in six months.

“I don’t really go anywhere without my camera,” she said of herself now, adding though that she isn’t quite at the stage, yet, where she will plan trips just for photography.

Future collections are a possibility, since this upcoming winter Lilja will be traveling to Australia again. 

“I am going back with great clarity of what I want to do with my photographs, so I am super excited,” she said.

Lilja’s work went on display at the Oakdale Library Aug. 15 and will be available to view through Sept. 17.

“A picture focuses you,” she said. “Maybe you never see a bee or a poppy, but I hope you do think about the world a little differently after looking at my photographs.”


– Aundrea Kinney can be reached at 651-748-7822 or

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