“Clay Landmarks,” Arabia Steamboat Museum

“Clay Landmarks” at the Arabia Steamboat Museum features artwork by nine artists who explore the museum’s collection of 19th-century artifacts from the sunken steamboat. Mounted in conjunction with the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts (NCECA) Conference that took place in March, “Clay Landmarks” is the first contemporary art exhibition at the museum in its 24-year history. Expanding the museum’s scope beyond artifacts, it offers an interesting re-examination of the purpose of museums and archeology, as well as a timely reminder of the fragility of culture.

While sailing down the Missouri River in 1856, the steamboat named Arabia hit a submerged tree and quickly sunk. While the only casualty was a single mule, tens of thousands of items were lost beneath the current. Attempts were made to rescue the cargo (in particular its valuable whiskey shipment), but none were successful until 1988, over a century later, when Bob Hawley and his sons rediscovered and excavated the wreck.

But unlike the museum collection, which is necessarily stuck in the past, the exhibition “Clay Landmarks” seems to have its eye on the present and our uncertain future.

Descending the ramps into the museum, the first artwork you see is by Karen McCoy. Her Consuming Questions is a sloping wall of cloth, electronics, plastic containers, toys, pipes and other objects, all coated in a fine layer of silty, red Missouri clay. The monochrome wall of debris was inspired by seeing the aftermath of a landslide in Italy and is a continuation of other projects by McCoy which utilized her own trash, often plastic containers.

Jesse Ring’s installation features many sculptures, but most striking are the recreations of a relief depicting the protagonists of Paul et Virginie, a French novel in which two lovers make a life for themselves in the colony Mauritius. The characters turn the tropical island into their own Eden, where they live “naturally” and unhindered by civilization. One sculpture, titled Leave Your Sumptuous Grandeur and Return to These Rocks (a line from the novel), appears as if encrusted in crystals and coral, suggesting it spent centuries beneath the ocean. This artificial antique contrasts the 19th-century idea of ‘returning to nature’ as a utopian ideal, and the 21st-century idea of ‘returning to nature’ as the outcome of a cataclysmic disaster.

Judit Kollo’s Ghost Pots are a series of ceramic vessels inspired by the museum’s collection of fine china. The delicate pieces of ceramic art travelled across the world, only to get shattered at the bottom of the Missouri River. While many pieces were reassembled, others remain incomplete. Kollo references this sense of loss in her Ghost Pots by leaving part of their surfaces white and empty, and mimicking the Oriental designs of her source material on other sections.

Valorie Sheehan’s ceramics sculptures Offerings of Memory to Saints Justa and Rufina are depictions of the patron saints of potters. In an act of solidarity with all those who lost their possessions aboard the Arabia, Sheehan has covered her sculptures with little toys and trinkets, the “flotsam of my life” as the artist puts it.

Other artworks include Zoe Friend’s Skeleton Key. The artwork, an homage to the mule that went down with the steamboat, is a stoneware sculpture in the shape of an equine skull adorned with skeleton keys. Michael Barsanti and Anne Mapplebeck’s installation Strata is a miniature recreation of many objects in the collection, while Allison Newsome’s Memory Jugs are ceramic sculptures inspired by objects in the collection known to have been owned by specific individuals. Kathy King’s ceramic glaze paintings depict toy dolls found in the Arabia known as Frozen Charlotte Dolls, after a folktale about a girl named Charlotte who freezes to death.

While a museum’s purpose is preserving the past, one must acknowledge that the only reason the Arabia Steamboat Museum collection exists is because of a disaster— the untimely sinking of a steamboat. Things have to be lost before they can be recovered. Looking at “Clay Landmarks,” it clear that what concerns all of the artists isn’t a 19th-century shipwreck, but the fate of our contemporary world.

One has to wonder: who will dig up our culture? It won’t be a submerged log that sinks us. Either climate change, nuclear war, pandemics, meteor strikes or something yet unknown will eventually bury our culture beneath the mud. Who knows, maybe the Arabia Steamboat Museum will sink into the nearby Missouri River, only to be excavated a second time, and put into yet another museum.

“Clay Landmarks” continues at the Arabia Steamboat Museum, 400 Grand Blvd., through May 31. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission to the museum is $14.50 for adults, $13.50 for seniors, and $5.50 for children ages 4 to 14. For more information, 816.471-1856.

Neil Thrun

Neil Thrun is a writer and artist living in Kansas City, Missouri. He is a 2010 graduate of the Kansas City Art Institute and was a resident artist with the Charlotte Street Urban Culture Project in 2011 and 2012. He has written for publications including the Kansas City Star, Huffington Post and other local arts journals.

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