Artist mines banks of Mississippi River for material
Artist mines banks of Mississippi River for material
By BRYCE GRAY
Sep. 14, 2018
ST. LOUIS (AP) — The payoff didn't come immediately.
A sweaty afternoon bushwhack through overgrown brush plus a lengthy prowl along a largely forgotten swath of St. Louis riverfront had not turned up much pay dirt for Kristin Cassidy, a local artist who uses long-lost riverside artifacts as her medium of choice.
But among the chunks of broken brick, pottery and glass — along with plenty of plastic trash — littering the riverbank, Cassidy eventually found something to render the Mississippi River outing a success: an old, metal toy truck stained with teal patina by time. Other desirable items soon followed, including several intact, antique glass bottles, unearthed from mud-caked tombs after what likely amounts to decades or possibly a century.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that the finds are destined for Cassidy's Cherokee Street art studio, where they will join other trophies plucked from the riverside over her past six or seven years of local scavenging — or mudlarking, as the activity is also known.
Cassidy's discoveries range from natural and man-made oddities — fossils, lead bullets, letterpress pieces and an old, official notary seal from the city of St. Louis — to the truly historic — Civil War cavalry badges and warped glass bottles thought to be melted in 19th-century steamboat fires.
The downtown resident's scavenging pastime and her resulting artwork has long been a labor of love, but it is beginning to pay, she says. This month, for instance, illuminated poster displays at St. Louis Lambert International Airport will showcase photographs of Cassidy's collections of old spoons, bottle stoppers and other wares.
"It's become the center of my art practice," said Cassidy, who also weaves discarded items into her work on set design for theatrical productions.
But Cassidy gleans more than just artistic material from the river. From sifting through shoreline junk, she also gets a unique — and sometimes troubling — perspective of St. Louis' relationship with the Mississippi River, and how it has changed through history.
"I feel like I'm collecting a lot of narratives," says Cassidy, 27, adding that she learns a lot "just through repetition" of certain types of finds, and from her own research.
She keeps her favorite scavenging grounds a closely guarded secret, even though she rarely encounters other people along the banks she frequents. The riverfront's current desolation, she points out, is a far cry from the historic activity that her finds echo.
"There was a time when there was a lot of housing and stuff right on the riverfront, and they wiped it all out," Cassidy says. Traces of the commercial activity that once sustained the city — from riverboat travel, casinos and the waterfront's industrial heritage — also linger, she explains.
All that bygone action led to a steady accumulation of lost items.
"It's all there because people were there, and that's why there isn't anything that's very new," Cassidy says.
"It's interesting to see the amount of stuff from certain time periods and then there seems to be a big gap," she adds. "It very much drops off in the '60s and '70s and the rest is just modern trash."
Some of that, she says, seems to reflect broader demographic changes by roughly corresponding with the depopulation of the city, or when a major chunk of the riverfront was cleared to make room for the Gateway Arch grounds.
The junk, itself, has changed, too — transforming from things that were built to last into lots of cheaply made plastic stuff and packaging of the modern age.
"In different locations, there are just huge reefs of floating bottles and foam disgustingness," said Cassidy.
For the most part, though, area residents remain shielded from both the beauty and the ugliness that the river offers. Cassidy said she reflects often on how poorly the river is connected to the city today, especially when other cities have made their riverfront real estate "a spot of interest."
"There's so much potential for that to be utilized and be made to attract people," Cassidy said. "Because of the flood walls, people have never been to the river and it keeps them from realizing how much pollution is going in it."
But Cassidy can't be kept away from the water, and keeps an eye on river levels to plan her next scavenging trip. The lower the water, the better the conditions.
She says her fascination with beach-combing dates to her childhood in Anchorage, Alaska, where she would sometimes travel hours to search for beach glass — shards worn smooth by the ocean's rhythmic waves. An interest in trash and decay, meanwhile, extends to other work she has done, including set design for "Trash Macbeth," a 2016 take on Shakespeare's play, done with throwaway props.
Cassidy muses that instead of waiting for the city to reverse decades of riverfront decay and devaluation, she might someday work to bring the river's charm to people firsthand, describing "a pipe dream" to run "a mini-museum where people could actually pick things up and touch" items from along the river.
"To actually pick something up and feel it and feel the weight of it and the temperature, helps you connect with it," she said. "I think it'd be really cool to have some sort of display that people can actually interact with and feel the history of it."
For now, though, that sensation is left to her and the city's small handful of other mudlarks, who have large parts of the riverfront practically to themselves.
"I stumbled upon it and it benefited me," she says of the solitude along the Mississippi, "but I think we would be better if there was more activity in the river, more care about the river.
"It doesn't deserve to be a wasteland," she adds. "And there's so much history."
Information from: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, http://www.stltoday.com