Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

New Documentary Screening Sunday Brings Artist George Caleb Bingham to Life

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

New Documentary Screening Sunday Brings Artist George Caleb Bingham to Life

Article excerpt

George Caleb Bingham (1811-1879) was known as "the Missouri Artist" for his meticulously crafted, vividly inhabited paintings of frontier life. In a new PBS-bound documentary that has its St. Louis premiere Sunday at the St. Louis Art Museum, he gets a new title: "The American Artist."

The biopic, aimed at a general audience, is the work of Emmy Award-winning Wide Awake Films of Kansas City, in partnership with the Friends of Arrow Rock. Taking the artist from childhood to old age, it was filmed in Kansas City and in Arrow Rock, the historic village in mid-Missouri where Bingham lived for much of his life.

Shane Seley, co-director of the film and co-owner of Wide Awake, says the company has produced historic documentary work for PBS, National Geographic Channel, the History Channel and the BBC for the past 25 years. "The American Artist" was a three-year project.

The Friends of Arrow Rock wanted to do a documentary on the life of Bingham, he says, and were pleasantly surprised to find a company with a high level of experience so close at hand. They arranged funding through Nancy Pillsbury of the Pillsbury Foundation, who served as executive producer, and the project was on its way.

Friends of Arrow Rock consultant Steve Byers had put together an interesting compendium of Bingham's life, Seley says. "We took that compendium, and we asked, 'How can we make this appeal to a national audience?' We did a lot of reading and a lot of research."

The result is a first-class production. Emmy-nominated actor Keith David ("Platoon," Ken Burns' "The War" and "Jazz") served as the narrator; actor Gregory Sporleder, a St. Louis native, plays the adult Bingham. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma is heard on the soundtrack.

Some major art institutions also helped make the production possible: The St. Louis Art Museum, Kansas City's Nelson-Atkins Art Gallery and the Metropolitan Museum of Art were among those who made their collections and staffs available. Virtually all of the paintings and sketches shown in the film are originals.

"That was important to me," Seley says. "You don't experience Bingham's paintings until you stand in front of one. He really painted for the light and the environment. It's a totally different experience than looking at one in a book."

He praises SLAM's curator of American art, Melissa Wolfe, for her "fabulous job of talking about Bingham. Each institution has a Bingham story to tell in its collection."

The script, written by a team that included Seley, Brian Rose, Andre du Broc, Amanda Lillig and Molly Bedell, went through 25 drafts. "We just read voraciously. We really wanted this story to appeal to a broader audience than just the folks who are into art history. His work is so accessible," Seley says.

About 15 current Arrow Rock residents appear in the film; the majority were either professional actors or what Seley calls "high- end Civil War and 19th-century re-enactors. …

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