This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: The French connection between St. Louis and New Orleans is evident in street names and Mardi Gras celebrations. But the physical tie between the two cities is the Mighty Mississippi.
Laumeier Sculpture Park explores the shared waterway in “The River Between Us,” an indoor and outdoor exhibit opening this Saturday. At a time when the Mississippi River is in the news for efforts to bolster commerce, ecology and transport, and for its power to devastate a community like Pinhook, Mo., Laumeier is examining the the river’s role in U.S. history and how it connects the two cities and their residents.
Commissioned works include an acknowledgement of the river cities’ troubled past regarding slavery and racism.
One is by Canadian artist Ken Lum. Lum’s contribution is a rendering of two men whose legal challenges -- and their infamous results -- ultimately changed the course of history, according to Laumeier executive director Marilu Knode. The piece memorializes St. Louis slave Dred Scott, whose 1857 lawsuit resulted in a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that African-Americans could not be citizens, and New Orlean slave Homer Plessy, whose efforts led the same court to uphold the “separate but equal” rule in 1896.
“Ken Lum decided he wanted to do a somewhat traditional sculpture of two figures who had a huge impact not just on St. Louis and New Orleans but on the national dialogue,” Knode said.
“The Space Between Scott and Plessy” will become part of Laumeier’s permanent collection.
Visitors will have to travel to find some items in “The River Between Us.” Pieces from the St. Louis Art Museum, Missouri History Museum, Museum of Transportation and UMSL’s Mercantile Library will remain in their own spaces but be re-labeled to correlate with the Laumeier exhibit.
“It will be like a little scavenger hunt,” Knode said.
A different view
Local artist Mel Watkin, who directs the PPRC photography project at UMSL, an initiative to improve the quality of life through photography, is also contributing to “The River Between Us.” Her navigational chart drawings snake around windows and doorways in what’s called a “period room.”
Laumeier’s artist-in-residence Jenny Price is creating an outdoor installation of signs along an “alternative nature trail.” Her signage unexpectedly points out sights such as an electrical transformer, evidencing the variety of structures that support or surround the development of the park.
The outdoor portion of the exhibit also includes a kind of stock car by American Bernard Williams, with decals referencing topics including issues around Hurricane Katrina rather than traditional racing emblems.
Swedish artist Matts Leiderstam’s work concentrates on layered landscapes and includes a working viewfinder on a tripod.
“If they want, visitors can use it to look at Laumeier’s landscape,” Knode said.
Knode hopes the exhibit will encourage visitors to also look at local history through a more positive lens.
“There’s a sense in St. Louis of ‘Oh, my gosh, we need to be better than we are now,’” Knode said. “But I think St. Louis is a fabulous city and I think we need to grapple in a different way with the issues that plague us, but also plague every city in America.”