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Missisissippi River Has Inspired Art For Generations

Nancy Kranzberg

I just finished reading Paul Schneider's, "The Mississippi River in North American History." What a great read and what an amazing river. Cultures and entire civilizations have left their mark along this incredible waterway. We can view art and artifacts of the people living in and around the Mississippi now and those that perished thousands of years ago and throughout the ages in our arts and cultural institutions.

Names such as George Caleb Bingham and Mark Twain come to mind but as Schneider says, "In an age before broadcasting, before recording, when even decent roads were a rarity, the Mississippi and its tributaries were unique in the world as a conduit in which so many musical traditions of several continents collided in real time and were remixed for the listening audience. It's no surprise, therefore, that so many of the important strains of American music of the twentieth century originated in the Mississippi basin." He goes on to talk about the origins of jazz, blues, ragtime and zydeco.

I can hear Paul Robeson singing “Ole Man River” and remember the wonderful tall tales of Mike Fink and of course my childhood ideal, Davy Crockett, and Pere Jacques Marquette in his journals, talks of the Calumet (peace pipe) dancers and their incredible grace. 

Across the river from St. Louis, of course, is Cahokia, the greatest Pre-Columbian city on the continent which is the location of the huge ancient effigy mounds which are earth art modeled after serpents, birds, and bears. The Cahokia Mounds Museum is first class with excellent educational programs.

The Missouri History Museum houses one of the country's largest collection of Indian artifacts and Jill Ahlberg Yohe, Assistant Curator of Native American Art at the Saint Louis Art Museum says that she sees beautiful art objects associated with the Mississippi River every day at the museum. She says, "These extraordinary objects, on view in more than five galleries at the museum, were made and traded along the Mississippi for millennia.” Come and explore these treasures, including ancient shell earrings, copper engraved plates, brilliant feathered fans, beaded hide shirts, and masterfully crafted stone and ceramic vessels.

And don't miss the Bingham paintings and works by other St Louis artists such as Henry Lewis's  "A View of St. Louis" and Charles Wimar's beautiful paintings of American Indians. The Mercantile Library at the University Missouri - St Louis houses an enormous collection of Bingham drawings and prints.

Schneider says, "One of the great attractions in the middle of the nineteenth century was to pay a fee and go to a dimly lit theater on the Atlantic seaboard, or in Europe and take a virtual trip up or down the Mississippi via a gigantic panorama painting that slowly scrolled past the viewer." One such panorama, "Panorama of Monumental Grandeur of the Mississippi Valley" was recently on view at the St. Louis Art Museum.

The Jesuits were early explorers of the New World and St. Louis was fortunate to have Father De Smet settle here. One can visit the St. Stanislaus Museum in Florissant and see some of De Smet's early possessions and other Indian artifacts or you can go to Defiance, Missouri over the river and visit Daniel Boone's home.

Currently local artists such as Libby Reuter and Mel Watkins have recently exhibited works connected to our river. Reuter says that St. Louis has the largest watershed in the country and has made cairns (markers) of reclaimed glass to mark different parts of the watershed. The cairns are then photographed and displayed in art galleries. Watkins work was a part of an exhibition at Laumeier Sculpture Park entitled, "The River Between Us.” She has created a "period room" with a drawing installation of river-like trees or treelike rivers around the windows and doorways, using outdated river navigational charts following the course of the Mississippi from St. Louis to New Orleans. Watkins’ work has now traveled with the Laumeier project to the Longue Vue House Museum in New Orleans.

Mark Twain said, "One cannot see too many summer sunrises on the Mississippi” and an old Chinese Proverb says, "To spend an entire day on the bank of a river without feeling guilty about it is the mark of a successful person.”

I don't know how successful I've been, but it's time to take a trip to gaze at our great river.

Nancy Kranzberg has been involved in the arts community for some thirty years on numerous arts related boards.