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This special series explored the history and impact of the most distinct lines in Kansas City: Troost Avenue, the State Line, the Wyandotte-Johnson county line, and the Missouri River.

The Missouri As Muse: Painters And Photographers Are Drawn To The River

Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Art
The Jolly Flatboatmen, by George Caleb Bingham, 1846

The Missouri River's nickname, which evokes a wide current of mud, misses its aesthetic potential. Its most famous admirer may be the Missouri painter George Caleb Bingham.

"Bingham was fascinated with American frontier life and is particularly well known for his paintings of trappers and boatmen along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers," the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. noted in a recent news release.

The National Gallery was announcing that it had acquired a masterpiece by Bingham. "The Jolly Flatboatmen" (1846) joins two other Binghams in the National Gallery's collection: "Mississippi Boatman" (1850) and "Cottage Scenery" (1845).

But although the scene in "The Jolly Flatboatmen" looks like the Missouri River, it could just as easily be the Mississippi River. The National Gallery's media office could not say which of the state's famous rivers these flatboatmen were enjoying.

"In the work of George Caleb Bingham, when we have an original title — e.g., 'Mississippi Boatman' — that tells us a specific river," spokeswoman Anabeth Guthrie wrote in an email. Because Bingham didn't specify a location when he titled his painting "The Jolly Flatboatmen," she wrote, "we have no other information about the specific river in this painting."

Fortunately, there are other artists we could actually speak with (unlike Bingham, who died in 1879) about how the Missouri River has inspired them.

Credit Courtesy Ron Anderson
One of the images in Ron Anderson's 'River of the Big Canoe' series of photographs.

Ron Anderson,  photographer
Anderson, who lives in Kansas City, Kansas, compiled 40 images in a series he calls "River of the Big Canoes." He spent two years taking pictures along the river with a 1958 Kodak Brownie camera.

"Because of the camera, there wasn't much I could control," Anderson says. "There's no shutter speed, no aperture you can control. All you can control is what you're photographing and when."

He went to the river on Saturday mornings to capture the moments just before, and just after, the sun began to rise. "I got a chuckle because it's nicknamed 'The Big Muddy,' but in my photographs it doesn't look muddy at all. At that time of day, it's calmer and the water's surface reflects the sky. The river just took on this magical quality, reflecting colors and shapes."

Credit Courtesy Leopold Gallery
Courtesy Leopold Gallery
'Upriver,' by Allan Chow

Allan Chow, painter
Chow, whose work is on display at the Leopold Gallery in Brookside, says the Missouri River and water in general will always be some of his favorite subjects.

Chow's paintings start with photographs.

"When I'm on location, I focus on the experience," he says. This creative process happens at night, he says, "when I am able to listen." He makes rough sketches on paper, then starts drawing with paint almost immediately on a blank canvas and builds layers of wet oil paint.

"The landscape provides me a lot of creative freedom to express my emotions and thoughts on canvas," he says. "I enjoy the challenge of taking my viewers in a visual and spiritual journey through my colors, textures and composition. I grew up pretty much a city boy both in my native country of Malaysia and the United States. Water and open skies happen to be outdoor features that I look forward to every year. There is just so much history between the Missouri River and how Kansas City grew to be one of the largest cities in the country in the 1900's because of the Hannibal & St. Joseph Railroad bridge over the Missouri River. I appreciate what the city is today and all that it has offered me."

Credit Courtesy Sheri Marston
The Missouri River bank at English Landing Park in Parkville.

Here are some responses we received as part of a Tell KC questionnaire we sent out last month:

Sheri Marston, photographer
Martson says she has exhibited her photographs at local fairs but hasn't quit her day job to be an artist. A resident of Oakwood Park in Clay County, she brings her camera on walks with her Great Dane in Parkville's English Landing Park.

"We are there every weekend unless it is raining or below 20 degrees," she says. "I have made images at sunrise and sunset, in winter with big round hunks of foamy ice, and in the spring with the water high and tree limbs floating in the water. My favorite is when the fog rolls in from the water at dawn. It's so mystical. While the river inspires my art, as someone who grew up in Kansas City at the time of the prostitute murders and hearing occasional stories of people and parts being found in the river, I have to admit that I sometimes get jumpy when I see something on the shoreline."

Credit John McConnell
The Kansas City skyline from up the Missouri River.

John McConnell, photographer

McConnell, who now lives in Shawnee, started taking pictures of the river when he lived in Kansas City North. He likes scenery and wildlife, both of which are in abundance near the river.

“Up in Weston Bend State Park, there are a lot of trails where you can see the river,” he says. “A lot of my pictures are of river banks or downtown Kansas City, where you can see the rivers joining. I happened to be in Parkville in 2011 and took a lot of pictures of the flood – they’re not really any good. And I lived in Riverside at the time of the 1993 flood and took pictures with a really bad old camera.” Now he uses a Canon 50D. His river photos are on Flickr.

“Taking pictures of buildings is kind of boring,” McConnell says, “but put a river and some bridges in the frame, and it looks more interesting.”

This look at the Missouri River is part of KCUR's months-long examination of how geographic borders affect our daily lives in Kansas City. KCUR will go Beyond Our Borders and spark a community conversation through social outreach and innovative journalism.

We will share the history of these lines, how the borders affect the current Kansas City experience and what’s being done to bridge or dissolve them.

A free press is among our country’s founding principles and most precious resources. As director of content-journalism at KCUR, I want everyone in our part of America to know we see them and we’re listening. I work to make sure the stories we tell and the conversations we convene reflect our complex realities, informing and inspiring all of us to meet the profound challenges of our time. Email me at cj@kcur.org.
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