40 Years of Wandering 

Retrospective charts local painter's creative travels

After living here for 30 years, artist Mary Sprague has come to a remarkable conclusion: "There's nothing wrong with St. Louis that a good high tide wouldn't fix." It's clear from Sprague's tone that her observation blends equal measures of fondness and disdain -- maybe. After all, high tide is not wholly a good or bad occurrence. High tide washes away the flotsam, but it leaves behind the jetsam stolen from the briny deep, and for an artist who describes herself as "a compulsive maker," detritus provides fuel for the creative fire.

Mary Sprague's creative fire has been burning brightly for more than 40 years, and it has been well fed by St. Louis' unique geographic relation to the art world. Although New York may be the locus of American art, Sprague notes that "St. Louis is the last of the eastward-looking cities." St. Louis' glancing-backward nature, in her opinion, "leads to stagnation and some fermentation." In addition to its fine qualities as a sort of brewer's vat, St. Louis provides an artist space. "People leave me alone here," she says. "There's room to work."

Drawings and Paintings: 1960-2000 showcases a portion of what Sprague has accomplished when left to her own devices. Beginning with the simpler, cleaner work of her early pieces and evolving into the lush, densely rendered paintings of her more recent work, the show traces an ascent from an artist deciphering what it is she wants to say to an artist saying what she has to say. Ideas and images manifested individually in the early years cluster together and brush shoulders on the latter canvases; it as if the whole of Sprague's fecund imagination has been released from explaining itself and allowed to run rampant.

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