Artists and River Rats: Supporting the Cultural Ecology of the Missouri River

Katy Trail

The Katy Trail is a rails-to-trails state park that runs from south of Kansas City to just outside of St. Louis. McKittrick is one of many small towns along its path. Photo by Tina Casagrand.

By Tina Casagrand

On an October afternoon in McKittrick, Mo., just a few steps beyond bottomland fields and a gravel path spotted with bikes, Joey Los was stuffing wild mushrooms into wonton cups, giving advice on bouquets, staging musicians and arranging paintings. A spunky metal artist, bed and breakfast host, and mayor of the town, she was excited to be running an art auction fundraiser for Missouri River Relief, a crew of volunteers who spend their weekends cleaning trash off the banks of the Missouri River.

It seems like an unlikely pairing: keepers of culture supporting self-described “river rats.” But like most ecologies in rural activism, the two groups enjoy a symbiotic relationship that centers on celebrating and protecting their home. The longest stream in the country, the Missouri River sews together all the towns it touches with a thread of history, symbolism and aesthetics.

The McKittrick Mercantile: a hub of river culture gets a fresh shine

Consider McKittrick one stitch in that fabric. Once booming from a river ferry, a railroad, and a fertile floodplain, it’s now a sleepy village. A bridge built in the ‘30s made the town’s ferry moot, and later the Army Corps of Engineers pushed the river two miles south. The railroad has become a bike trail, its depot a parking lot. All that’s left is a larger floodplain.

But Los sees promise in the future of McKittrick, a quaint neighborhood of 61 people who still identify strongly with the Missouri River. For the past five years, she has worked with Rich Lauer, a real estate agent and fellow visionary who lives across the river in Hermann, Mo., to restore the town’s old Mercantile building to its early-1900s glory. Los and Lauer attract area visitors with martial arts classes, a farmers market and food circle meetings, square dances, and two bed and breakfast spaces. When Joey first offered cooking classes to tour bus groups, Rich shot down the idea. “But you know what?” he said, gesturing behind him to the Katy Trail parking lot, where cyclists unstrapped bikes from their cars. “The people who do these bus tours are like the guys over there. They’re just older, and maybe can’t bike anymore, but they don’t want to miss anything, so they hop on a bus instead of a bike.” They’re adventurers.


River Relief crew members recover barrels and bottles from a logjam near Hermann, Mo. Photo by Mike Smith.

Protecting land and water: Missouri River Relief and the Katy Land Trust

How appropriate, then, that Rich and Joey should host a group of people who find thrills in traversing logjams, count success by trash bags and tire piles, and have no qualms with camping, boating and scrounging around Missouri River mud for days at a time.

One year into the Mercantile project, Los had crossed paths with River Relief at the Washington River Festival. They have enjoyed a relationship ever since. When the crew finds cool metal on the river, they save buckets of scraps for her; she then uses the metal to build sculptures on-site at riverside events. When an opportunity arose to host the River Relief crew at the end of a barge trip this year, she jumped at the opportunity to give back.

“I love Missouri River Relief,” Los says. “And I have been wanting to participate more and do cleanups and all that, and I never have time. Several months ago, Steve [Schnarr, program manager for River Relief] came over to Merck for a meeting and said, ‘We’re doing a cleanup in October next year, and we’d like to have a place for a supper or something.’ And I said, ‘do it here!’”

The original plan for River Relief this fall was to employ a barge and crew to run cleanup operations along 150 miles from Brunswick, Mo. to Hermann. This would allow them to tackle hard-to-access dumpsites, but it would also cause a scene. “The big appeal of the Clean Sweep was the visual impact that a barge full of trash and tires and scrap metal presents,” says Jeff Barrow, director of Missouri River Relief. “When people see that, their jaws drop and they ask, ‘where did that come from?’” Although the barge plan fell through, the team continued with its traditional approach: camping in towns all along the Missouri, connecting with schools for educational days on the river, and taking local volunteers out in boats to clean trash from nearby banks.

Undeterred by changing plans, Los went forward with the art auction. Partnerships came together up as if caught in an eddy: more artists, more activists, and more supporters joined in week by week. “A lot of these people we have met through river cleanups and other events on the river,” Schnarr says. “I had been poking them all for donations for a while.” When Dan Burkhardt, director of the Katy Land Trust, heard about the auction, he threw his organization’s weight into the affair. The land trust had commissioned a mural for the McKittrick coal tower by painter Billyo O’Donnell, and Burkhardt set the dedication date to coincide with the auction. He also came with the a recently pressed CD, Magnificent Missouri Music, and donated all proceeds to River Relief, along with a $1,000 check.

“Katy Land Trust is trying to do for land along the River what Missouri River Relief does for the river itself,” Burkhardt told the auction audience. Formed in 2010 to protect rural land from development, they hope bikers who see their name across the bottom of O’Donnell’s paintings will remember the group and learn more.


Dan and Connie Burkhardt, founders of The Katy Land Trust and Magnificent Missouri together in front of the Billyo O’Donnell art installation they spearheaded. On the night of the art auction and dedication, they also released the first copies of Volume 1 of their Magnificent Missouri CD compilation and donated $1,000 to River Relief. Photo by Bryan Haynes.

The Art and the Auction

More than 50 people attended the art auction that Friday night. Some dressed in fancy boots, others came in river shoes, and all listened in rapt attention as Joey’s sonorous voice echoed off a red tin ceiling. She was persuasive, announcing for one of her pieces that, “This was sculpted by the Missouri River, I merely stuck them together.” Later, when a vase came up for sale, she emphasized a heron detail. “You see herons all the time on the Missouri River.” That sold for $100, and in all, art and CD sales totaled more than $4,000.

Why does an art auction for an environmental organization work? Because just as art’s snapshots of single moments can encapsulate an area’s entire history, so does the Missouri River. “I like to do narrative pieces,” says Bryan Haynes, whose “New Regionalism” paintings amplify the river’s effect on both landscape and people. “They hopefully have a story that makes people think or imagine a little bit. The rivers have been corridors of travel and stories for a couple hundred years at least.” When it’s high, we think of rain and snowmelt from the thousands of streams upriver. When it’s low, we think of farmers’ worried brows. Its waters catch the color of the sky, and it manipulates materials around it: trees, wildlife, bluffs and mud and metal and yes, of course, trash.

Just look at the submissions that night: The Missouri River is the primary creator in the bending, twisting, rusting and distressing of Los’s sculptures. It’s the prominent subject of O’Donnell’s murals. It’s implied in a turtle carving, fish-shaped shot glass, and photo canvas of foggy trees; it’s the setting for the folk songs performed and imagined backdrop of Bryan Haynes’ “Making Music” donation. Even a Pickney Bend gin and tonic set, born on the banks of the Missouri in New Haven, incorporates Big Muddy maps into its packaging design. Every piece paid homage to the way a powerful force can inspire appreciation and imagination.

“The Missouri River is so massive, you know?” Haynes says. “It will be here long after we’re gone. It’s really cool to get out on it paddling, and I wish more people did. This sounds so corny, but there’s an awesome power to it, especially when you’re on the river itself.”


River Relief program manager Steve Schnarr spent the day before the auction picking up art donations from several towns along the Missouri River. When he stopped by Astral Glass Studio in New Haven to see their work, the shop’s resident glass blowers (and fellow river rats) Lance Stroheker and Gary Rice donated these two pieces on the spot. Photo by Steve Schnarr.

It is another place where the trash-hungry river rats and the culture-advancing river artists find themselves in agreement—where the bottom line is respect, no matter the avenue to get there. River Relief has adopted the phrase, “We protect what we love.” Those who gathered in McKittrick that night saw this love repeated in dozens of different ways, and in supporting those who protect the river, helped protect every living thing in its course.

One of the artists featured on the Magnificent Missouri album is Gloria Attoun-Bauermeister, a smiling, straight-backed songwriter with a flair for contemporary folk songs. When she announced the night’s final song, “Everything Changes,” Barrow leaned over and whispered, “Always,” clearly thinking of the river rising and falling, and the way new friends can make River Relief’s work even better.

“Between bluff and land, where the iron rails clanged

The tracks are all lifted; there is no more train.

We walk and we ride on the trails that were made,

Rivers flow by, limestone path in the shade.


Give thanks to the dreamers, to the working clean-streamers

The relievers of the rivers, the protectors of the woods.

To the sons and to the daughters, to the land and the living waters,

Trusters of the trails who make sure that it’s good.

To all of the receivers who make change that is good.”

- “Everything Changes” by Gloria Attoun-Bauermeister


Tina Casagrand is a writer in Jefferson City, Missouri. Follow her on Twitter or her blog, where she schemes on making a magazine for the lower Midwest.


Missouri River Relief promotes conservation through river clean-ups, education events and stewardship activities. Photo by Mike Smith.





Introducing Visible Connections: Contemporary Artists in Rural Space


Today we are excited to share Visible Connections: Contemporary Artists in Rural Space, an Atlas of Rural Arts and Culture project led by AOTR intern Rosemary Markowski that seeks to visualize and connect the network of artists working beyond the city. In this previous reflection on our blog, folks can learn more about Rosemary, her art, and her farm in Virginia. Please stay tuned for more updates, and please feel welcome to contribute to this project!


By Rosemary Markowski

Discovery is at the heart of how we both make and experience art. “Work makes work” references the artist’s ability to produce, but also suggests how the process of witnessing – and reflecting upon –the work of others helps to advance the entire field. Many myths surround creativity, inspiration, and genius, and often these myths exclude the role of exchange and connection. Nowhere, on the map of American art, is this more palpably felt that in rural America.

From Tokyo to Berlin to New York City, a quick art history review will demonstrate that many of the significant movements in the arts have incubated in cities as – until recently – location dictated cultural connection. With the birth of modern art in the mid-1800’s, geographic proximity became essential for both communication and the innovation of new artistic approaches. Thus, we have inherited an identity of the contemporary artist as closely tied to urban space – while those working in rural areas or confined to their home-place by roles such as motherhood or agriculture remain hungry for visibility and feedback. Even well into the twenty-first century, assumptions still persist that that the work of rural-based artists occupies a place “outside” of our broader cultural conversation on the arts, and that it sacrifices aesthetic depth for sentimentality and a sense of place.

We are now in the midst of a new creative dynamic. New media has provided pathways for previously isolated artists and organizations to collaborate, innovate, and, at last, articulate the specifics of their own artistic vision.

With Visible Connections, we aim to challenge worn out conceptions and bring these rural artists and their cultural landscapes into the foreground. In doing so we also seek to make an important connection – and expansion – of the term rural art itself, by welcoming artists placed in rural America while also seeking to include work that may be made in the city but comments and reflects upon questions of the cultural and aesthetic position of rural America. In addition, we welcome collaborators interested in helping all of us understand the broader historical, cultural, and aesthetic context of this work.

We invite artists, individuals, educators, and arts organizations to contribute to building Visible Connections and join in building a collective survey of the landscape of contemporary rural art.


How to Begin:

Contributing to Visible Connections begins with creating a profile:

  1. Visit
  2. Once there, click “JOIN”. Fill in the user information.
  3. Once you’ve gone on to the next page, click on “Join Some Communities”

•   Select “Atlas of Rural Arts and Culture”

  1. The navigation icon at the top left will guide your use of Placestories.

•   By clicking on “My Projects”, you’ll be able to add a project. Select the project “Visible Connections: Contemporary Artists in Rural Space” and once you’ve done that, you’ll be able to add stories.

Here’s how to create a story in the Visible Connections project:

All you’ll need for each story is an image, sound, or video, and 100-500 words of text about your organization, artwork, or project. You’ll also want to list your location, and/or the location of the project. If you have a website, facebook, or other online representation, you’ll want to include those links as well so that you can benefit from the connections that the Atlas can provide.

Here are some tips:

• Image – Landscape shaped images (wider than high) generally work better in the postcard template than portrait shaped images.

• Text– the postcard template displays around 100 words. If you would like to include more text than fits on the postcard it will display in full on the story web page.

• Audio- this is an extra option – you may record audio to accompany your postcard.

• Location – every story must be given a location. The place name you type in appears on the front of the postcard. It can be as specific as a street address.

• Publishing and Tags- your postcard will be published straight into the Visible ConnectionspProject. The project is part of the Atlas of Rural Arts and Culture Community. If you would like any other tags associated with your postcard, please list them in your response. Tags are a great way to expand connection.




Designing a Community Hub in the Ozarks, Welcoming the Whole Community to the Table


The Oregon County Food Producers and Artisans Co-Op is a market and community center located in the Missouri Ozarks in the town of Alton, pop. 879. OCFPAC, which serves as both an economic and cultural driver in the county, was the idea of Art of the Rural founding member and OCFPAC Project Steward, Rachel Reynolds Luster. Almost three years ago, she set out to organize farmers, gardeners, ranchers, crafters, artists, and musicians as part of her efforts to develop a holistic approach to community wellbeing and cultural practice. A year and a half ago, efforts to organize gathered momentum as the co-op opened its headquarters on the square in the county seat of Alton. Since then, they’ve expanded to add a community kitchen, garden, and exhibit space which also host skill-sharing workshops and a resource library of local and regional books, music, and art for visitors to use.

This summer, OCFPAC was one of four community organizations across the country to receive an award from The Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design, a project of collaboration between the USDA, The National Endowment for the Arts, Orton Foundation, and Project for Public Spaces. The award facilitates a three-day community engagement workshop bringing in a resource team of designers, horticulturalists, market specialists, architects, artists, and more to help OCFPAC and the communities of Oregon County develop a vacant property into a community hub.

Last week Matthew Fluharty had the pleasure of asking his fellow AOTR colleague about the latest on the Co-Op and the upcoming workshops.


Rachel, what can you share about the cultural landscape of the Ozark region of Southern Missouri and how the prospect of a Co-Op that features art and agriculture responds to this community texture?

We are at the southeast edge of the Ozark Mountains in Missouri. The mountains here are old, beat down to rolling hills. A large chunk of Oregon County is held in National Forest land, the remainder is sparsely populated. Unemployment is high, more than a quarter of the residents live below the national poverty line. There is no real industry here. Most people craft a living out of several part time jobs or entrepreneurial efforts, mostly deriving from relatively small-scale agriculture ventures. I’ve lived here nine years now, although I grew up in the Ozarks just over the line in Arkansas. I began to think about using my skills as a folklorist to address this need. To that end, I realized that there was actually a really wonderful sense of community life that came from what some would call abysmal statistics. There had never been any real industry here. Jobs had always been scarce and incomes low. Consequently, it was part of a cultural continuum that people produced more for themselves and relied on a barter exchange with friends and neighbors as a means to stay here, and they did/do it, because they love it here. Why wouldn’t they? It’s beautiful, unpolluted, crime is low, and recreation is high. So the Co-Op began as a sort of effort to centralize this exchange with the hope that we would not change but rather nurture this. What was unforeseen, and what has been the most interesting thing to me, has been that we have become the connective tissue between the familiar and the unfamiliar. Newcomers and people of very different backgrounds, opinions, and belief systems find us and join.


Can you tell us a little bit about the current status of the Co-Op, and why this seemed like an opportune moment to apply for a Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design grant? 

In some ways, I always imagined us being able to develop our own space, but now we’ve arrived at a moment where it all, anything, seems possible. We are in the process, thanks to the great generosity of one of our members, of purchasing an old vacant bar on the square and the property that it sits on. We were in the process of making the decision on whether or not to pursue this when I saw the release for applications for CIRD. I really thought that if we received this award, which was a huge longshot for a small organization that had never applied for funding, we would be able to get so many of our questions answered about the structural integrity of the building – and that this would be the nudge to help our members make the decision of whether or not to take on this responsibility. To my surprise, we not only got the award, but the members voted unanimously to pursue the property. Through the upcoming workshop we can learn not only how to develop these plans but also how to further our mission and fill in the gaps in terms of our collective sense of what is needed within the community to develop a true hub.

Who are team of folks that you’ve collaborated with CIRD to bring to the community?

I feel very lucky to have been allowed so much freedom in selecting what I believe will be the perfect resource team for our project. M12’s Richard Saxton and Kirsten Stoltz will be there along with Maria Sykes from Epicenter. They will be holding the reins on the design aspects of the project along with Guy Ames, one of the nation’s foremost experts on community orchards and sustainable orchard practices in the Ozarks. He will be helping us to imagine an edible courtyard and other edible landscaping that is bio-regionally specific. Finally, Ben Sandel of the CDS Consulting Co-Op is on our resource team. He is a nationally-renowned expert in co-operative markets. In addition to the resource team provided through CIRD, we’re very lucky to have architect Mark Wise of KEMStudio, a Rural Studio alum who’s worked in the Ozarks extensively; Jesse Vogler a designer, architect, and cultural geographer and visiting professor at the Fox School of Design and Visual Arts at Washington University in St. Louis; Emily Vogler a landscape architect from Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc.; and Barbara Williams, a regional artists doing multi-media pieces based on native stone houses in and around the county. All of these specialists believe, as I do, in the critical need of community engagement in each facet of project design. So, our largest resource will be the attendees, co-op members, local organizations, and other interested community members that will help envision our community hub.


This is such an exciting list of folks! How has the community reacted to the news of this grant and the upcoming workshops?

People seem very excited about it and anxious to participate in the workshop. I think the property in question is seen as an eye sore, and many from civic government on down are excited by the possibility of both us expanding our reach and a new public space that’s beautiful and useful. The last day of our workshop on Saturday, November 22, we will host an open community forum where we present what we’ve all come up with over the course of the first two days. Then we will have a community celebration to acknowledge the award and what we’ve all been able to accomplish. I have to say, this is one of my favorite aspects of OCFPAC programming and we usually do it a couple times a year, at least. We block off the square, bring in a flat bed, cook a bunch of food, give it away, and have live music and fellowship for hours on the square. I’m particularly excited for this event because we’ve got a couple of special treats. Jesse Charles Hammock II, who lives about 20 miles up the road and just got a nod form the Washington Post, is playing along with two other bands. Also, Neil from our locally famous ice cream joint, The Spring Dipper, has crafted us some special fall flavors of his award-winning ice cream to give to all of those attendees to the community forum.

After the Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design workshops become part of the Co-Op’s own history – and we’re looking five years down the road – what kinds of activities and services might you and your fellow members provide to the community and the region?

I see us fulfilling all of the functions we do now on a larger scale. For instance, our community-certified kitchen expands to a commercial kitchen with storage and the possibility to be a regional distribution point for fresh Oregon County grown produce. I see our space where we exhibit local art and have pickin’ circles having the possibility of providing stage space for local productions of all sorts. I see incubation spaces, whether that be artist’s studio space, business, agriculture or something totally different that I haven’t even imagined. I see people playing dominoes on our porch, and eating paw paws, and sorting out differences and similarities. I see it all.

I also see more co-op’s popping up. We’ve got our first two sister co-ops in a neighboring county starting up, based on our models. As the story of our little co-op has expanded to a national one, there is more interest in locally adapting the model to other regions of the country, which is very exciting to me.


Please find these links for further reading on the Oregon County Food Producers and Artisans Co-Op and this week’s Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design workshops:

Oregon County Food Producers and Artisans Co-Op Facebook page

Butchers, Bakers, & Candlestick Makers: A Co-Op Creates Community in Rural Missouri, Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design site

Food Co-Op Promotes Bartering, Sustainability, Linda Holliday, Mother Earth News

Food Producers, Artisans Co-Op in Alton to Host Rural Design Workshop, Terry Hampton, West Plains Daily Quill

Profile on Rachel Reynolds Luster and OCFPAC on the Penzeys Spices website