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STL Art Game-Changers: Sarah Paulsen Animates A Response To Kirkwood Tragedy

Sarah Paulsen
Stephanie Zimmerman | St. Louis Public Radio Intern

The 2008 Kirkwood shooting that left six dead, including council member Connie Karr, stunned and forever changed the community. Now, artist Sarah Paulsenis finding deeper meaning in the tragedy.

Paulsen, 36, grew up in Kirkwood.  “Connie was a really good friend of my mother’s,” she said.

Karr and Paulsen’s mother were among a collection of women seeking to preserve greenspace in Kirkwood. They worked to get Karr elected. After Charles “Cookie” Thornton shot and killed Karr and the others and critically wounded the mayor before being shot by police, Paulsen mourned with the group.

Going through her mind was a suggestion her mother made before the shooting.

“My mom had told me I should speak to Cookie and do a story about him,” Paulsen said.

Hear more from Paulsen and from people who have been working to improve communications and services for all Kirkwood residents on St. Louis on the Air at noon.

‘Beautiful moment of empathy’

It was too late, of course, to talk with Cookie Thornton about the narrative of his life, which had now taken on a darker side.

But a few years after the shooting, Paulsen had the idea to talk with the circle of friends Karr had shared with her mother, as well as the president of the Meacham Park Neighborhood Improvement Association. The subject of Thornton came up frequently as the women ran through a gamut of emotions.

“They understood where Cookie was coming from, his frustrations, and they were also angry with him,” Paulsen said. “I thought, ‘What a beautiful moment of empathy.’”

Paulsen wove these conversations together to produce “Elegy to Connie,” her feature-length animated film. “Elegy” tells their stories through her collages, drawings, Claymation, 3-D landscapes, laborious stop-motion, and is scored with original music written by her cousin. During the process, she taught the women she interviewed how to animate their own names in the film.

In this video, Paulsen demonstrates some of the basics of her animation work for "Elegy to Connie." (Story continues below.)

Video by Stephanie Zimmerman

This past February, a rough cut debuted at fort gondo gallery, along with artwork used in the effort. The full piece will be shown  on July 13 at the Tivoli as part of the St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase. Paulsen also hopes to share “Elegy” in small-group settings and in private homes to spark conversations about ideas explored in the film.

Those topics include tensions involving Kirkwood and the predominantly African-American Meacham Park community where Thornton lived, and his explosion at Kirkwood City Hall that February night, as well as issues around race that eluded Paulsen at the start of the project.

“I didn’t think it had much of a link with race,” she said. “I was ignorant about Meacham Park. I was only 13 when Meacham Park was starting to be developed on.”

Materials used in Paulsen's film
Credit Stephanie Zimmerman | St. Louis Public Radio Intern
Materials used in Paulsen's film

But her search for knowledge about the area would bring personal enlightenment. It started with the difficulty in finding any information at all about Meacham Park.  At first it seemed curious. Then it became revelatory.

“That was the first sort of strange red flag, like, why is there nothing really recorded about this community?” Paulsen said.

She noticed the ways in which proponents of redeveloping Meacham Park framed their efforts around the idea of “progress.”

“I think progress is not always linked to, ‘Oh wow, Meacham Park is this amazing historical African-American community in Kirkwood. Why do we want to lose that?’” Paulsen said. “I think it was more like, ‘Meacham Park is a dangerous place where bad things happen in Kirkwood, which is very safe.’”

She also learned to read into the subtext of the word “development.”

“Whenever a community is being developed upon, there’s a community that’s being displaced,” she said.

Paulsen is known for creating the annual People’s Joy Parade down Cherokee Street. Her next project may involve the topic of white privilege that she’s now coming to grips with as a result of her “Elegy” research and with the help of a Kirkwood YWCA group called Witnessing Whiteness.

But as in all her work, any next effort would be driven by a personal narrative.

“Usually I don’t pursue a topic; I try to find a story I feel really committed to,” Paulsen said.

For a look back at some of attempts to change that were made after the shootings, see Kirkwood's Journey and other coverage from the St. Louis Beacon archives. Also,KSDK reportedon the film and the discussion of it on St. Louis On The Air.

Follow Nancy Fowler on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.