Marilu Knode, executive director of Laumeier Sculpture Park, careens across the park’s clover-studded meadows in a golf cart, pointing out the monolithic sculptures that spring into view around each turn. “Little things can have an impact too, but sometimes it’s hard to focus on them,” she says. Knode has been at the head of the nonprofit that manages the park since 2009, overseeing its permanent collection and a range of exhibitions. Laumeier’s 105-acre wooded expanse offers visitors hidden discoveries that range from the wry to the haunting. A sign warning of “23-hour visual and audio surveillance” is tacked to a remote tree, and a model of the failed Pruitt-Igoe public housing complex has left behind dirt rings in the grass, which Knode calls a “ghost sculpture.”
Laumeier recently began an expansion project, and Knode has since set up a temporary office in an anonymous trailer surrounded by construction, which she calls “the tin can.” Before heading out to survey the grounds, she takes a seat by her desk with a cup of coffee. “It’s really cold in here in the morning, and once the sun turns right about there, it just feels like a sauna in here,” she says. A bookshelf near her desk holds a dense row of hardcover books, and a glass jar encloses a tiny gnome sitting on a mossy hill.
“Did you talk about Sculpture City yet?” Suzanne Sierra, Laumeier’s interim communications manager, asks Knode from a nearby chair. “I did not. Let me just take a sip of coffee,” Knode says, lifting the cup for a drink. “I’ll stop talking whenever you want me to. This is one thing I care a lot about: talking about art.” Recently, she gave St. Louis the title “Sculpture City” of her own volition. “No one will stop you. Why not?”
Knode, originally from Canada, first moved to the U.S. with her mother, settling in Kansas City. “Canada’s much more European-looking, and more critical of the United States. I think I just grew up with that,” she says. Her immersion into the arts began early–in school, she tried ballet, poetry, and band. “I’m not good at any of those things, but it made me very sensitive to when people are good at what they do.” After graduating from the University of Kansas, Knode moved to New York, where she earned a graduate degree in museum studies, interned at the Guggenheim, and landed a job as a junior staff member at the Museum of Modern Art. “When people say the arts are all subjective, I just think that’s lazy and sloppy,” she says. “We have the same hierarchy and training discipline as any other field. There are good businesses and there are bad businesses–there are good banks, and there are bad banks.”
Knode left New York and then moved to California for several years, before joining the Institute of Visual Arts (INOVA) at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. At one of INOVA’s events, Knode met her current long-distance boyfriend of 13 years, a professional photographer who still lives and works in Milwaukee. “We spend a lot of money on Southwest Airlines these days,” she says. “He’ll go to museums with me any time I want to go.” Before her full-time duties at Laumeier, Knode maintained a personal blog called Questioning Contemporary Art, which documented her travels to museums across the globe. Among the photographs are unexpectedly inspiring places, like the Harley-Davidson Museum, as well as critiques: the bronze statue of Chuck Berry on the Delmar Loop doesn’t exactly look like Chuck Berry.
Knode is fascinated by the history of the city: ties downriver to New Orleans carried by its French founders, the silent monuments of Cahokia Mounds left behind by the city’s first Native American inhabitants. “St. Louis was the largest city north of Mexico 1,000 years ago,” she says. Laumeier’s current show “Mound City,” the fifth in a series on “archaeology of place,” examines how St. Louis’ landscape has absorbed traces of the many cultures who have attempted to shape it in their own image. “Cities come and go. It’s a constant process of renewal and degradation. There are parts of St. Louis that look like it’s a ruin, too,” Knode says.
The park officially opened in 1976 to house a collection of sculptures by local artist Ernest Trova, which a group of community leaders had donated to the St. Louis County Parks Department. Matilda Laumeier donated 72 acres of what would become Laumeier Sculpture Park to St. Louis County Park in 1968, in memory of her deceased husband Henry Laumeier. The head of the Parks Department had been casually visiting Matilda for years, “just coming in and having a drink with her,” Knode says. “The story is that she used to make him drink Scotch, and he hated Scotch but he downed it just to charm Matilda.” Today, Knode continues to work in a close partnership with the Parks Department, which provides a portion of Laumeier’s funding and maintenance.
After arriving at Laumeier, the second exhibition Knode organized was called “Dog Days of Summer,” which examines the tangled relationships between humans and their canine companions. Laumeier commissioned a variety of installations along the forested Nature Trail, including a “karaoke booth” where dogs could howl along with pre-recorded barking. “That’s the fun thing about Laumeier. Some of the projects that we did when I first got here–I will tell you, none of my colleagues would ever do a show about dogs. Ever. Because, really, that’s not a ‘serious’ topic for investigation,” Knode says.
Wandering in the wooded parts of Laumeier has the immersive quality of a fairy tale: painted dog houses and grassy hills inlaid with stone steps blend into the landscape. Recently, an eight-point buck was found wandering in the park, scratching the trees with its antlers. But just beyond the fence that marks the edge of Laumeier’s lot, the unfinished wooden skeleton of a new, multi-story home is partially masked by summer foliage. “We’re in this kind of interesting space–we’re in the suburbs, and we’re close to the city,” Knode says. In 2012, Laumeier hosted an exhibit called “Camp Out: Finding Home in an Unstable World” that examined the collapsing American ideal of home, and what kinds of structures might take its place. As part of the exhibit, they printed out a contributing artist’s instructions on how to make a homeless shelter out of plastic bags, and attached them to the back of one of Laumeier’s buildings. “There’s always many layers we’re trying to get at.”
Knode parks the golf cart at the bottom of a hill, where the thick meadow grass stops at a line of trees. A dirt path lies just beyond, and overhead, several long chains hang gracefully in between the treetops. It’s an installation called “Free Hanging Chain,” and each curve mimics the shape of the Arch. The chains had to be strung high enough that stoned teenagers couldn’t toss their sneakers over them like a telephone wire–not a traditional museum problem, she notes dryly.
“It’s not easy,” says Knode, thinking of Milwaukee. “Sometimes things are easier if you’ve got somebody who can also help with day-to-day life, sort of the social world that we live in. But, you know, he really is kind of addicted to what he does–like I am.” One of the new installations for “Mound City” consists of a pair of crumbling brick walls tucked away in a wooded area of the park. Stepping off the path, a visitor comes upon them by surprise. They were built this year by artist Geoffrey Krawczyk from scrap brick, reclaimed from crumbling St. Louis buildings. “Really good contemporary artists mediate all these conflicting things in our world,” Knode says, stepping carefully through the wet dirt to stand in front of a door-sized opening in the brick as the trees shuffle patches of sunlight on the ground. “The more realistic you are about the place you live, the more likely it is that you can have an impact on it.”
To learn more about Marilu Knode or Laumeier, visit here.