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10 highlights of SLAM's 'Art Along the Rivers'

10 highlights of SLAM's 'Art Along the Rivers'

A dynamic mix of artwork — from beautiful ceramics and glass to crazy quilts and weathervanes — joins more traditional oil paintings of this area's great rivers in a bicentennial celebration at the St. Louis Art Museum. 

But the exhibition, "Art Along the Rivers," goes far beyond fusty portraits of founders and leaders to show the flow of movement to and from this region and the creative richness of the area:

• Western artists and photographers work with Native Americans, who also travel from the Plains to Washington, D.C., and back to protest contracts with the government 

• Artist colonies spring up in Potosi, Cape Girardeau, University City and north St. Louis, among other places.

• Iron ore, clay and other local materials are used for terracotta work, sculptures and corn cob pipes. European immigrants adapt Missouri resources to their own traditions, and more modern artists revise frontier metalwork.

• The World's Fair brings in art from across the country. Later, activists in the 21st century react to 100-year-old fair images.

Melissa Wolfe, curator of American art for the museum, said a goal was to show "complex, and sometime competing, artistic narratives that resulted from these powerful elements and the communities they attracted."

To do that, she and Amy Torbert, assistant curator of American art, and others traveled to dozens of regional places tracking down works, some never before exhibited in St. Louis, that conveyed a sense of the area's cultural heritage. All the the 155 pieces on display were made or collected near the confluence of rivers. The curators traveled north to Hannibal, west to Hermann and south to Cairo, Illinois. 

In Hannibal, for instance, they found a quilt made by a formerly enslaved woman, well-used but saved for generations by the woman's descendants. In Hermann, a rooster weathervane made by a German immigrant topped the steeple of the town's first purpose-built church.

Only about a third of the items in the exhibition are owned by the art museum: The rest come from nearby, national or international institutions. A buffalo hide robe, on which a warrior painted some of his life story, was lent by a museum in Switzerland. An intricate wooden cabinet is borrowed from the American Folk Art Museum.

The exhibition is arranged by themes, including items displayed at the 1904 World's Fair; goods, even rifles, well known in the area; and art used for activism, from George Caleb Bingham's 19th-century river paintings to hands photographed by Damon Davis after Michael Brown's shooting in 2014.

"We didn't want to be limited by the Anglo definition of land or statehood," Wolfe says. 

From earthy tinwork to fine marble, the range of artworks, Torbert says, likely will leave visitors with a "sense of delight or surprise."

ART ALONG THE RIVERS

When •  Through Jan. 9; hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday and Saturday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Friday (closed Monday)

Where • St. Louis Art Museum, 1 Fine Arts Drive

How much • $6-$12; free for members, children under 5 and for all on Fridays; bicentennial half-price discount for adults Oct. 12-14, Nov. 9-11 and Dec. 14-16

More info • 314-721-0072; slam.org 

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