The Art of Kirkwood Roots

17, January 2012

 Click on each image to see the caption.

Created with flickr slideshow.

As an expression of regional history, Kirkwood Roots is different. Through February 26, 2012, the Missouri History Museum presents this installation of images, objects, and interviews exploring the history and culture of the African American community in Kirkwood, Missouri. The strong social ties and values of these people, exhibited here as they were from a period prior to the Civil War until shortly after World War II, were formed in a largely rural environment, among fields, woods, and streams. A priority for the Kirkwood Roots project was to represent this community’s way of life in an evocative manner worthy of the value and relevance that it holds for us all.

In the development of the Kirkwood Roots project, research was collected, recorded, and interpreted by a team of museum staff. Heavy emphasis was given to a series of interviews with community members, many of which were compiled into a video to be viewed in the gallery. It was felt by the team that personal expressions of memory and values imparted in the interviews were the most evocative and impression-laden artifacts available to represent the community. From the beginning, this feature was to be surrounded by objects like those mentioned in the interviews, amassed into a series of sculptural groupings. Along with additional multimedia displays, this work was largely guided by the vision of staff media developer Thomas Sleet.

Also a professional artist, Sleet grew up partly in this community of Kirkwood. Throughout the installation, visitors see Sleet’s interpretation of his early experiences, where he draws upon his memories to synthesize colors, textures, forms, and sounds he knows to be significant in people’s lives.

With his monumental relief map of Kirkwood, Sleet sculpted area topography into a slate-like surface, emphasizing the rail and stream pathways frequented by African Americans (photo 1). Historically, paths between specific sites had significant impact on people’s lives, in some ways as much as homes, churches, businesses, and schools. These were corridors vital for community cohesion and health. Through a bird’s-eye view, the important routes of communication, travel, and access to resources are made visible. The 11 discreet community enclaves are also numbered for identification.

The area’s railroad lines were introduced to the rural fields, woods, and hills in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and grew as the community did. By etching their meandering web of courses into the hard surface, Sleet accentuates how the Missouri Pacific and Frisco railroad lines ran through the land in a manner similar to the natural network of small streams, like Sugar Creek, that are headwaters of the greater Gravois Creek watershed.

Although not everyone worked on the rails, this labor is symbolic and emphasizes the strenuous work that African Americans commonly endured. In another section (photo 2), Sleet also points to the railroad as a ubiquitous force that dramatically altered the region’s landscape. Various railway artifacts, collected by the team, help express this history. Taking advantage of the modularity of railroad hardware and tools, Sleet masses them into fresh associations. A wall of railroad ties, for instance, demonstrates the weight and solidity of these strong, rectilinear building blocks of the railway machinery (photo 3). Other groupings (photo 4) cause us to see forms and surfaces for their beauty, belying the powerful function that they once served to support an enduring system of railroads.

Filling the largest gallery wall, the 60-minute loop video sets the tone for the entire gallery with changing sights and sounds. Sleet edited interviews recorded by the team’s public historian, members of the community, and himself, adding images taken by the team photographer. Interviews with residents were interwoven with historic and recent images of Kirkwood to focus on the many personal memories, intimately describing treasured moments, routine activities, and social events. To Sleet, the aggregate voices from the community live with one force, a communal, ancestral voice of Kirkwood’s African Americans. In this feature he has asserted that if we listen with care to these voices, and respond by applying their knowledge and understanding, our lives are enriched and can be made more purposeful.

In a fourth section, the artist emphasizes everyday items of the home by showing durable, basic tools similar to those used in the community to make food or care for clothes and households (photo 5). As in the section on enduring labor, Sleet and the exhibit curator chose objects that are attractive for their form, function, and material qualities (photo 6). They show wear and age from the considerable time their users spent working with them. Through specimens and botanical drawings of common, useful plants, the community’s intimate understanding of the region’s natural bounty is displayed. With some objects displayed reverently, others as if recently used and set down, they together evoke the abilities and fortitude of the community, helping to remember essential, daily acts that shaped people’s values and character.

In the fifth and last section, the imagery and sound of ringing church bells symbolizes the community’s communion (photo 7). These bells tolled with a specific language, which residents knew as a call to Sunday worship or recognition of marriages, births, funerals, or emergencies. By not identifying the church depicted, emphasis is placed on a broadly held understanding that virtues extolled in sermons were to be extended beyond the walls of any particular church or denomination, and whether or not one adhered to a religion.

The Missouri History Museum’s exhibit team developed a deepening understanding of the community that Kirkwood Roots represents. It came to appreciate historic connections to place that are vital to people living today. Helping the team develop an intimate and expressive history of Kirkwood’s African American roots, Sleet has said:

“Integrating the passions of one’s life with a stewardship of our world is important. Art can help viewers recognize the barriers imposed on them, separating them from their lives. We can gain awareness for what would otherwise be forgotten or considered mundane, even be helped to see our common humanity and purpose, and see the value of important shared traditions. Perhaps we can then better recognize the contributions and examples of communities, like those in Kirkwood, which have done this well.”

—David Lobbig, Curator of Environmental Life