By Danny Wicentowski
By Lindsay Toler
By RFT Staff
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"Right now, if you go up the bike path, you come all the way up here and demand an ice-cream cone or a soda or a beer or something and all there is that outhouse up there with a dripping faucet," says Cassilly, referring to a restroom in the adjacent city park. "You come in there parched and stick your mouth over it. You feel completely cheated."
Though Cassilly isn't interested in running the riverside portion of his 53-acre spread, he has some ideas. He wants to put a 100-foot water wheel next to one of the four pylons in the river, running river water back up onto the 10 acres east of Riverview. The water would meander back down to the river, through various holding ponds that would cleanse the water through plants like duckweed and cattails and through aeration. Trails along the green space would be defined, and the river would be made accessible to all by a series of ramps. He's talking about building caves into the banks of the river and putting sculptures of indigenous wildlife around the trail near the ponds.
The view from the trestle over the river appears to be far more rustic and bucolic than most stretches along the city. On the Illinois side is the wooded shoreline of Mosenthein Island. Looking south, the river disappears as it bends eastward, with downtown a faint glimmer in the distance. To the north, the crooked Old Chain of Rocks Bridge is on the horizon. This part of the river is not open for navigation because all barge traffic is diverted to the Chain of Rocks Canal behind Gabaret Island, close to two miles to the east.
In looking for a place to put an interactive center dealing with the Mississippi, most locations farther north would have views of Granite City Steel or Shell's Wood River refinery. As it is, the 4,300-acre expanse of the Columbia Bottoms at the juncture of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers is beginning to be opened up by the state since its recent purchase from the city. Hiking and biking trails are planned, as are some limited driving roads and hunting areas. On the Illinois side of the Mississippi and Missouri merger, the decrepit, neglected observation area on that shore is being replaced before 2004 by the $7 million Lewis & Clark Interpretative Center.
Jim Wilson, the outreach and education chief for the Mississippi River Unit of the Missouri Department of Conservation, says his agency is "quite interested" in working with Cassilly on the river center but that the "actual shape of the thing doesn't seem to have jelled yet." He went on to say the actual players haven't "jelled" yet, either. Let's hope he's not waiting on Bob to "jell." Wilson appears to know what he's dealing with in this venture.
"I've met Bob on several occasions down at City Museum, and I'm a great admirer of his creativity and his ability to pull things together. But that's at a personal level," says Wilson. "I only mean to say our agency doesn't have any kind of formal agreement with Bob at this point."
As for Cassilly's cockamamie plans for the cement plant, Wilson isn't a skeptic.
"I think if he wants to do it, he'll probably do it. There are probably places where our missions and interests overlap," Wilson says. "But it's too early to say."
Bob Cassilly is 50 years old. He's been doing what he's been doing for a long time. But when that generic, first-time stranger question is asked him, for once he is at a loss for words. What do you do? How does Bob, the sculptor/artist/businessman/boss/landlord/real-estate mogul/museum director/ wheeler-dealer, answer that basic American question? It's a question that isn't looking for the last book you read, or what you enjoy, or what you believe; it's asking what you call what it is you do. How does Bob respond?
"I stutter. I get panic in my heart. I start looking out the window," Cassilly says, looking away. "I can't stand to define myself."
Even though he's been sculpting all his adult life and is known for his sculpted animals, from the hippo fountain in New York City's Central Park to the tallest statue in Texas, his giraffe in Dallas, you won't catch him calling himself an artist.
"Especially since it's something of an embarrassment to call yourself an artist," says Cassilly. "People think they're a bunch of assholes, elitists. I disassociate myself with that aspect of 'artist.'"
When it comes to pursuing, or doing, whatever it is he does, Cassilly does not want to depend on anyone else. He claims consumers of the art world who are actually participating in 'higher culture' account for about less than 1 percent of the population.
"So when you think of that, I think if the art world is down to 1 percent, they're almost, in evolutionary terms, like an orangutang, they're at a dead end," says Cassilly. "When you turn to self-mutilation and stuff, you know they're at a dead end. So I figured all bets are off. I became my own patron and basically chose to ignore the art world."