Between 1997 and 2000, I lived across the river, and on the other side of the tracks, in grocery store-less North Lawrence. It was all right, and I enjoyed reasonable rent and relative solitude there until neighborhood kids busted out most of the windows in my house, and took to lighting fires in my garage.
Before I was driven out by the hooligans, one of the good things about living over there was that my commute (on foot or bike), to my studio in East Lawrence, took me through one of the city's most unique public parks. Riverfront Park, as it's officially known (I usually just call the area 'down by the river'), sits adjacent to the Bowerstock dam and across the Kaw from city hall. Its close proximity to downtown and rough undeveloped character make it a place like few others in town. A haven for eagles and Sunday thinkers, it's a popular spot to begin and end relationships, and occasionally the place where missing persons are found with all the life soaked out of them.
The park and the bike trail which began as offshoots of the levee were constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers in the mid-1970's. Before the levee, flooding devastated North Lawrence. Nowadays when floods threaten, the turbulent muddy water pushes over the dam and tumbles into bowl shaped area contained by the levee's clay and rock embankment. The swirling action of the current, filled with all matter of debris, tends to redraw the shape of the shoreline and deposits whatever it has captured from upstream.
The area's instability and unpredictability make it nearly impossible to develop, and thus free of the amenities found in most parks. There are no picnic tables, playground equipment surrounded by rubberized crash zones, or ball fields. There's no grass to spread out on or gazebo, you'd have to be a fool or really drunk to ever try swimming there, and eating fish you might catch is strongly discouraged due to pollution. So, it makes sense that most people who use the park are just passing through, usually on bikes, jogging, or walking a dog. Some people fish despite the warnings. A few, the type (I include myself here) who get a thrill watching disaster re-runs on the Weather Channel, gather to witness the river rise and rage in the aftermath of a good Kansas thunderstorm. And, once a year, the whole town descends on the levee in a haze of deet and gun powder smoke to see the 4th of July fireworks. But for me, in a world where nearly all of our time is scheduled and all of our space designed, programmed, and interpreted, the disarray of this ramshackle park is welcome.
Sticks and Stones
Marginal places that lie between nature and human development, like the area down by the river, have always been the favored meeting places for teenagers. When I was growing up on the north side of Chicago, it was the shore of Lake Michigan, where kids from my neighborhood would go to do anything they'd get in trouble for doing at home. Needless to say, we spent a lot of time down by the lakeshore. It was along that shore that I created my first public artwork, on a breakwater rock near the Northwestern University observatory. Under the title "Friends Forever, 1984,” in hastily applied orange and blue brushstrokes, my brother Tim and I painted twenty or so names of high school friends. Those names have long since worn away, but in their place hundreds of other rocks along the shore have been painted with heartfelt declarations of love, poetry, and even a few marriage proposals (they're worth a visit if you're in the area).
|My first mural?|
Long after I painted that rock, but before I started making murals, my art consisted mostly of somber landscapes of abandoned and forlorn places. My subjects included boarded up small towns, industrial ruins, and the spaces underneath bridges to name a few. In other words, places not unlike Riverfront Park. It's no surprise then that when I moved to Lawrence in 1991, for grad school, I was immediately drawn to the area around the dam and have occasionally made art relating to it ever since.
|"Sunday Afternoon along the Levee" 2006|
|"Tower-Cam Kiss" 2008 installation at the Lawrence Arts Center|
|"Tower-Cam Kiss" detail|
|"Curator" 2010 collaboration with my nephew Jake|
I'm not the only one. Many people, inspired perhaps by the abundance of raw materials and open space, have made cool stuff along the riverfront. Look closely and you'll find, scattered throughout the area, the evidence of humans fiddling around with rocks, sticks, and found objects to fashion remarkable totems, altars, and improvised constructions. Other visiting artists have embellished the built areas with markers, spraypaint, and even mosaic. At times, the whole area takes on the look of a big environmental art installation, continually being added to and altered by natural forces and human hands.
Night and Day
When the sun goes down, Riverfront Park takes on a decidedly spookier feel. Lit up by small fires that crackle with the echoes of illicit sex and drunken despair, it can be more than a little foreboding at night. It's also the only place I've seen a dead person outside of a casket. Every year or so you here about a body being found along the banks of the river. Sometimes they say it's an accident, sometimes suicide, and sometimes the mystery is never solved. Because of these stories, I've always kept an eye out for odd things when I'm down there. There's no telling what you might find amongst the rocks and branches. A few times, I could have sworn I saw a person-shaped heap floating near the bank, but it always turned out to be some odd arrangement of colorful garbage and smooth driftwood.
That is, it always turned out that way until one day it didn't... It was in June of 2004 when, while walking over the bridge, I looked down and saw a group of emergency workers pull a man's lifeless body out of the shallow water near the shore. The newspaper said that the man had been fishing the night before, but didn't return home. There was no evidence of an accident or foul play, only footprints, from what appeared to be the dead man's shoes, leading into the river. Reading this story reminded me of the college student who disappeared near the river, after a long night of drinking at a nearby bar, more then ten years ago. Friends said that he had talked about taking a swim before he left the bar by himself. His footprints were also discovered at the shore, but his body has never been found. Strange. In both of these incidents, footprints were found leading into the water, as if these men had been compelled by something to walk right in.
Off the Path
Riverfront Park is a kind of no man's / everybody's land - unpolished, semi-wild, and at times dangerous. It's a place where nature can flex its muscles, and fish stories are born, only to grow larger with each retelling. Unlike a generic playground made of molded yellow plastic or a ball field hemmed in by foul lines, down by the river you make up your own games. Sticks become wands or swords, rocks the building blocks of fantastic sculptures, and the river a home to man-eating beasts or a ticket to the Gulf of Mexico. It's all up to you and your imagination. It's a dynamic place always in motion and populated by a neighborhood of creative creatures. It's where I go to think things out, and where some go to live when there's nowhere else to go. Most people stick to the trail though the coolest stuff requires getting off the path. So the next time you're headed down to the river, go without expectations and explore not looking for anything but what you find. Raccoons and kids know this instinctively, grown-ups tend to forget it.
Seven years later and Riverfront Park has a brand new hydro-electric plant sitting right under the dam where the couple in Tower-Cam Kiss made-out. Its unfortunate placement blocks a once great view, but it could be worse. You can still amble down the levee and onto the shifting sandbars where weird stuff washes ashore and mysterious bonfires flicker at night.