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

"Communities Envision 50 Miles of Art," the press release begins. "The three communities of Clarksville, Louisiana and Hannibal in Northeast Missouri have a lot going for them, but there is one thing they want more of: professional artists." The announcement comes from the office of Dee David, in Hannibal, who holds the title "development specialist."

Aren't people with titles such as "development specialist" usually proposing tax incentives for strip malls and subdivisions, or describing how a new federal prison can boost a small-town economy, or how a toxic-waste storage facility can actually improve a region's quality of life?

And since when did any development specialist, whether in small-town Missouri or big-city St. Louis, figure that the one thing a community needed was more professional artists?

David, the press release continues, "is just one of the many people that have taken note of the economic benefits of an artist community." She is quoted as saying, "You have to look at new ways to encourage growth."

Such talk sounds like small-town naivete to big-city ears.

But then, this city thought it needed the Rams.

David appears to be a reasonable woman in person. Her office, that of the Northeast Missouri Development Authority, is in a three-story yellow-brick building that's in the midst of renovation on Hannibal's Third Street. She introduces two other reasonable-looking people: Patrick French, executive director of Pike County Development Authority (another tied to the suspect "developer" legion), and Linn Ayers, who introduces herself as the "weird artist" in the bunch.

Everyone sits down together at a long table with views of the town — from which Ayers can point out her and her husband's shop, Ayers Pottery — and lay out the scheme, which, after a few minutes, reveals itself to be far more appealing than what Georgia Frontiere had to offer.

The concept of 50 miles of art began with conversations between the Ayerses (Linn and her husband, Steve), who've made a living with their pottery in Hannibal for 15 years, and John and Karen Stoeckley, who own galleries that exhibit John's pen-and-ink drawings and watercolors in Union Station and in St. Charles and have worked out of their Louisiana gallery as home base for three years.

The couples talked about the potential for more artists like themselves — artists who make things that people actually want — working in the area, and how those artists could transform and enrich the region.

They figured that the Mississippi is already a tourist draw, especially Hannibal, with its Huck and Tom and Becky associations, and Louisiana and Clarksville are popular stops for bald-eagle watchers in the winter. All three are scenic river towns with rich histories and sagging economies, which means lots of attractive buildings that can be had for a song (or, in this case, a kiln), even after renovation. If artists who feel squeezed in the high-rent zones of the Pacific Northwest or Southwest or California or Florida could be seduced by the potential of Mississippi River tourism, then the three towns could become art stops along Highway 79.

Further impetus for the 50-miles-of-art concept came with the state's recent designation of those 50 miles from Hannibal to Clarksville as a scenic byway (of course it's always been scenic, but a little promotion and official recognition help), with fresh blacktop being laid and signs with pretty little bluebirds on them set in place to emphasize the scenic nature of the scenic nature.

Artists who are thinking about packing up their lives and moving to a small river town in Missouri will find not just nice views of the Mississippi, cheap real-estate property and the whisper of "potential"; they'll also hear people like French, of the developer class no less, say things like, "Artists make pretty good citizens. They have a sense of community and involvement."

"I've been on the park board, and now I'm on the school board," Ayers chimes in as living proof.

"Artists like to be told that they're welcome and wanted," she adds. Artists rarely are, and Ayers is gratified that when she and the Stoeckleys first presented their ideas to David and French, "they didn't think we were nuts."

Instead, they formed an "interesting coalition" (French's words) and started thinking of other small-town communities that draw the cultural-tourist trade, places like Nashville, Ind.; Ashland, Ore.; and Mineral Point, Wis., a town of 3,000 with some 40 working artists. They also got local banks interested in the idea, making low-interest loans available for artists' relocation costs and building renovation.

They started developing a pitch: low cost of living; available, appealing and affordable space (French touts a 19th-century brick church for sale in Louisiana for $22,000, suitable for a large studio, retail space and living area); towns located near major cities and major arts fairs; serene, historic-river-town ambiance; and a small corp of working artists — blacksmiths, weavers, potters, glassblowers, painters — who can point newcomers to the right banker and the best regional art shows. And Ayers can even give them a decent cappuccino in one of her shops.

The pitch went into ads that were placed in selected trade journals such as Ceramic Monthly, Weavers World and Crafts Report in June. So far, David has received 55 phone calls from all over the country.

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."

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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