Unintentional Comedy and Mixed Up History: It’s Public Art

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If you went to grade school anywhere near the Midwest, chances are you already know the story of Lewis and Clark and their famous 1804 Expedition up the Missouri River and into the Louisiana Purchase in order to map the West—then uncharted and untamed.


But grade school was a long time ago, and if you’re like me, you might need a refresher course. Let me advise you, then, against turning to the “Lewis and Clark Expedition 1804” mural in Kansas City’s oldest neighborhood, the River Market, to brush up on the facts[1].


To be fair, the artists[2] don’t seem to have been going for verisimilitude. Sacagawea, her husband, Toussaint Charbonneau, and their baby, Pompey, squat in a family portrait-style pose inches from our fearless explorers, a pretty clear indicator of artistic (and historic) license. Though Capt. Lewis and his trusty 2nd Lt. Clark did camp on the banks of the muddy Missouri River in September 1804, Sacagawea wasn’t there to sing campfire songs with them: the explorers didn’t meet her until November that year (and her son was born three months after that).


If you look at the mural as a “tribute” to that journey, as its placard suggests, you might be able to suspend disbelief long enough to appreciate some of its more skillful elements. The River Market Business Association commissioned the mural for a 2004 bicentennial celebration honoring the explorers: the Lewis and Clark Expedition (also known as the Corps of Discovery Expedition) is an important piece of the River Market’s—and Kansas City’s—history. The pair of explorers departed from St. Louis in 1803, hoping to chart their journey all the way to the Pacific Coast. Along the way, they parked their keelboat less than a mile from the mural’s home and set up camp in Kansas City climbing Quality Hill[3] to survey the river before them.


The mural captures the frenetic spirit of that expedition: workers load barrels of goods into the keelboat in the center, and a proud Lewis and Clark dominate the mural’s right third, surveying the river banks in front of them while Captain Lewis extends his arm in a hearty thumbs-up.[4] Clark, a rosy-cheeked ginger boy, leans on his rifle, hands folded contemplatively over the open end of the barrel (great gun safety technique there, Louie.) The left third of the mural features a tall Native American Indian man smoking a pipe, clutching an enormous tom turkey in one hand and a musket the length of his body in the other.


The colors are vibrant and highly pigmented, adding to the mural’s whimsical, politely racist charm. The bulging, aquiline noses and dour features of Sacagawea and the aforementioned American Indian man are fleshed out in the same muddy tones as the Missouri River, creating a nice contrast to the vibrant colors of dress and ghostly pale features of the heroic American explorers. Lewis’s enormous, waist-high Newfoundland, Seaman, stands sentry nearby, a jet-black lump that pulls in the eye. Seaman’s eyes are sorrowful and expressive; perhaps he’s thinking of the 263 dogs the Corps of Discovery would eat over the course of their three-year journey, and wondering why he alone was spared.


The mural is impressive in scale alone, a landscape that covers the entire west wall of River Market Antiques and stretches up to the sky. If you’re in the neighborhood, stop by to appreciate the massive tribute to Kansas City (and American) re-history, then head a couple blocks north to 3rd and Wyandotte to check out its sister mural, “The Town of Kansas 1850.” Both are living testaments to the region’s rich and spirited history—and the enduring mediocrity of public art.