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Arts & Life

This Kansas City artist will paddle — and paint — down 2,000 miles of the Missouri River

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Julie Denesha
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Artist Steve Snell makes a 12-mile test run in his new canoe on the Missouri River through downtown Kansas City. This summer, he'll create paintings and videos as he travels more than two thousand miles on the river.

Steve Snell will spend this summer paddling from the Missouri River's headwaters in Three Forks, Montana, to St. Louis, Missouri. Along the way, he’ll create paintings and videos that tell the story of his adventures on the Mighty Mo.

Steve Snell calls himself an adventure artist. His summer-long trip on the Missouri River, he says, will be his biggest adventure yet.

“There's a certain kind of romantic ideal in my head of ‘This is going to be beautiful. It's amazing. It's this dream of a lifetime,’” Snell says.

“But I also know there's going to be moments— and probably plenty of them — where I'm very uncomfortable and tired and lonely and would love to just be back at home with my family,” says Snell, who teaches in the foundation department at the Kansas City Art Institute but is on sabbatical until January.

Rivers often play a role in Snell’s adventures. Five years ago, inspired by explorers Lewis and Clark, he launched a cardboard replica of a keelboat on the Missouri River. And he once spent an afternoon wearing a coonskin cap, paddling a wooden boat shaped like a couch. He's been doing these kinds of adventures as part of his art practice for about 12 years, but this will be his longest solo trip.

The Missouri is North America’s longest river. Along the way Snell will paint watercolors of what he sees.

“I want to create a daily practice of waking up, eating breakfast and making a painting, packing up my boat, getting on the river, finding camp, make a painting, go to bed. And just daily, you know, paint,” he says.

"I don't know what it is about water other than it's a line," Snell adds. "What's around the next bend? I don't know. Yes, I might have a map and have a have an idea of of where I can dock or whatever it might be. You're going to it, but it's almost coming to you."

His work is inspired by American mythology, history and popular culture.

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Steve Snell
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Steve Snell's 2008 oil painting "The Great Buffalo Jump."

With so many hours on the river to fill, Snell came up with an idea for a project that would combine his interests and skills.

“I want to paint and I want to make a video about the river, and I'm a teacher, so why not make a painting show that takes place on the Missouri River? It would be an adventure reality painting program, and I don't think anything is out there quite like I imagine it," he says. "Like my first kind of concept was like Bob Ross and 'The Joy of Painting' meets Bear Grylls from 'Man vs. Wild.'”

Once he’s back, Snell’s videos will be his way of sharing the experience.

“Much like Bob Ross, I can talk while I paint and tell people what I see along the way,” Snell says. “I’m imagining a series of episodes that will eventually go online and each episode, a different place on the river, and you get to see what the river looks like while I make a painting about it.”

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Julie Denesha
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Beneath an overcast sky, Snell makes a final check before setting off. Rivers are a frequent theme in Snell's artwork.

Many artists before Snell have documented the beauty of the Missouri River. In 1832, the German naturalist and explorer Maximilian, prince zu Wied-Neuwied traveled by steamboat up the Missouri. He brought the Swiss watercolor artist Karl Bodmer to record the landscapes and people they encountered. Many of those watercolors are now housed in the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Nebraska.

"His (Bodmer's) landscapes are some of the most beautiful landscapes I've seen of this part of America," Snell says. "Of course, it's very different now, and so I'm interested in seeing what some of those places look like now."

Kansas City artist Steve Snell will spend this summer paddling the Missouri River.

Snell says he's trying not to have too many preconceptions of what he'll see.

"I've even tried to avoid over researching and looking at like other people's journeys and landscapes," he says, "because I want it to be all new to me and elicit that same sense of wonder that it would for anybody when you see something for the first time."

He plans periodic Instagram updates with posts of paintings and the things he sees. He also has an adventure page on his website.

"I'm going to try not to overdo it because I really want to be be on the river and not on social media," Snell explains. "But I also want to share the story with as many people as I can."

He says he’s excited to set off, but he’s realistic about the challenges ahead. And working for long periods of time alone in a studio is good practice for a trip like this.

“It's a way to be really present in the moment,” Snell says. “I’ve just never done it for three months, so I know that, that's going to be hard. That’s all new to me.”

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Julie Denesha
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Snell carries supplies to the boat ramp as he prepares for his three-month trip on the Missouri River.

Paddling the Missouri River can also be dangerous.

“I'm taking things slow,” Snell says. “I’m being very cautious. I'm not going to be a risk taker any more than I need to be. And, yeah, that's the agreement I have with my wife to just be slow and conservative and paddle safe and I'll make it home.”

But Snell says danger isn't the message he wants people to take away from his journey on the Missouri.

“Don't be afraid of the river," Snell says. "It's a beautiful river that's a lot of fun to paddle. And I think the more people that engage with our river locally and up and downstream, really, the better off we all are for it.”

Mostly, Snell says, he's looking to head into the unknown.

"Something I really love about these adventures is simplifying to the point of like, you're moving from point A to B and whatever happens in between the encounters, the unknowns, that's that's what's exciting," Snell says.

By the time people read this story, Snell we be on the second day of his trip — somewhere in Montana between Toston Dam and Canyon Ferry Lake, he estimates.

“I anticipate making it back to Kansas City sometime in early September," he says. "Mid-September at the latest.”

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