Aaron Belz ruminates on why weedy lots and a culture formed by shoe factories, breweries and blue notes make St. Louis a great place to be an artist
Photograph by Mark Schepker
Rumor has it St. Louis once carried the unofficial slogan “shoes, booze and the blues,” a reference to its three major industries. My Google search yielded nothing—but the phrase is an effective mnemonic, so maybe its origin doesn’t matter.
In whatever state of decline or ascent St. Louis may exist as it morphs into the 21st century version of itself—as we clear out decrepit buildings, fight crime, build stadiums and retail villages, try to overcome the morass of politics and incompetence that is ruining the public schools—our city will always be defined by booze and the blues, if not shoes.
That's one reason St. Louis may be an ideal city for artists and writers. No vain boosterism here—in my four years curating a poetry reading series (sponsored by Schlafly) and many more going to gallery openings, various shows, friends’ studios, farmers’ markets and outdoor festivals, I’ve found plenty of beer and music. Artists and writers can’t get enough. Visiting poets, after returning home, e-mail comments like, “Thanks again for a chance to see this terrific city” and “St. Louis remains a little jewel in my mind.”
Another reason St. Louis is good for the arts is that it’s provincial. This may seem counterintuitive, but I remember the poet William Matthews—who was, not coincidentally, a legendary connoisseur of jazz, blues and drink—expressing ambivalence about a top writing program in a larger city because, he said, “Whenever I’m there I keep looking up to see what’s blocking the sun.”
I ended up in St. Louis partly because of Bill’s comment. Having grown up here, having written my first lines of poetry in Creve Coeur, I knew that there was nothing between Olive Boulevard and the sun. Olive can be downright sultry in the summertime, as can Big Bend, Clayton, Page and Chippewa. These aren’t storied roads—they’re roads whose stories have yet to be told.
In such an environment the idea of art, the creative process, arises less from a competitive community of recognized artists and more from the surroundings themselves. It’s less social and more existential. We create based on what we see and experience of the real world. It’s not that other artists don’t influence our work, but that influence isn’t the subject. We’re not in dialogue with ourselves, and we’re not lost in theory.
There are numerous artists who typify the St. Louis approach. One is Mark Schepker, a photographer whose work has been shown at Urban Breath and Drive Agency and is currently on display at Gallery 210 at UM–St. Louis untilOctober 16. His photographs capture very blank, geometrically simple vacant buildings and their weedy surrounding lots.
He writes, “The focus of my photographic work in recent years is the idea of imperma-nence. Simply put, all things are in a constant state of change and decay. In the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi, loosely translated as ‘sad beauty,’ is the concept that nothing is lasting or perfect. Aging architecture therefore is a natural choice of subject matter. My work has been greatly influenced both formally and conceptually by the photography of Lee Friedlander and Tim Davis, who document the flawed, unexpected beauty in the American urban landscape.”
When Schepker showed me books of Friedlander’s and Davis’ photographs earlier this summer, I could see that their work informed his, but also that he was doing his own thing. His photographs, especially those of Rock Hill’s former city hall and of a vacant, 1950s batwing gas station at Manchester and Rock Hill Road, powerfully evoke life in St. Louis. There’s less depth, fewer complicating shadows than in Friedlander’s work—less obvious comedy than in Davis’. Schepker's vision is starker, plainer—uncannily Midwestern. The story of Manchester Road begins to appear.
Another example is Sarah Giannobile, a graduate of both Webster and Fontbonne University’s fine arts programs. I was attending a fundraiser at Mad Art Gallery in Soulard when I first noticed her paintings—abstract networks of lines and colors on large canvases, with tiny, nonrepresentational shapes that looked like satellites, televisions, wheels, birds and so forth trapped in these unpredictable grids. The colors entranced me, and I asked Mad Art’s owner, Ron Buechele, how to get in touch with her.
When I visited Giannobile's studio, she said she is originally from St. James, and draws her palette from the landscape of Missouri farm country. I should have known, I thought. I wouldn’t have been so entranced by random colors. Even the shapes—the wheels, machines, abstract geometries—derive from her memory of real things in that world. The result is astonishing, and I now have one of her paintings hanging in my dining room. (You can see her work at the Schlafly Art Outside Fair September 7 and 8 and at UMSL’s Gallery 210 through September 15.)
How does work like Schepker's and Giannobile's begin to be celebrated by regional, even national culture? How does St. Louis develop a voice of its own? The first step is to accept what’s here. We live in a city with a particular shape and history, even a unique dialect, to which no one else in America has daily access. As artists and writers, we have to hit the streets. It’s our job to find the rhythm of shoes, booze and the blues.
Aaron Belz is the author of a poetry collection, The Bird Hoverer (BlazeVOX, 2007). He curates the Observable Poetry series, which takes place the first Thursday of each month, September through April, at Schlafly Bottleworks. See this season’s schedule at observable.org.