Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Even Sailors Need Valentines

Magical Mississippi Meander Pt. 2: The Minnesota Marine Art Museum


After I passed through the mystical river town of Fountain City, WI (home of the Prairie Moon Sculpture Garden and Museum), I made my way to Winona, MN, a little further south. I hadn't been to Winona before, and was expecting a typical college town. However, it too possessed the same tasteful architecture and overall enchantment of the previous towns on my journey. It was also home to my second destination of the day, the Minnesota Marine Art Museum. (I don't mean to prematurely spasm here, but seriously, everyone needs to visit this museum because it was AWESOME). I had no idea what to expect, or if I would even enjoy this obscure museum, but I had a great time, and am very excited to rave about it in this post. 

The Minnesota Marine Art Museum (MMAM) has permanent collections as well as rotating exhibits that focus on the idea of water (in my opinion this sums it up a bit more than the word "marine"). This doesn't mean that they have thousands of paintings of water (although they certainly have quite a few of those), but rather a variety of content that is inspired by water in a very specific or a very broad way. For example, the first exhibit I looked at, "The Four Seasons: Leo and Marilyn Smith Folk Art" was  about the culture, traditions, and even objects that are a part of the Upper Mississippi River Valley. Leo and Marilyn Smith, a collaborative husband and wife pair, live between two towns that are located on the Mississippi River, one of them being the quirky Fountain City that I mentioned earlier. Leo is the woodworker, and Marilyn the painter of the wood. They create objects that are are so smooth, beautiful, and intricate that they deserve a second and then third walk around the exhibition to make sure that no detail is missed. This piece in particular merited a thorough contemplation:

Leo and Marilyn Smith, God (Autumn)

The Four Seasons is a visual cycle that represents the values that Leo and Marilyn observe in the different seasons. My guess is that God (Autumn) is depicting their tendency to turn inward as the weather grows colder, and to find peace from their own specific spirituality. Their work shows that they find most of their spiritual fulfillment from the river that they have built their lives around rather than from weekly visits to a church.

Leo and Marilyn Smith, Aorta

This piece, entitled Aorta, is a depiction of Leo's conviction that the Mississippi River is the most important vein in the circulatory system that is America. The wood in many of his pieces comes directly from the river itself, showing how much he values the river and its many uses.

Leo and Marilyn Smith, Paddlefish Mississippi

Paddlefish Mississippi is a replica of a paddlefish that one of Leo's friends pulled out of the Mississippi. Instead of hanging a dead fish as a prize on the wall, Leo and Marilyn instead bring to life and immortalize this unusual Mississippi fish in finely sanded wood.

Leo and Marilyn Smith, Lion and Lamb Santa

The above piece was featured mostly for aesthetic reasons, as it doesn't fit into the exhibition's larger concept. Below is a detail of another intricate piece.


After The Four Seasons, there was still much more to see at MMAM. I moved on to an exhibit called "Off the Wall Marine Art: An Exhibition of 2D and 3D Marine Art and Artifacts," which featured water-inspired art objects that were made by various associates of marine life, such as this "Sailor's Valentine" crafted in the 19th century by a seasick and lovesick crewman.

"Sailor's Valentine"

Crafted with shells found at sea, these valentines were actually quite common in the 19th century. It sure beats a Hallmark card!

Another item that fascinated me was this hand painted French shell from the year 1890.

"French Shell Painted with Ship Portraits"

The reason that historians know the shell is from 1890 is because of the kind of ship being portrayed in the painting (this particular one is a steamship with two stacks, common between the years of 1880 and 1890).

This last handmade object made me wonder if maybe sailors would also make excellent grandmothers. 

Handmade Embroidered Tapestry

This is a handmade tapestry, an example of one of many made by English sailors in the 19th century to combat boredom on ships. In the lower left and right hand corners the sailor/artist also included photographs of his family, adding a collage component to this already intricate piece of work.

There were two more galleries in the museum featuring water-inspired paintings from Europe and America, but I didn't photograph any of these (if you can imagine, lots of dramatic scenes of ships in various predicaments at sea). The last exhibit I visited was another contemporary exhibit featuring five women and their take on marine art.

Julia Crozier, River Town

Crozier's painting of a river town caught my eye because of the enchanting time I had driving down the Mississippi through several river towns. Also, I had just been living near St. Croix Falls, WI, a vibrant river town with some of the most magnanimous people I have ever met. Crozier said this painting is not depicting a specific river town, but river towns in general, and their tendency to be cluttered, colorful, and quirky.

Jennifer Terpstra, Great Lakes Contaminants

Great Lakes Contaminants was the only conspicuously dire piece in the entire museum. Although fairly straightforward, it shows that the strength of this museum, which comes from a powerful acknowledgement of our spiritual connection with water, is threatened every day by the carelessness of humans, who forget that without water, we wouldn't even be alive. It makes me wonder if a contemporary sailor's valentine would perhaps have to be analyzed from a less emotional and more scientific eye, for example, "Thanks for the valentine, honey, but what kind of invasive species of mussel is it made of?" It could break a sailor's heart, I tell ya.

Overall, this museum made me want to get off my butt and swab the artistic poop deck. That is, I felt like the bar has definitely been raised as to what I think qualifies as a "good" museum, and a "good" exhibit: strong content about a very specific theme. I hope to make it back for some of MMAM's future exhibitions, and I hope you make it there, too.

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