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.


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