The art community in St. Louis is a funny thing. It's relatively small, but it has cosmopolitan pretensions that can result in a strange kind of isolationism. Sure, St. Louisans will acknowledge that, art-wise, New York is more important, and so is Chicago, with its high-powered art schools, museums and splashy annual exhibitions like SOFA. But outside of those places, as far as some people in this town are concerned, the art world ends at the Mississippi River.
But there are strong art communities across that great divide, in places like Edwardsville and Alton, where really impressive art is being made. That's art -- not crafts, not apple butter, not toaster cozies or autumnal arrangements you hang on your door (not that there's anything wrong with that). Not the usual stuff cosmopolitan types might associate with the small towns of Madison County and burgs along the Great River Road.
If this is news to you -- and even if it's not -- it's high time to take a look at what these art communities are putting out. And your best opportunity to do so is by participating in EAST Art 99, the Edwardsville-Alton studio tour co-sponsored by Art St. Louis, held Oct. 16-17.
During EAST Art 99, several artists in Alton and Edwardsville will open their studios to the public, allowing visitors to look at new art and the working environment in which it's made. For those who took the Art St. Louis- sponsored studio tours through the downtown loft district earlier this month, the EAST Art studio tours promise to be a fascinating contrast. Far from the hip, SoHo-style loft conversions along Washington Avenue, the studios in Edwardsville and Alton are for the most part spaces in private houses on tree-lined Main Street, or Bluff Street, or St. Louis Street.
There are roughly 20 separate studio exhibits in Alton and Edwardsville included in EAST Art. Not to be missed: Dycie Madson's works on paper (1107 Mullen Lane, Godfrey, just north of Alton); Martha Paquin's watercolors (451 Bluff St., Alton); and the exhibit of ceramics by Ken Barnett at Mississippi Mud Pottery (310 E. Broadway, Alton). In Edwardsville, every imaginable type of art is featured on the studio tours, including digital art, ceramics (at the studios of Charity Davis-Woodard, Susan Bostwick and Paul Dresang), and painting and photography (at the studios of Joseph Gruber, John Denhouter, Connie Miller and Richard Woloszyn). And at the Collinsville studio of Paulette Myers, works in metal are on view.
In conjunction with the studio tours, EAST Art is sponsoring group exhibits in both towns, at the Towata Gallery, 206 W. Third St., Alton; and Architectural Ceramics, 100A Vandalia St., Edwardsville. These group exhibits are your best bet if you're low on time and can't visit all the studios -- some of the best artists in the region will be exhibiting in them, including Dan and Caroline Anderson, Bill Klingensmith, Jack Decoteau, Laura Strand and David Sill.
Many (but not all) of the artists participating in EAST Art are in some way affiliated with Southern Illinois University, either as professors, present or past instructors or alumnae. This shouldn't be surprising -- SIUE's art department has maintained a solid reputation and very strong programs in ceramics, glassmaking, textiles and sculpture, and many of its graduates have remained in the region. To their credit, SIUE's art professors have managed to train their students well while still allowing them to develop personal styles, so there's no danger on these tours of seeing carbon-copy work.
That said, EAST Art is anything but an SIUE-only tour. Follow the suggested routes and you'll be exposed to the widely varied artistic goings-on in two of the more interesting towns in the region. And you'll see more than just studios and galleries. Some of the exhibits are being held in restaurants, cafes and bars, so come with an appetite. Don't miss Christine Ilewski's mixed-media works at Ralph's Restaurant in Alton, or works by Karen Appel, Rich Hutton and Amber Marshall at Edwardsville's finest eating and drinking establishment, the Stagger Inn.
EAST Art aside, Edwardsville and Alton are beautiful places to visit. As close as they may be to St. Louis, architecturally and otherwise, they feel hundreds of miles away. St. Louis Street in Edwardsville is one of the most gorgeous streets in the region, with classic examples of Midwestern Victorian-style mansions, charming wood-framed houses with gingerbread molding, and even a prairie-style house designed by a follower of Frank Lloyd Wright. Edwardsville also boasts a genuine Main Street that runs through downtown, with shops and cafes sprinkled around the stately Madison County government buildings.
Edwardsville's Main Street connects with Highway 143, which will take visitors northwest to Alton, which likewise deserves a close look for those who haven't been there in a while. In addition to the life-size statue of the town's most renowned native son, Robert Pershing Wadlow (he holds the record as the world's tallest person, measuring in at just under 9 feet tall), Alton boasts a selection of fabulous antique shops on the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River. West Broadway in downtown Alton becomes Highway 100, one of the most scenic stretches of the Great River Road.
And if all that isn't enough to send you east on Friday and Saturday, think of this: According to connoisseurs, this weekend is going to be prime time to view the changing leaves and enjoy autumn in all its glory. EAST Art 99 makes for the perfect excuse to get out of the city and look at art, and autumn, somewhere else for a change.
EAST Art 99 runs from 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Oct. 16-17 at selected Edwardsville, Alton and surrounding locations in Illinois. The studio tours and exhibits are free and open to the public. Maps and guides are available at Architectural Ceramics in Edwardsville and Towata Fine Arts Gallery in Alton. Call 618-531-5738 for more information.