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Glazed Over 

Building a 200-foot-long artwork along the floodwall has its perils

Shards of clay tile lie at the base of the floodwall. The ceramic body of a gold-and-brown snake, undulating gorgeously amid tiles decorated with fossils, is gouged open. A scorpion has lost its tail, a grasshopper its antennae. A bug-eyed frog's head sits among the fragments on the ground.

A small group of people clusters around the fragments, trying to assess the damage, both physical and emotional.

Catharine Magel's "Reflecting on a River," a 200-foot mosaic stretching along the floodwall at the head of the St. Louis Riverfront Trail, is nearing its scheduled October completion in spite of the one and only incident of vandalism it has incurred.

Four teenage boys smashed the clay figures. Tim Tucker, real-estate developer and project manager for Trailnet -- one of the artwork's funders -- and Magel took off after them in Tucker's car. The youths were eventually apprehended by the police and sent home.

As evening comes on, the group along the wall begins to share some gallows humor. Emily Blumenfeld, who for many years worked with Arts-in-Transit -- installing the "fog wall" near the Savvis Center, among many other projects -- makes a joke about the idea of Tucker and Magel chasing down the culprits. "It's not Dragnet," she quips, "it's Trailnet."

Since 1999, Magel has been coordinating the project with an extensive list of community groups: Grace Hill Neighborhood Services, the Urban Youth Center, Youth Build, the Kids Club House, the Missouri School for the Blind, Seeds of Change and many more. She's worked with students, teachers and principals at dozens of local schools. She's worked with apprentices who arrived with disparate levels of skills and knowledge: "Sometimes they knew clay," she says, "sometimes they didn't." She's worked with the local tile-and-marble workers' union, which has helped with the installation. She's come to adore the Americorps Trail Rangers, a group from Grace Hill who, in addition to their usual duties of trying to keep the river trail safe and uncluttered, have given their full participation to the project.

Magel is more impressed with the number of people she's collaborated with over the last three years than she is with the fact that she's executed an attractive design and fixed it prettily on the concrete floodwall. She believes the work in progress has bridged divisions of race and class, has connected hundreds, if not thousands, of St. Louisans with the river in ways both artistic and educational. "I never thought such connection with communities was possible," she says.

One connection she's made is with the Trail Rangers. Calvin Berry is one of them. He stands by the debris with the group, shaking his head: "You hardly ever see kids alone down here, without their parents."

Berry started working with Magel a year ago. He had no idea what he was getting himself into. "My first day of work, I'm playing with clay," he says with a laugh.

He visited schools with Magel, helped children make clay fish, turtles, footprint impressions. "It's work," he says, "and I'm doing something with enjoyment, but even more enjoyment comes out of it.

"I like this job. I'm out. I'm free. You get to see something get done. When I get to be 30, I can take my kids down here and say, 'Look at this.'"

Berry could re-up for another year with the Trail Rangers, but he's more interested in a counseling position at Grace Hill, "helping young men be better fathers."

But right now he's part of the remarkable transformation of the floodwall. He helps transport stacks of tiles from Magel's Webster Groves studio to the building that will house the Trailnet offices (the old Laclede Power building). Berry says seeing these tiles in stacks, then stretching across the wall, "just looks amazing."

"Reflecting on a River," whose visual narrative moves from left to right, begins with single-cell species, rendered fantastically large. This first section -- filled with wild forms and colors -- is as reminiscent of abstract painting as it is of nature studies.

Magel says one of the themes of the work is "transformation," and this theme works both conceptually and formally. The panels reveal evolutionary movement, from water to land, as those single-cell beings become multiple schools and species of fish -- including a huge paddlefish at the base of one panel -- until the sleek curve of an otter brings the composition to ground.

After talking to a friend who regularly bikes along the path in the wee hours, Magel says, she thought about "how we perceive." She contacted the Missouri School for the Blind and with its staff and students created a "night" panel featuring an opossum, a raccoon, bats, a luna moth, an octopus, a wolf and an owl. This panel is the only section that includes text -- and it's in Braille.

After creating the now-damaged serpent, Magel and her team moved on to a bevy of butterflies, then concluded with flocks of birds. Magel refers to the final panel as "a flight into endlessness."

"People can have a very personal relationship with the different parts," she says. "I wanted the whole piece to be about transformation: water to earth, night to day, land to sky." Although Magel took pains to make the work species-specific to Missouri, she did fudge a bit for the sake of form and color -- witness the octopus and wolf. "I wanted the butterflies to look like a Pollock from a distance," she says, "then exacting and precise close-up."

For two and a half years, Magel, her assistants and all those members of all those communities have been making tiles, constructing birds and butterflies and frogs and fish and fossils -- lots of fish and fossils, forms children were particularly attracted to. All the glazes have been made by hand: "It's a lot about painting, so the color isn't all flat," explains Magel. More than 17,000 pounds of clay has been worked.

Magel and her assistants like to talk most about the communities that have participated in making this public artwork a collaborative project. Jason Segall, a Kansas City Art Institute student who's been working on "Reflecting on a River," talks about the children at Kids Club House. Kids Club House counsels youth who have experienced the death of a family member or friend. The kids made the birds, then wrote notes to the loved ones they'd lost and placed them inside the clay. The notes burned when the clay was fired.

Artists can become much too enamored of the process of community involvement, creating works that are well meaning but visually atrocious. In fact, more communities need to stand up and say, "For God's sake, not another mural." But "Reflecting on the River" functions both as an attractive, pleasing work of art and as a model of community outreach.

Magel assesses the damage of the vandalism. She thinks it's "pretty repairable." As for the juvenile perpetrators, she says, "I wish they could come down and work on this. They'd understand what it means."

Breaking barriers: The citizens who frequent Forest Park -- the daily bikers, runners and dog-walkers -- have been suffering through the massive reconstruction program of the park for months. Ponds have been emptied, then refilled. Huge gouges have been made in the earth to replace crumbling sewer lines. A stroll through Forest Park has not been like walking through a construction site -- Forest Park is a construction site.

One of the most annoying aspects of the construction is the seemingly capricious placement of those orange plastic-mesh fences to hinder trail access. The fences go up, and then nothing happens. Joggers run in place, look at their watches and reconsider their routes with a look of exasperation.

But St. Louisans have been showing real orneriness in the face of these impediments. Once those fences go up, it's no time before they're down. One barrier, on a footbridge, had both plastic and metal wires severed.

Vandalism should never be encouraged (see story above), but there's a certain perverse appeal to thinking of Forest Park joggers as urban renegades.

Ha: Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis has hired its new director, Paul Ha. Ha ran the prestigious White Columns art space in New York City for a number of years. During that time, he made more than 900 artist-studio visits a year. Ha went on to a position at the Yale Art Museum but recently resigned, saying that he missed spending time with artists.

Any guy who quits Yale must have something going for him.

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More by Eddie Silva

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