Saturday, October 19, 2013

River-Wash at Little Mekong: Selected Views

Alternately, I'd thought of calling this post "Interconnections Between Portraits and Landscapes." I have an exhibit reception this Sunday called "River-Wash at Little Mekong: Selected Views," that is a joint reception with pastel artist, Elizabeth Strootman in the adjacent gallery at White Bear Unitarian Universalist Church. Elizabeth makes careful (caring...) portraits, landscapes, and still life drawings. It is a striking contrast to the in-the-flow-of-the-moment photographs I am exhibiting that document a public art project in St.Paul that is as much or more about the performance of healing activities to connect people to the river than it is about the final product - a set of posters displayed in storefronts that document the business owners participating in the project. The adjacent exhibits and joint reception offer me a chance to think about how River-Wash at Little Mekong is, in a way, also a collection of portraits and landscapes and something in-between.  


The exhibit gives a glimpse into a larger, simultaneous exhibit at the site of a current public art project in Little Mekong Business and Cultural District along University Avenue between Mackubin and Galtier Streets in St. Paul. “River-Wash at Little Mekong” engages the people behind storefronts with the stormwater below the street —connecting Little Mekong to the Mississippi River. Participating business owners display a poster in their storefront showing an encounter where they mark a watering can and water-paint the sidewalk to answer two questions: "What do you want to flow in to this place?" and "What do you want to wash away?" Then, washing the sidewalk, their hopes and concerns flow into the storm drain, to water trees and be carried by the  river, a healing symbol. In turn, the human role in river health is expressed by marking storm drains with the St. Paul stormwater stencil. I collaborated with Friends of the Mississippi River, Asian Economic Development Association, and the City of St. Paul to create the project, which is supported by Irrigate.

The Integration of Portraits (and/or) Landscapes

River-Wash contains both portraits and landscapes. In the upper left corner of each poster (see detail to right) is a portrait of the participating business owner - sometimes posed, sometimes candid. There are many parts of the poster (see above), but the dominant element in the composition is a landscape of the St. Paul Riverfront, just as the clouds have parted and a spot of sunlight highlights the St. Peter Outfall, the place where the stormwater from Little Mekong, and much of St. Paul emerge from underground tunnels to be released into the Mississippi River. But many of the images in the posters could be seen as an intersection of portrait and landscape. For example, in the picture below, if one focuses on the person, especially with other context in the poster, this is a portrait of a woman washing away "cry," - we don't know what this word means to her - what stories are behind this expression, but she appears to be the subject. Alternately, if one thinks about the context of the recent light rail construction - one of the reasons for this art grant program -  and especially if the pictures of each participant watering the sidewalk are taken out of their posters and viewed together, they can appear as landscapes, with themes of place and place history. 

Mai washing away "cry"
from "River-Wash #5: Infinite Hair Salon,
Collected 9/12/2013"


I am interested blurring the boundary of portrait and landscape - in shifting focus to the relationship between people and places which help to define each other. The Irrigate program that funded this work,  uses the term, "placemaking" to describe artworks that engage people and create a sense of place for visitors, businesses, and residents along University Avenue. My hope is also to enhance this placemaking activity through place-linking - by suggesting interconnections between places: between the street, through the threshold of the storm drain, to the river.

For more about the project

Visit and visit Little Mekong to look behind the storefronts yourself for a Thai lunch, hairstyling, car repair, or manicure and support small businesses recovering from construction.