Forward Past

New art inspired by old times

Adds Suhre, "He found in that name something very poetic and meaningful: the 'bridge' to other communities around here -- how does our university relate to our communities? -- and 'natural,' which implied to him a kind of tumbling back in time. This at one time was not a highly developed urban setting; at one time it was pastoral and rural."

Piazza, with the help of Suhre and two student interns, Amy Silberman and Jeanne Rosen, began a dialogue with the local schools and started gathering information about the Normandy area. This led them to Eleanore Waldt, of the Normandy Area Historical Association, who needs no coaxing to tell a couple of hundred years of Normandy history. "This was one of the earliest and oldest outskirts of the inner city," she explains in her home, which sits adjacent to the expanding UM-St. Louis campus. She tells how the "Wedge" -- the intersection of Natural Bridge, Florissant Road and St. Ann Lane -- was once the starting-off point of the Santa Fe Trail.

Waldt is a font of information, and much of it has made its way into Natural Bridge Road: An Awareness of Place in Gallery 210. She's a storyteller who brings the distant past as near as her voice.

At a new UMSL Gallery 210 exhibit, photocopies of a picture of Anne Lucas Hunt's now-demolished home, the Shelter, can be dispatched into a paper shredder.
At a new UMSL Gallery 210 exhibit, photocopies of a picture of Anne Lucas Hunt's now-demolished home, the Shelter, can be dispatched into a paper shredder.

"Benjamin Franklin had met Jean-Baptiste Charles Lucas in France when Franklin was ambassador to France," she begins, "and was so impressed with him he told Thomas Jefferson about him. So Jean-Baptiste came to America and was eventually appointed a commissioner of the Louisiana Purchase lands." Lucas came from Normandy, France, which has given the area its name.

"Jean-Baptiste Charles Lucas' oldest son had a very hot temper like his father," she continues. "He got into a battle royal with Thomas Hart Benton. He called Thomas Hart Benton a plowman and a country bumpkin. Benton challenged him to a duel. So they went out on Bloody Island and they had their duel. Lucas got shot in the throat, and he survived. So Benton said, 'That's fine with me; it's done.' But senior Lucas said, 'Are you going to disgrace the family and walk away from this challenge?' So the son went to Bloody Island again, and this time Benton killed him.

"Naturally there was tremendous animosity between the two families. Benton went on to be governor. But what was so ironic, here's the new college on Lucas land, and one of the very first new buildings was Benton Hall.

"It was a chuckle. But the irony: How dare they?"

These are the stories artists such as Piazza are trying to preserve. Historical narrative is a kind of endangered species unless an artist (and why not an artist?) compels others to pay attention.

"There are so many fascinating stories," Waldt says. "There are people who don't even know the history exists.

"We have become such a complete Dixie Cup society," she exclaims. "You use it, and if it gets in the way, you throw it away. It's like we've got some sort of giant dispenser that our forefathers built, full of Dixie Cups. And when they don't want it anymore and want to build some box with a blue-glass exterior, they pull out the building and throw it away.

"We don't venerate. We throw it away."

Natural Bridge Road: An Awareness of Place is a small act of veneration. Piazza has assembled a mad collection of maps and texts and clippings, scattered across tables in Gallery 210. There is a long list of names of people who live along the road. There are designs for bus kiosks, which will go up soon, by students from Central Visual and Performing Arts High School. One student from the school, Chris Swierk, displays "Time Owl," a photo collage that presents an idea of history, an image of the past that lies beneath the surface of things. There are photocopies of Anne Lucas Hunt's home, the Shelter, now demolished, which can be dispatched into a paper shredder that has been cleverly supplied. There's a water cooler, to represent the springs that once fed this area. There are designs for manhole covers that students created, another way of marking this place as their own. A fine idea, but there's not the money to forge them.

There is also an image from a journal called Central Magazine from July 1874, depicting St. Louis as the center of America, with arteries extending out to Louisville and Norfolk; to Kansas City, Denver and Salt Lake City; to Memphis, Vicksburg and New Orleans.

History, as it can deflate aspirations, can also inspire. Whatever the significance of middle- and high-school students drawing pictures of a 19th-century plank road (which Natural Bridge was), it at least affirms that their world is more than the fleeting present and at least as intriguing as the future. And they might think of placing themselves not at the periphery but at the very center of that world.

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