A shotgun shell, a Busch Light can, an assortment of discarded shrapnel, wrappers and tools ... these are the objects that quietly compose the painting “Prairie Metals” by Steve Snell. Delicately rendered in watercolor, their depictions float against a soft setting of open Nebraska landscape.
In 2013, Snell led a class of art students on an expedition along the Oregon Trail, hiking 55 miles from Hastings to Kearney while pushing a hand-built covered wagon. Braving 20-degree temperatures, the group was creating an experience in the context of a historical moment that redefined the Oregon Trail with new artifacts found along the way – bits of modern debris that offered an image of contemporary culture and its relationship to its past.
Over the last six years, Snell has embarked on several of these expeditions, a practice that he calls “adventure art,” which lives in the intersecting disciplines of performance, sculpture, traditional drawing and painting, and video. They are inventions brimming with playful complexity, produced as extraordinary events that exist somewhere in the space between what is real and what is imaginary.
Where does one of these journeys begin? It doesn't have to be an exotic place, says Snell. Everywhere you go is rich with history – just right for creating an excellent adventure!
Originally from Ohio, Snell has traversed the wilderness in western Massachusetts (where, incidentally, he ran into Alec Baldwin on an 80-mile hike back to his studio). He spent two years living on a floating house in Alaska, paddling to shore every day in a small dingy to get to work. He drifted down the Connecticut River in a couch-shaped, wooden canoe in his “Couch Boatato” adventure in 2010.
It was during his three-year appointment at Hastings College that he taught a class of “Adventure Art,” highlighted by the pioneer-style trip featuring the covered wagon. “It was one of the craziest things I've ever done as a teacher,” he said. “I don't know if I could convince students to do it again.”
What Snell is doing is brave – in an unconventional way.
He is able to tap into the make-believe state of mind, where sticks are swords and refrigerator boxes are forts. It’s a place of magic and excitement, where you can put on a coonskin cap and be transported to 1809. It can be hard to be silly as a grown-up, especially for artists who want their commitment and passion to be taken seriously. Yet Snell flies unapologetically down rivers and mountainsides and invites us along for the ride.
What is the next adventure?
In a replica keel boat constructed entirely out of cardboard,* our hero is ready to take off on a portion of Lewis and Clark's historic route, passing through his former home of Nebraska City and floating down to his current home in Kansas City, Missouri. During this several-day tour, Snell will be working “en plein air,” creating a series of drawings and paintings based on his surroundings.
The purpose? According to the promotional video, it is “to have a true adventure on the now often-overlooked and under-appreciated Missouri River. The secondary mission is to inspire the local community to value and enjoy this resource, and to challenge negative stereotypes and fears associated with it.”
It is important to note that this is by no means a reenactment of Lewis and Clark's journey, nor is it a history lesson. It does, however, embody the iconic sense of excitement and discovery of their three-year search into unknown territory.
While we await these new artifacts to be created by Snell, it seems likely that they will parallel the drawings in the journal of Meriwether Lewis. Two hundred years later, what sort of narratives will come from these observations?
For this, we look to Snell's culminating exhibition at LUX Center for the Arts, “Snacks on the River,” where the artist will share his experiences for the first time with the public. Open Sept. 2-30, we get to hear the story.
“I'm looking forward to seeing what I can find – a Blue Heron, graffiti, a stray cat,” Snell says. “I don't know what I'll find on the Missouri.”
* Funding for construction provided in part by Darger HQ, Nebraska Arts Council and Nebraska Cultural Endowment.