SIGNS OF INTELLIGENT LIFE ON THE MISSISSIPPI

Traveling the Great River Road to learn more about a proposed arts corridor in northeast Missouri

Those artists who would move from places like the Pacific Northwest, the Southwest, California and Florida won't find in Hannibal, Louisiana and Clarksville the amenities to which they've grown accustomed. In their present condition, these are communities just now recovering from years of economic downturns — towns built by river and rail, with small industries that folded after the boats and trains no longer stopped there. Currently the region is deeply affected by the farm crisis. French says 20 percent of Pike County jobs are related to agriculture (Louisiana and Clarksville both lie in Pike County), a statistic that doesn't bode well for the region as a whole and heralds the need for a significant rethinking of the area's economy.

Downtown Hannibal, however, is looking more upbeat than it has in a number of years. Buildings are under renovation; the Twain Museum is vastly improved; Lula Belle's — a restaurant that prides itself on its heritage as a prominent bordello — is busy for lunch. The local weaver, John Stewart, says his shop, the Niddy Noddy, is doing its best business in five years. He shows his felt-making machine, one of only two in the United States. The wool in his shop comes from his own sheep ranch, and that wool is shipped to fill orders all over the country.

"How's the 50-miles-of-art project going?" he asks David. She gives a winning smile, then shakes her head at the thought of all the work she needs to get done for the next planning meeting on July 28. These meetings have grown from five participants to 20 in the last few months. The reasonable David is beginning to find the truth in the saying "In dreams begin responsibilities."

Linn Ayers of Ayers Pottery in Hannibal, one of the "weird artists" already making a living in the proposed 50-miles-of-art corridor
Jennifer Silverberg
Linn Ayers of Ayers Pottery in Hannibal, one of the "weird artists" already making a living in the proposed 50-miles-of-art corridor

Leaving Mark Twain's hometown and heading south means experiencing one of the most beautiful drives in Missouri, winding through hills that offer at their crests sudden glimpses of the river valley. The new blacktop has mostly been laid. The scenic-byway signs with the bluebirds show up every few miles.

The Stoeckleys live in Louisiana's former stagecoach stop, built in 1837, which they saved from the wrecking ball three years ago. Stoeckley draws and paints nostalgic scenes of rural Missouri with intricate, loving detail — again, the kind of art people actually want. Don't expect artists who exhibit their bodily fluids in jars to be taking space in the art corridor (although French stipulates, "We do not judge who is an artist").

Karen Stoeckley is exuberant about the realm of possibilities. She talks about how Georgia Street in Louisiana is full of vacant buildings on the historical register just begging for artists to move in. Artists' galleries will be marked on a special map for tourists. She admits there aren't bistros, coffee shops, restaurants, theaters — but Louisiana had them 35 years ago. With an economy boosted by the arts corridor, perhaps they could be brought back again.

She imagines as many as 50 artists making a living along the route. Then she starts reminiscing about a trip to St. Paul de Vence in the south of France. St. Paul is yet another small town that has grown into a home for artists.

The comparison is a bit of a stretch, though. St. Paul de Vence is near the Cote d'Azur, with former part-time residents such as Yves Montand, Simone Signoret and James Baldwin.

"Yeah, this isn't southern France," she demurs, "but it's the Mississippi."

Following that fabled Mississippi, 10 miles down the road, is sleepy Clarksville, especially unhurried on a 100-degree afternoon. The Dug Out is busy, one of those rare watering holes where blacks and whites sit comfortably together, joking and drinking and looking out at the river.

It's a place for characters. One man at the bar, who has obviously had a few, is suspicious of the new road work. "The Nazis are building it," he believes. "If you drive along it, you'd better look straight ahead. If you look to see what's going on along the side of the road, be careful — there's snipers."

The Dug Out is charming without being quaint. Transforming the three river towns into craft havens elicits one major concern — the encroachment of quaintness, the inundation of a kitsch folkloric environment that makes places such as old-town St. Charles insufferable if undeniably profitable.

But that scenario is still better than the dreary shabbiness of these towns today. "People will come if there's something here other than burnt-out buildings," John Stoeckley says, speaking as truly of Louisiana as he could be of St. Louis.

Maybe with some 50 working artists along the route, an economy would grow to support even a few of those artists who make things people don't want.

Maybe a Fringe Festival in Ilasco?

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