River View

Maybe it's up to artists to get St. Louis to look to the Mississippi

The tailgate parties got to be too much for them.

Nita Turnage and Hap Phillips were living in an old, still functioning hardwood-importing business in the former industrial district north of Laclede's Landing. This is another one of those parts of St. Louis that not too long ago was a vital area for commerce, linked to the Mississippi, which now runs neglected by our city.

Turnage and Phillips enjoyed walking their dogs around there. When friends asked them whether they felt safe, their answer was "There's no one down here to be afraid of."

The only time the area is populated is on Sundays, when the Rams play at the Edward Jones Dome. An abandoned lot, where native grasses grew tall, was trampled by the tailgate revelers. "Seventy thousand people down here, and they just trash the place," Phillips grumbles. Barbecue grills dumped, beer cans, liquor bottles -- all the assorted refuse required to elicit Ram spirit was strewn not far from where Indian mounds once stood.

"That sparked the idea," says Phillips, "because it seemed so demeaning to the area."

Phillips and Turnage are artists, and one thing artists are responsible for is restoring meaning to those things that have been demeaned. If there's a void, fill it.

The idea became Artica 2002: Exploring the Edge, which is described in the official flier as "an outdoor multi-media arts festival dedicated to reintroducing life into an area that exists as an urban wasteland." Phillips, who grew up in St. Louis but lived in Philadelphia for a time, says the event, to him, combines qualities of the Philadelphia Fringe Festival and the Mummer's Parade.

The pair figures 25 to 30 artists may be participating August 10 and 11, dates chosen to fit between Strassenfest and the Rams' first preseason game. When Phillips and Turnage first contacted the RFT, Artica was delightfully subversive: an act of guerilla art in which official permission had not been granted because it hadn't been sought. "We were a little afraid to contact official people," says Phillips, "because all you'll hear is 'liability.'"

Phillips and Turnage are not going to become the king and queen of the trespassers, though. They have been granted a city block-party permit, and Tim Tucker, who owns the Cotton Exchange building -- the former railway-transfer station -- has given the artists a safe zone in which to play on his property.

The two avoided official sanctioning as long as they could, however, understanding, says Turnage, that "if we went through channels, it wasn't going to happen." Still, there are no sponsors, and no Regional Arts Council or Missouri Arts Council or any other arts-council funding. "Everybody's responsible for their own work," says Phillips. "Artists call up and ask, 'Who's funding this?' 'You're funding this.'"

Do it, document it, then go after funding the next time around: That's been the plan so far, and, barring unforeseen disasters, it just might work.

Phillips and Turnage give a tour of the site on a hot summer afternoon. They're a complementary couple. He's lean, droll, with a devilish grin. She's wide-eyed exuberant, with a shock of dyed-red hair. They no longer live in the hardwood store -- Turnage points sadly at where her garden used to be -- because the city moved them out, citing zoning restrictions. The city is happy for people to move downtown, but only if they're willing to pay for loft spaces at luxury-condo prices.

The platform to the Cotton Exchange building provides a perfect stage for music and poetry and performance art. Phillips and Turnage aren't sure which musicians are going to play at Artica, but they hope somebody has the wherewithal to bring a generator for electricity. As of press time, the RFT had heard that Cenozoic was scheduled to perform.

We walk past the old bathhouse. The smell of sulfur is still present. The water, from an underground spring, was once sold in fine restaurants for its supposed medicinal properties.

Phillips scans a nearby alley: "There's going to be poetry here, or should be here."

The grass has been cut in the lot where the offending tailgate revelers invade. The grass has burned brown in the heat. Phillips is taking this spot for his installation: the shadow of a C-130 gunship burned into the grass, titled "Homeland Security."

The seemingly derelict zones of St. Louis always offer surprises. Turnage's bright blue eyes widen at a lot where a grove of trees yields shade. This is her installation site, where she's constructing a labyrinth. The Artica Web site (www.artica.org) gives a view of her plan: the maze constructed of brick and other objects found in the area, with an entry point on the east side. "A path for contemplation," the preliminary design reads, "a spiral inward not downward."

Down the street, the river is framed by a train trestle painted in a black-and-white checkerboard pattern. "People forget about the river until there's a 500-year flood," says Phillips. "They expect the river to come to them."

Local poet Josh Wolf has been enlisted to create a ritualized ceremony for what is being billed as "The Boat of Dreams." Participants are invited to create a "biodegradable boat large enough to carry your dreams down river," the Artica flier reads. When Wolf first visited the site with Phillips and Turnage, the river was 40 feet higher. Anyone planning to float a boat needs to be prepared to hike up and down the large rocks that make up the levee.

Art interventions are not for the tame. Those coming down to Artica are advised to bring their own food and water. It's not as if Poland Spring is sponsoring this -- at least not this year.

Other than the hope, says Phillips, that "no one's injured and no one's in jail," the couple wants this event to initiate an annual festival. "We want people to be interested in doing it again," says Turnage. "Make it bigger and more involved in the community. Take it to a level where there's more people coming to the area. Make people wake up to the area, or to metropolitan St. Louis, for that matter."

Scheduled installations and performances include "Arthenge," an ambitious project by Michael Morrison. He labels Artica "an urban anarchist art fair." He plans to stand railroad ties on their ends and sink them around a pit lined with sculpted hands and candles. "My Celtic cultural history is coming into this," he explains. "I envisioned layer upon layer of historical civilizations: Indians, slaves, Irish immigrants and all the things buried here."

What if he awakens the spirits of those who came before in the dead of night? "I'm gonna be long gone."

Jenna Bauer, who's founded a new children's art center in Tower Grove Park, plans to rent a helium tank and inflate different types of balloons, to "thrust a stream of these as high as they can go." She and a friend got the idea from seeing the balloons at car dealerships.

Wolf is building a tearoom out of found objects, "mostly stuff found in Dumpsters and beside Dumpsters." He'll offer what Phillips calls an "abstract bizarro tea ceremony" to groups of three throughout the weekend. "I'm at war with boxes," says Wolf. "I liked the idea of creating space in harmonious tension with the immediate environment."

Artica 2002 will probably have grown by the time this column goes to press. "We've been getting people crawling out of the woodwork asking if it's too late," says Turnage. "It's not. Show up and make it."

In memoriam: John Hilgert died Sunday, July 28, after a long illness. Hilgert was a photographer, a thoughtful and intelligent artist. He taught at Webster University and was greatly loved and admired by the students and faculty there. Hilgert was a sweet, caring man. Anyone who had the fortune to be in the presence of his wit and humor was elevated by them. Our deepest sympathies go out to his wife, Betsy Millard.

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