Brilliance/ Craziness of the St Louis City Museum

We had a great visit with friends to St Louis this weekend.  The zoo was fantastic… the Botanical Gardens amazing: we especially enjoyed a temporary exhibit up at the moment on “Extreeme Tree-houses” — at least a dozen “tree houses” made by artists, these not up in trees but around the bases.  All enchanting/engaging in different ways.

But here I want to discuss the great, amazing and very strange City Museum.  We forgot a camera so I am going to rely on the museum’s promo photos.

It’s difficult to convey how different this place is from any other “children’s museum” I’ve seen.   It has some of the qualities of Willy Wonka’s castle or a haunted house, I thought.  I commented to Sarah at one point that it feels like something set up by psychoanalysis-influenced surrealists in Argentina in the 1930s.  Here are a few tidbits from Wikipedia:

City Museum is a museum, consisting largely of repurposed architectural and industrial objects, housed in the former International Shoe building.  …The museum bills itself as an “eclectic mixture of children’s playground, funhouse, surrealistic pavilion, and architectural marvel.” Visitors are encouraged to feel, touch, climb on, and play in the various exhibits…City Museum was founded by artist Bob Cassilly, who remains the museum’s artistic director, and his then-wife Gail Cassilly. The museum’s building was once a shoe factory and warehouse but was mostly vacant when the Cassillys bought it in 1993. Construction began in January 1995 and the building opened to the public on October 25, 1997. The museum has since expanded, adding new exhibits such as MonstroCity in 2002, Enchanted Caves and Shoe Shaft in 2003, and World Aquarium in 2004. A circus ring on the third floor offers daily live acts. The City Museum also houses The Shoelace Factory, whose antique braiding machines makes colorful shoelaces for sale.

A minute or so into our visit, Celie and Iris and their buddy Thea climbed up into the curling metal slinky-like tunnel you can see in the center of this photo.  They disappeared from view.  Where did they go?  We had no idea.  There is no way to find out.  They popped out somewhere.  At one point we heard their voices in the din.  For a while we thought we would have to climb in too to find them, but were worried we were too fat.  Eventually we went up some nearby ramp and eventually spotted them across several shafts and small bodies of water, stone dinosaur heads, and numerous other chutes and passages leading into the ceiling, walls, or floor.  Some tight passages and tunnels end abruptly such that you have to back your way back out.  At one point I found myself walking through an enormous 19th-century bank vault door that felt as if it might clang behind me.  There are a lot of opportunities to walk into the mouth of some creature or another.  Some very digestive shapes in the tubes and cylinders.  You kind of feel you might get dumped down into the garbage compactor of the Death Star.

The whole museum is kind of like this.  In one spot there’s a small closet-like door or rather hole in the wall.  If you go in there you enter a somewhat creepy little labyrinth with several layers of wall space, lit by a few dim Christmas bulbs.  You feel a bit like a mouse in the wall.  At other points you can look up and see people walking above, or look down and see some kid waving under your feet.

Somewhere in the central enclosed system of spaces on the first floor we encountered a heavily tattooed dude who was one of the first museum employees we’d encountered.  He pointed out to us a spiral staircase we could climb up that would eventually allow us to chute down a 10-story slide to the bottom.  When I asked him if it was scary for kids he said, “well, I put my 17 month-old in it, and he survived!”  We decided to give that one a miss.  Celie I did go down a shorter slide that created a beautiful kaleidoscopic effect as painted metal tubes spin from your hands.

It’s kind of like a Dangerous Museum for Girls and Boys.  I seriously am bewildered about the liability question.  I have to assume that they know what they’re doing, but kids must get hurt now and then (or at least scared and stuck).  Thea skinned her knee and there was a whole first-aid center at the front administering band-aids cheerfully.  But the kids were in ecstasy.  They were really exploring and it was not all administered and explained to death by adults.  There’s potential for some actually scary moments, but the overall feeling is joyfully creative and surprise-filled.  You can see all the seams of the museum, it’s kind of a giant Rube Goldberg device.

Outside we entered a teetering, winding metal structure hanging off the side of the building that led at one point to a de-purposed fighter jet.  Unnervingly, the inside was not really stripped clean but was bristling with cut off wires.  Iris sat in the cockpit and steered a bit.

Down below were some people selling beers and margaritas (!).  Sarah is convinced that anyone could apply to set up shop and sell something.

On weekend nights it is open until 1:00 a.m. and occasionally they have “sleepover nights” when you can camp out on the roof — which we did not even make it to; it apparently contains a Ferris wheel, and there is an aquarium somewhere.  There seemed to be a wedding going on, as various well-dressed older people started streaming in towards closing time.

?!!!  What a cool place, a wildly imaginative version of urban renewal via the arts.

One other tidbit from our trip — we happened basically by accident on this amazing restaurant, the Firefly Cafe, in Effingham Illinois.  Where the Eff is Effingham?  On 70 between Terre Haute and St Louis.  It’s in a giant former barn with a big organic garden attached and a lake in back filled with huge koi.  Saveur magazine or somewhere named it the #2 Most Sustainable restaurant in the U.S. a couple years ago.  We had a pretty light lunch but the food was fantastic– amazing beets and greens salads from the garden.  Want to figure out some way to arrange for dinner there.

100 Acres, Goose the Market

Indianapolis has always seemed like a surprisingly unexciting city for its size (pushing a million), even if I’m glad we live an hour away from the airport and a big-city mall, Trader Joe’s, etc.  (We’re sort of sick of the Children’s Museum, but it is very good.)  But lately the city has seemed to be looking up in various ways… We had a great little jaunt on Friday to our two new favorite places in town:

(1)  Goose the Market.  This place is sooo good.  We are dangerously obsessed with their Batali sandwich (named not for Mario but his father Armandino Batali, if you please), described by Bon Appetit, which named Goose the “top sandwich shop” in the U.S. a couple years ago, as “a standout Italian sandwich with coppa, soppressata, capocollo, provolone cheese, and tomato preserves.”  It’s a butcher/deli bar plus basement wine/beer bar plus small grocery with some nice vegetables, dried grains, and so on.  Really charming.  We did somehow manage to spend $48 on two sandwiches and what I imagined as “a few other things,” but really it’s not at all over-priced.

[photo from]

(2) We brought our Batalis and assorted snacks to the Indianapolis Museum of Art’s “100 Acres” Art & Nature park for a picnic.  A New York Times article describes it:

Twenty bone-shaped benches by the Dutch artist and designer Joep van Lieshout sprawl across a meadow, forming a huge human skeleton; the piece, “Funky Bones,” is meant both to evoke the remains and artifacts of the American Indians who once lived in the region and to offer a place to picnic and lounge. A terraced pier overlooking the park’s 35-acre lake and resembling a topographical map was designed by the sculptor Kendall Buster of Richmond, Va., as a perch for fishing or reading, except when the lake floods every year. All eight of the artists’ installations, which dot the park’s unruly woodlands, wetlands, meadows and lake, were conceived to handle wear and tear from people as well as nature.

“We didn’t want it to be a precious thing,” said Lisa Freiman, the museum’s curator of contemporary art and director of the park. “There are no restrictions. Whether you create them or not, people will touch and climb on the sculpture anyway.”

The girls loved the place and tore from installation/sculpture to sculpture.  By chance we visited on the weekend when a very short-term project was in place, sound artist Craig Colorusso’s Sun Boxes:

Marvel at a field of 20 solar-powered speakers, each programmed with a different loop of guitar notes, for an effect of an overlapping field of sound. The sounds of Sun Boxes have been described as both soothing and energizing, as they react to the natural fluctuations of cloudiness and sun to create an ephemeral composition. All are welcome to enter the sound environment at will during the three-day installation.

These were lovely… you could hear at least traces of the sound throughout the park, rising and falling at intervals.  It was overcast (started to rain lightly just when we were leaving) and there were a bunch of people hanging around the boxes who I assume were ready to cover them with tarps (or remove them? probably the former) if needed.

The girls had not been particularly excited about this outing, and once we were there, they kept stressing that it was “so different from what I thought.”  When I pressed them about what they thought it would be, Iris said, “like an art museum, and next to it, just some normal sculptures.”

Our plan was to go afterward to Havana Cafe which we read about in this article about Indianapolis’s ethnic food scene, but we got too tired and went home.

Midwestern Smurfers

Always good to see the excellent P.R. for Indiana in the NYT:

With Cars as Meth Labs, Evidence Litters Roads

ELKHART, Ind. — The toxic garbage, often in clumps, blends in easily with the more mundane litter along rural roads and highways here: used plastic water bottles, old tubing, dirty gloves, empty packs of medicine. But it is a nuisance with truly explosive potential, and evidence of something more than simply a disregard for keeping the streets clean…

Law enforcement officials in several states say that addicts and dealers have become expert at making methamphetamine on the move, often in their cars, and they discard their garbage and chemical byproducts as they go, in an effort to destroy evidence and evade the police.

Wow, cooking meth in a moving car!   SO much worse than texting!

A friend (let’s just say that the frogs think of him as Dr. Moreau) comments, “You need to get with it: community gardens are so ’00s.  Mobile meth chefs and their smurfer guests are at the locavore cutting edge.”

Exotic Feline Rescue Center

We finally visited the Exotic Feline Rescue Center after 8 years in Southern Indiana, an excellent post-Thanksgiving day trip.

It’s a couple miles off 46 East on the way to Terre Haute.  The entrance has a vague resemblance to an autobody parts store or some such.  You pay your entrance fee, and one of the volunteers/employees explains the rules/guidelines (if you touch a cat you will be asked to leave; if a cat turns its rear end towards you, it may be planning to spray you; move quickly to the side) and takes you on a tour.

It’s an amazing place!  They have about 200 big cats.  A lot of tigers, some lions, and also leopards, bobcats, servals, cougars, and ocelots.  Most of them were rescued from abusive/neglectful situations: breeders, pet owners in over their heads, drug dealers, other shady characters who like the idea of having a lion in their backyard.  They do not breed animals and they don’t place them elsewhere; it’s a permanent retirement home.  They say that for every animal they can adopt, they have to turn down about 40.

The animals definitely seemed to pay special attention to the girls and another young boy with our group.

The animals tended to be fairly interested and would come up to check us out.  You’re not supposed to come within an arm’s reach of the cages, which at some points means you kind of have to squeeze through a relatively narrow passageway with giant cats sitting or pacing on either side.  It all seems very well run, but on the other hand, it’s just normal fences and padlocks between you and the animals, no high-tech zoo moats or walls.  At one point Iris got scared and didn’t want to come into one area; she eventually braved it by riding on my shoulders.

A few minutes into our tour the lions started roaring back and forth, a very eerie sound.  We saw one of the big lions chewing on a leg of some sort — the lady said that local farmers will often donate a cow or horse that dies.  The center goes through 3000 pounds of meat a day.

They’re definitely doing good work here.  Sad to think of so many of these creatures kept as pets.  There are no national laws governing exotic pet ownership so it’s a state by state patchwork; in Indiana (surprisingly) it’s fairly stringently regulated but in Ohio there are virtually no rules, anyone can buy a tiger cub, stick it in the back of the pickup truck and take it home.

This was a cute guy rubbing his head against the fence.

As we were leaving we noticed a little tabby cat walking around the entrance area.  She looked ridiculously tiny.  I guess she must know to stay out of the cages.

Creepy Farmers’ Market Simulacrum

Sarah snapped these pics of this extremely creepy Farmers Market simulacrum on display in the entrance to the Kroger’s near us.

“Hey, people seem to really like these ‘farmers’ markets.’  Let’s arrange our sterile fruits and veggies imported from South America, Australia, etc and present it all as the produce raised by a disturbing robot/Cylon ‘farmer’!  All we need are some wrap-around shades, overalls, and a flannel shirt.”

fake farmers market

fake farmers market 2

Bon Iver “The Wolves (Act I & II)”

I initially resisted this guy — he came to town a while ago and I decided not to go because he struck me as a bit too affected in the Devendra Banhart mode: solo folkie strumming acoustic guitar, but “weird” in ways that seemed predictable. But the album grew on me, especially this song. I guess the deal is that the record was recorded while he spent the winter in his father’s cabin in Northern Wisconsin, where there may actually be some wolves around (? coyotes for sure), getting over a breakup. Think an Upper-Midwestern Nick Drake, maybe. This song is pretty intense and haunting, especially when the falsetto vocals start to tweak like Justin Timberlake and the percussion loops pile up. “Don’t bother me, don’t bother me” seems an appropriate refrain under the circumstances. I also like “Stacks” a lot.