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What Happens When Two Kansas City Artists Set Out On Their Own Oregon Trail Adventure

Julie Denesha
Musician Dwight Frizzell, left, and printmaker Miguel Rivera discuss their different approaches to a map of the Oregon Trail at the Kansas City Art Institute where they both teach.

When pioneers set off in covered wagons from Independence, Missouri, on the Oregon Trail for "The Great Migration of 1843," it was a 2,000-mile trek that would take an average of five months by covered wagon. Before the transcontinental railroad rendered the trail obsolete, at least 400,000 settlers are estimated to have used the Oregon Trail and its three offshoots — the California, Bozeman and Mormon Trails.

Now two professors at the Kansas City Art Institute, a printmaker and a musician, are using a historic map of the Oregon Trail as a jumping off point for their own work.

"I am making what I think are historical maps more relevant in the context of how they contributed to today’s society," says Miguel Rivera, a resident artist at Studios Inc. "Basically, I am not illustrating history. I am inspired by it."

Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3
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Rivera works on a print in his space at Studios Inc in the Crossroads.

Rivera joined the KCAI faculty in fall 2008 to serve as chair of the printmaking department. His prints incorporate manipulated photos, hand drawn images, painted or printed shapes and vector drawings. Historic images frequently become the foundation for his multi-layered works.

One of his new pieces is "In Between WPWW," a 12-and-a-half-foot long print with layers of drawing and laser engraving. At its core, it's a modified version of the famous wagon trail.

To find his detailed map from 1846, Rivera looked to the Library of Congress, whose topographical map of the road from Missouri to Oregon includes the many rivers pioneers crossed and notes the territory of indigenous tribes along the way. Like the pioneers who came before, Rivera used the map to find his way, this time through the medium of printmaking.

Rivera, who was born in Mexico, frequently uses maps and historical imagery to create abstract works exploring themes of colonialism.

Rivera says it is the waves of immigration that helped to shape the culture of America today. Artists such as Mark Rothko, William DeKooning and Lee Krasner, whose parents fled anti-Semitism in Russia, played important roles in the development of modern art as we know it.

Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3
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Rivera often begins with historical images and then adds layers of color and line to complete the works.

"They all basically came to develop culture," says Rivera. "To set up the standards for the birth of 20th Century American art. So we’re basically visiting the some of the similar ideas of what it’s like to be an immigrant without the political baggage that we usually see."

Dwight Frizzell, a professor of Sound and Converging Media at KCAI, shares Rivera's interest in translating history into art.

Frizzell composes musical works from all sorts of phenomena, including the critical mass from a nuclear bomb and Tree of Life, with music based on Charles Darwin's chart of branching species in time and evolution.

Seeing Rivera's monumental print of the Oregon Trail during a visit to Rivera's studio inspired him.

Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3FM
The Oregon Trail as imagined by Rivera hangs in his studio.

"It has multiple panels and it's really quite layered and active," says Frizzell. "It's a kind of translation and he's interpreting it visually. There are also these vigorous circular marks that are going across the trail across the whole surface of it."

Frizzell has created his own interpretation of the map. He uses the flow of water in the form of rivers, tributaries and the rivers of people moving along the trail to create a sonic piece interpreted by three clarinets.

Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3FM
Dwight Frizzell's score does not contain a single note. The trio of musicians follow the trail until is ends in the Oregon Territory.

His composition, however, does not include a single note. Frizzell's score is the map of trail, which musicians follow to its final destination in Oregon Territory.

While it's unusual for musicians to follow a pioneer trail westward, Michael Miller, who plays bass clarinet in the trio, is taking it in stride.

"I think we're trained to interpret maps like as symbols in a very specific way and then we do something like this and it makes us rethink how to interpret visual instructions," Miller says. "That sometimes brings very interesting things to the music.”

Half an octave lower than a bass clarinet is Thomas Aber's contra alto clarinet. Aber sees himself pulling the wagon.

"Because it's very low instrument, I've decided in the Oregon Trail I am the ox team that just plods along day in, day out, very unenthusiastically," Aber says. "It's the steady plodding of an ox in a team of oxen just being forced to keep going no matter what."

Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3FM
Thomas Aber on contra-alto clarinet (at right) imagines himself as an ox in a team of oxen plodding along the trail.

It may have taken several months for pioneers in nineteenth-century America to travel on the Oregon Trail, but to listen to Frizzell's version only takes only ten and a half minutes. He says by compressing time, he makes the composition listenable to the audience.

"If we hear it as music or we enjoy it to whatever degree, then it’s been translated in a way that we can assimilate it and understand it," says Frizzell.

The three musicians are set to perform Frizzell's sonic version of the Oregon Trail in front of Rivera's work at the show's opening. Rivera, who has heard a rehearsal, says he's looking forward to seeing and hearing the two works side by side.

"With visual art, you can look at it or not within seconds," says Rivera. "But with music you have to be present for people to be able to understand it."

Miguel Rivera's GEO/MATRIX opens 6-8 p.m. Friday, September 13, with a performance by the MYTH-SCIENCE TRIO. The show runs through Oct. 18.

Julie Denesha is a freelance photographer and reporter for KCUR. Follow her on Twitter, @juliedenesha.

Julie Denesha is a freelance multimedia journalist based in Kansas City. Contact her at julie@kcur.org.
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