A river runs through him
The Mississippi River winds its way through our city and our lives. A new book by Lynnhurst artist Ron Merchant follows America's longest river as it flows through Minnesota on its way to New Orleans.
“Born by the River: People of the Mississippi River Towns” mixes Merchant's own plein air oil paintings with his photography and interviews he did with folks he met along the Mississippi. (“Plein air” refers to paintings done in the open air with natural lighting.)
The book began in 2003 when Mayor R.T. Rybak and the city of Minneapolis created the MOSAIC celebration of arts and culture.
Merchant began painting people and places along Nicollet Mall every Tuesday for artwork to be included in the MOSAIC festival. When potential customers started asking if he had any paintings set in St. Paul, he began crossing the river to put his brushes to canvas.
An idea for creating a project linking the people along the river began growing in his head. After getting a small grant to help with travel and paint supplies, he set out to paint eight spots along the Mississippi: the headwaters at Itasca State Park, Jacobson, St. Cloud, Elk River, St. Paul, Red Wing, Winona and here at home.
At each spot, Merchant conducted interviews with locals, getting them to talk about their connection to the river.
“I thought it would be interesting to formalize an interview process,” Merchant said. “Do a kind of a Studs Terkel approach and let people tell their stories. Terkel is famous, in part, for his books documenting oral histories of the Great Depression and World War II, among others. So I formalized like 14 questions that I asked, basically find out a little background of the person. I wanted to see if there were differences between the real northern Minnesota people - the Lake Itasca, Jacobson people - versus the people who've grown up in Minneapolis.”
His conclusion? “There are a lot of similarities. There's a lot of pride in the river, but a lot people don't really connect or do anything with the river.”
In Southwest, he spoke to Frank Brook Evans, an 85-year-old retired Linden Hills artist, who talked about his life growing up along the river.
“It was wonderful from the standpoint of scenery and so on,” Evans said. “I was only about three blocks from the Mississippi riverbanks.
“We used to walk out to the tracks and pick wildflowers. It was very, very woodsy. And occasionally out there, we would meet, uh, uh, bums. They had a, a regular camp where they would stop, you know, and they'd chat with you.”
Merchant meticulously records every “uh” and “you know” uttered by his interview subjects.
Merchant's coffee table tome brims with his oil-on-canvas paintings of people and places, as well as photographs he's taken in his travels along the river.
His favorite painting, he says, is “Mill City Morning,” painted last year.
“There's no people in it, but I think it really captures the effervescence and the industry of what has happened in the last 150 years to Minneapolis and the river,” he said.
He's also partial to “High Noon,” painted at 8th Street and Nicollet Mall last year.
Merchant has lived in his beloved Lynnhurst since 1978.
“We moved from a place at 34th and Park Avenue, a three-floor house with a garage, four-bedroom, to a one-story house without a garage, two bedrooms, because of the neighborhood,” he says.
Merchant's book, the paintings from “Born by the River,” and about 50 of his photographs will be part of an exhibit at Robbin Gallery, 4915 42nd Ave. N., in Robbinsdale.
If you'd like to order a copy of the $40 book, you can get more information at www.ronmerchant.com or you can call 929-9443.
There will be a reception with Merchant on Saturday, May 6 from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the gallery.
Exhibit hours are Tu-Th, 5:30 p.m.-8:30 p.m.; F-Sa, noon-4 p.m. “Born by the River: People of the Mississippi River Towns” will be on display from Wednesday, May 3 through May 27. Admission to the gallery is free.
Singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt writes about beauty and pain. He lives it, too. Sometimes the pain he sings is beautiful and delicate, even as it gets so dark that it becomes one with the existentialist chasms littering his life.
Chesnutt is a paraplegic as the result of a 1983 car accident he had while driving drunk. He was 18 years old.
He has made a number of critically acclaimed albums since then, including 1993's “Drunk,” 1995's “Is the Actor Happy?” and last year's “Ghetto Bells.”
He'll be part of “Contemporary Art in Conversation” with filmmaker Jem Cohen (“Benjamin Smoke” and “Instrument”).
Naturally enough, the two will discuss music and film (they worked together on Cohen's 1996 film “Lost Book Found”).
Th April 27, 7:30 p.m., Walker Art Center, 1750 Hennepin Ave.,Free. (Free tickets will be available from 6:30 p.m. at the lobby desk.) 375-7600, www.walkerart.org.