Occupying abandonment St. Louis artist paints deserted factories of Midwest

Thursday, February 28, 2008

The day she arrived in St. Louis to begin teaching painting at Washington University, Cindy Tower started following the smokestacks. They drew her across the Mississippi River to ruined places in blighted East St. Louis. By the fourth day she was climbing around St. Louis' old brewery caves.

She eschews the studio to paint in abandoned factories like the Armour meat packing plant. Her large-scale oil paintings are filled with deterioration, mangled pipework, industrial innards that evoke the souls of the people who once toiled there. "In the weeds, in abandoned cars, others traffic in human flesh, drugs and violence," writes Dr. Stanley Grand, director of the Crisp Museum. "The ancient, ghostly rivers of animal blood now nurture a new generation of entrepreneurs."

Tower's "Workplace Series" exhibition opens Friday at the Crisp Museum on the Southeast Missouri State University River Campus. The show will continue at the museum through April 27. A reception for the artist will begin at 4 p.m. Friday at the museum.

Tower insists on being a witness to disintegrating values, to the segregation of rich and poor, and to her own feelings about American society.

"I'm like a canary in a coal mine," she said.

She takes along a bodyguard, a dog and a can of Mace, but years of teaching literacy to underprivileged children in New York City ghettos acclimated her to spaces others might avoid. "I am painting out of bubble. It's safe to stay in academia, to be in a gated community," she said.

She goes out to explore the unvarnished landscape of this country. "It's not all pretty, but it's not horrible," she said. "In fact it's beautiful."

Tower is drawn to the creative energy of East St. Louis, which she points out has spawned artists like Josephine Baker, Ike and Tina Turner and Miles Davis.

"There are no good jobs. I have sympathy for the drug dealers and the prostitutes," she said.

Most artists in St. Louis are insecure because they're in St. Louis, she thinks, so they try to imitate what artists on the coasts are doing. "Look around in your own backyard and see what's interesting and unique," she said.

She credits Grand with recognizing the talent of regional artists, something she said St. Louis galleries don't do. "He's not a fashion victim."

Tower believes artists are naturally a bit different from other people. "I was just sort of born beamed down to the planet that way," she said. "In nursery school I wondered why other kids couldn't draw."

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