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Local sculptor repurposes castoffs for Steamboat Arabia exhibit

When Karen McCoy was asked to contribute to a ceramic arts exhibit at Steamboat Arabia, the sculptor felt called to connect the 200 tons of cargo that survived when the ship sank 160 years ago in the Missouri River to what would survive today.


Karen McCoy repurposed donated, used items for the exhibit.

Her 25-foot long sculpture incorporates non-recyclables and worn out items that are no longer usable. It’s all encased in mud and held together with Elmer’s Glue, the only new product she used in her sculpture.

The Kansas City Art Institute professor enlisted donations from colleagues and students, castoffs from fellow residents of the Coleman Highlands Neighborhood, clothing headed to recycling from Salvation Army and some of the more difficult-to-recycle electronics from Surplus Exchange. Each item tells a story in part of her “Consuming Questions,” exhibit, which opens March 15-31 as part of the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts exhibit at Arabia Steamboat Museum.

“At the time of the Arabia steamship, all the refuse put in the river was natural and, hence, biodegradable,” said McCoy. “Now, many of our goods are non-biodegradable plastics. Currently, we are putting things in the Earth and its waters that will become part of the geologic strata, in much the same way that the glass and ceramic of 1856 have done for a long time. And yet now, more than ever, more of us are consuming and disposing of products that create toxic waste in their production and toxic traps for animals and natural systems that will timelessly remain in our soil and waters to be discovered by others in the future, if our species survives to make that kind of discovery. What we are throwing in our rivers will be the remains of our culture.”

The artist was inspired during a sabbatical in Italy where she witnessed several landslides and saw the consumer items that were swept up in the mud. She has also been creating an exhibit of her own by casting plaster using products she consumes that come in non-recyclable packaging. It’s an artistic record of her own product consumption.

The Steamboat Arabia exhibition goal is to create a visual lineage between artisans of the 19th century and makers of the present day. The Arabia artifacts range from fine China to mineral doorknobs and porcelain buttons used by American pioneers. Many of these earthen materials remain an essential medium of both artistic and commercial production today.

McCoy’s sculpture is one of seven exhibits. Other artists who will be showcasing ceramic renderings include Zoe Friend, Kathy King, Judit Kollo, Anne Mapplebeck, Allison Newsome and Jesse Ring.

The Ceramics Art Exhibition is open to the public from March 15-31 at the Arabia Steamboat Museum with a public opening on April 1 during First Fridays. The museum is located in the City Market at 400 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, MO. For more information, visit Arabia Steamboat Museum or call 816-471-1856.



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Toney Babena
7 years ago

Hey, Cool website. I am keen to see a lot more of your work.