The Art of Life on the Mississippi

An MFA student helps Twin Cities teens draw new meaning from life by the river.
by Mary Pattock

porcelain boats

Story boats ready to launch.
Photo by Laura Corcoran Mahnke.

"So, in two seconds, away we went, a-sliding down the river, and it did seem so good to be free again and all by ourselves on the big river and nobody to bother us."

&mdashAdventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain

It was probably inevitable that Huck Finn, the 13-year-old hero of the Great American Novel, sought freedom and a new life on the Mississippi. After all, it was and still is the country's mainstem river, connecting it North and South, dividing it East and West, and providing major geographical and historical coordinates—not to mention fruitful metaphors for writers and ordinary folks alike.

Teenagers today are no less eager than Huckleberry Finn was to find meaning in their lives. But today's world, unlike Huck's, can be such that those who live on the Great River may not be very aware of it. In fact, as Anna Metcalfe, artist and environmentalist, found out, some may never have even seen the Mississippi, much less been invited to consider what meaning it may have for their lives.

So it was that in the final year of her master's of fine arts program, Metcalfe designed a way to connect a group of young people to the river, through art.

She worked with nearly 50 teenagers who had summer jobs either with the "Green Team," a group sponsored by the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, the Minnesota Watershed Management Organization and the National Park Service; or with The Conservation Corps and the Garden Corps, hosted by St. Paul's Community Design Center.

During the summer she met with the young people, offering them new ways to understand the river. They learned about watersheds, rain gardens, and pesticides, and studied maps showing how the urban river had changed through history. They made connections between their summer jobs and the health of the river. They considered the river's vital role in their lives, and how it connects them to the millions of people throughout the midsection of the country who also depend on it for survival.

Finally, she invited them to draw and write their own stories about the river; she silk-screened these images onto porcelain clay boats she had molded, which she then fired.

Now there were 50 story boats, each one articulate. One told about its maker's first time on a boat. Another traced a map of the Upper Mississippi, yet another drew the plants growing in the Conservation Corps' organic garden.

Metcalfe designed a way to connect a group of young people to the river, through art. And just as it did for Huck, their encounter with the river left them with a story—a story about where they'd been, a story that had new value and meaning because someone was listening.

And one pictured a refugee family's perilous escape across Thailand's Mekong river on one side, and their crossing of the Mississippi, in a new land, on the other. "That story was rich and powerful," says Metcalfe. "It brought it all together—the young woman's family, its history, what she is doing in conservation now."

Early one morning at Father Hennepin Park, where the river gorge cuts through downtown Minneapolis, Metcalfe and the students met to ceremonially tell the stories and launch the boats into the water. The Saint Paul group held a similar ceremony at Lake Phalen. They were gestures that made explicit the teens' relationship with the river, and signified their role in building a community of citizens concerned about the river.

"The project gave the students a chance to talk about the same issues they were dealing with in their jobs, but within the context of art," Metcalfe says. "They were excited to see their drawings turn into objects."

Like Huck Finn's raft, the boats eventually came out of the water. They were exhibited at Homewood Studios, a North Minneapolis space for local artists and their community, where the teens again told their stories, and visitors added their own stories and drawings to the river tales.

And just as it did for Huck, their encounter with the river left them with a story—a story about where they'd been, a story that had new value and meaning because someone was listening.

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This page contains a single entry by CLA Reach Magazine published on September 4, 2009 8:41 AM.

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