One Friday in 1993, Ken Russell walked into his boss's office and told him he was quitting. The Southern California-based aerospace engineer and former Marine pilot had always wanted to he a potter, and this was the first step toward a whole new life. After he quit, Russell opened up a U.S. map and threw a dart. The point landed in eastern South Dakota. So in 1994, Russell and his family packed up a Ryder van and headed east.
Fast-forward to 2001. For almost a year Russell had noticed an ad promoting an artists' area in Northeast Missouri in the back of Ceramics Monthly magazine. In June, he ventured south for a visit and fell in love with Clarksville, a small town on the banks of the Mississippi River. By November, he and his family had relocated.
Russell's not the only artist who's fallen in love with the area. Since 2000, a handful of other artists have started studios and showrooms in three small communities that stretch along 50 miles of the Mississippi River, and they all heard about the area through The Provenance Project, the organization that ran the ad that inspired Russell to move. The group's intent is to use arts and artists to spur economic growth along Highway 79, the National Scenic Byway that connects the towns of Hannibal, Louisiana and Clarksville. Organizers of the project believe that a concentrated group of artists will attract visitors, who will buy the artists' work as well as spend money at other area businesses.
Although the project is still in the beginning stages, more than 800 artists, some from as far away as Japan, have contacted the group for more information about the area. "The response has been so overwhelming I haven't had the chance to call everybody back just yet," said Glory Franklin, administrative assistant at the Northeast Missouri Development Authority, the organization that's spearheading the project.
The idea of an artists' corridor has been percolating for more than a decade. Steve Ayers, a professional potter who has lived and worked in Hannibal since 1985, came up with the idea about 10 years ago. Four years ago, Ayers broached the subject again in a discussion with fellow artist John Stoeckley. Finally, two years ago, the Pike County Development Authority and the Northeast Missouri Development Authority helped Ayers get the ball rolling with the money and resources to run classified ads in three trade journals. The 100 responses received from the first round of ads proved that the idea was viable.
The appeal of the area comes from a combination of factors. First of all, the three communities offer a little something for everyone. "These are three completely different communities," said Stoeckley, who does his pen-and-ink drawings at his Reflections of Missouri studio in Louisiana. "When artists come to visit, they can see three different menus." Beginning at the south end of Highway 79 is Clarksville, the smallest of the three, with a population of about 500. Most artists move into the historic downtown area along the riverfront, which the community has been restoring for the past 15 years. Between Clarksville and Hannibal is Louisiana, with almost 4,000 residents. A downtown area with a Victorian streetscape welcomes artists and reminds visitors that the town once bustled with river commerce. And Hannibal's primary claim to fame is that it's Mark Twain's boyhood home. Artists can find properties throughout the community, and the town of 18,000 has an established tourism trade.
Studio space is relatively easy to find in all three communities, and the low cost of living and reasonable real estate prices sweeten the deal. …