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Granite City Art Exhibition Draws Inspiration From Local Environmental Disasters

In an industrial, desolate block of Granite City, artists are presenting videos, photography and sculptures that depict environmental problems in the St. Louis area.

The 18 pieces that comprise Art + Landscape STL are on display the Granite City Art and Design District, a converted area of former retail and outdoor spaces along State Street. Some works, like a ring of stacked sandbags, allude to flooding along the Mississippi River.

A table of objects that include a map of where radioactive Manhattan Project waste had been dumped in north St. Louis County refers to toxic-waste sites. The exhibits will be on display for the next four weekends.

Not all of the pieces are connected to environmental issues. The artists were only told to create works that have some connection to the St. Louis landscape, said Gavin Kroeber, curator of Art + Landscape STL.

“When you get out in the landscape of St. Louis, it’s hard not to think about these things,” Kroeber said. “You have an industrial river that ties together two-thirds of the continent. You have the legacy of the Manhattan Project contaminating sites across the region. There’s so many ways that if you’re tending to the landscapes in St. Louis, you have to think about environmentalism, ecology and these sorts of mounting crises that we face.”

A toxic waste art installation in Granite City in March 2019.
Credit Eli Chen | St. Louis Public Radio
"Aphasic Archaeology in the Temporal Landscape" by Micah Stanek included references to coal ash waste and WWII-era radioactive Manhattan Project contamination in various parts of north St. Louis County.

The exhibition also will include public forums and performances from architectural historian Michael Allen, dance educator Betsy Brandt and artist and historian Jenny Price.

Several pieces in the exhibition draw attention to aspects of St. Louis’ environment that the artists believe are overlooked. One example is a piece called “Tidewrack,” in which casts of driftwood collected near the Mississippi River are arranged in a rectangular shape on the ground. Visual artist Meghan Grubb made silicone molds of the driftwood, then poured aqua resin and plaster into them to make replicas of the materials she scavanged.

“That driftwood marks high-water events,” Grubb said. “Usually [disaster cleanup crews or subsequent weather events] clean up that material and we erase that.”

The driftwood isn’t linked to any one flood event, said Grubb.

“It’s the idea of a future disaster,” she said. “This is what’s left behind after a future flood, so it’s creating a memory that may or may not actually come to exist.”

An art installation in Granite City called "Tidewrack, consisting of casts of driftwood artist Meghan Grubb collected for three months along the Mississippi River.
Credit Meghan Grubb
"Tidewrack" by Meghan Grubb consists of casts of driftwood that Grubb collected for three months along the Mississippi River.

Grubb grew up in central Illinois but often visited relatives that lived very close to flood-prone areas along the Meramec River. She and another artist, Sage Dawson, also created a piece out of sandbags, called “Stopgap,” which sits next to the driftwood molds.

People in the St. Louis area have limited access to the Mississippi River, despite being so close to it and affected by it during extreme-weather events, Grubb said.

“The river is a really defining feature of the city,” she said. “It’s the reason that the city is here and past cities been here too, like Cahokia. But now in the present day, there’s very little interface between an ordinary person and the river. It’s something that we have in our imaginations and is always there, but we don’t actually engage with [it] very frequently at all.”

The exhibition will hold an opening celebration event on Saturday, March 16. 

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Eli is the science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.