‘White River Memoirs’ opens at Merritt Studio

story and photos by April Robertson
arobertson@thecitywire.com

Over the course of a 550-mile journey in a canoe traipsing down the White River, Chris Engholm has spoken with people from all walks of life: collecting the stories of elderly persons who grew up along the river, tour guides, conversations with business owners along the way, and culminated a distinct and personal history of the river.

Engholm shared these stories through a collection of maps, artifacts, paintings and other objects in an artistic display “White River Memoirs” at Studio 124, the Thomas B. Merritt Studio | Gallery in downtown Bentonville Saturday evening (Feb. 9).

Approximately 30 people attended the gallery’s opening.

“This turnout was (pretty good) for being a cold and rainy night,” said Thomas Merritt, owner of 124 Studio. “We usually have between 50 and 200 people for our events.”

A sculpture made of driftwood, oil paintings of forest scenes, watercolors of Ozark valleys, and photos by the first female professional photographer were featured in the gallery, along with Engholm’s canoe, which is on a brief hiatus before he travels the remaining 150 miles of his journey.

The objects on display show a White River that many of us will never see: a time when houseboats easily traversed by, children played in swimming holes, a man carrying a fawn, a cannon being shot over a field toward a town in the days of the Civil War and men floating the river while playing a ukelele.

One of the exhibit’s larger pieces featured a rusty, boxy old helmet. A series of black and white photos depicted the story of a lost tradition. In the 1970s and previous, diving for mussels was common on the White River. They would sort and dry them before retrieving pearls, from which they would later make buttons.

Guests were treated to an oral history of Monte Ne by Allyn Lord, director of the Shiloh Museum of Ozark History. The local attraction is situated along the White River and was featured in some of the photographic work in the gallery.

Lord helped secure the grant that funded the exhibition and was delighted that they found a space that could feature all of the items, including Engholm’s canoe and a sculpture of driftwood and objects found along the river that spans a distance of 96” X 120” X 60” (8 feet by 10 feet and 5 feet).

“The exhibition will be shown in Branson and other places along the White River,” Lord said. “It has so many elements to it: there’s the book (White River Memoirs: The Spoken History of a Liquid Legend), the video, the objects...”

She particularly appreciates the multi-faceted aspect of the exhibition, giving Engholm the opportunity to speak to a variety of interest groups.

“It’s wonderful because people with all sorts of interests can have him speak: those in environment, history, recreation, business, photographers,” she said.

The gallery featured works of photography, drawings, watercolor and oil paintings by 15 different artists, including Thomas Merritt, owner of the 124 Studio. Merritt and two of the artists, Sharon Killian and Melissa Garrison, were present for the event and spent time informally discussing art, the White River and Ozark culture with guests.

Killian, a watercolor artist known for her vibrant abstracts, displayed a few of her works that were inspired by the view of the Upper White River from her home. One guest commented that one of Killian’s watercolors “Fog in Valley,” which featured a dense fog rolling over the hills of the Ozarks bathed in colorful light, reminded him of Japanese artwork.

“I’ve always liked Japanese and Chinese art and I’ve had an affinity for the scroll, that cultural relationship with the hills,” she said.

A striking feature of the painting is a distinct rectangle on the far side of the painting that doesn’t mesh with the valley scene.

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“I wanted to show what was going on behind the fog- where there’s all this green (of the forest),” she said. “This piece is representative of as much as I can take in of this view without being overwhelmed – all I can scan my eyes across before going back over it again and again.”

Melissa Garrison’s oil paintings “Fishing Place” and “To wander abstractedly or listlessly,” both of which were inspired by her time on the White River, were featured in the gallery.

“I grew up in Northwest Arkansas and we’d go out there (to the White River) to skip school. The river is about getting away and having fun,” she said.

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