When Issac Logsdon moved to Kansas City for art school four years ago, he didn't know the Missouri and Kansas rivers flowed through town.
"It seems like that should be such an important understanding of this city," Logsdon says. "The Missouri’s where we get all of our drinking water. Ecologically, it's incredibly important to this city and this region. But as someone who’s living in the city, I can go most days without ever really recognizing that it’s here."
Logsdon has more than made up for his initial lack of knowledge.
"This confluence is really why Kansas City exists today. European colonizers saw it as a good place to set up for trade and for transport," he says now, standing at the rocky tip of Kaw Point Park, where the Kansas and Missouri rivers meet and where Lewis and Clark camped in June 1804.
Half of Logsdon's work as an artist involves research. So, over his last few years at the Kansas City Art Institute, where he's majoring in ceramics and art history with a certificate in social practice, that research has centered on his current home town.
"I was thinking about Kansas City’s history and what role I play in it and how to navigate that," Logsdon says, "because I do think we should all be acknowledging the Native histories here before us, and not just thinking of us coming onto the scene as a fresh slate."
Since last semester, Logsdon has become an expert on Lewis and Clark. And this month, thanks to a grant from the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts, he’ll drive the trail himself, starting in St. Louis, then traveling back to Kansas City and up through the Dakotas, then West through the Rockies to the Oregon Coast. Along the way, he’ll install four large terra cotta tiles that look like historical markers — but tell a much different story than what visitors typically see at national parks or historic sites.
One, for example, is covered with text from an essay by Roberta Conner, from Lewis and Clark Through Indian Eyes: Nine Indian Writers on the Legacy of the Expedition.
"To discover tribes takes nothing away from our history, or so it seems," the marker reads. "But for indigenous peoples that act of discovery is loaded, charged and offensive. Why? Because there is a larger, more consequential, insidious application when lands and indigenous people are discovered. The idea that an official government-ordered expedition of discovery conducted by a military unit is, or was, altruistic, innocent, or virtuous and heroic, must come from the discoverer’s vantage point. Such a notion is naïve, disingenuous and reckless. "
Logsdon used this quote because it's about "how one-sided history can be," he says, "and it comes from a specific vantage point, which is the oppressed in this situation."
Because people were already on the land, he notes, the idea of “discovery” is "not exactly true to what was happening."
On an opposite table in Logsdon's studio is his plaque about St. Louis, this one with much-shorter text: a six-word poem by the St. Louis artist Juan William Chavez. It reads: "In every arch is a mound."
"St. Louis is often known as the Mound City because of all the Indian burial mounds around the city," Logsdon explains. "But another one of the really large, iconic things about St. Louis is the arch, the 'gateway to the west.'"
Chavez's poem, he says, "is just an extremely concise way of thinking about how, with westward expansion and the discovery of a new world, there’s already a history that’s on that land."
Part of Logdson’s inspiration comes from his own complicated family history.
"We’re mestizo and we’re from New Mexico, and we’re descendants of Spanish conquistadors who moved into what is now Northern New Mexico," he says. "It’s a group that has been a colonizer and also has been colonized, because that land was taken by the United States."
Logsdon started his Lewis and Clark project after spending two years at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art on an Andrew Mellon Curatorial Fellowship, where he worked in the American Art department with curator Stephanie Knappe.
"I’m an Americanist, and think about American art and visual cultural and material culture broadly defined," Knappe says. "And not only art but music and dance and literature, so everything that makes this country this country."
She says nearly every encounter with Logsdon challenged her to question dominant narratives.
"Now the American Art department has made a new commitment to increase the representation of underrepresented artists, and underrepresented stories, and underrepresented voices," she says. "This is definitely a direction the museum as a whole is going, but I feel that because of my time with Issac, that’s really shaped how I’m thinking as a curator."
She calls Logsdon’s project a "clever" way to start changing those dominant American narratives. In fact, she's contributing to that effort as well, having written text for the marker Logsdon will place somewhere in Oregon.
"It's a rumination on what it must have been like to be at that proverbial end of the trail," Knappe says, "and how often Anglo artists depicted American Indians at the end of the trail, and everything tied up with Manifest Destiny."
She describes her piece of writing as "a short letter to the explorers on that day when they reached Cape Disappointment, wondering whether the name of that place was in any way ironic because of all they had seen, or was it actually revelatory of a secret mood that they may not have wanted to admit."
As he prepares to hit the road, Logsdon doesn’t know exactly where he’ll place his four markers. He’ll let his interactions with people and the landscape direct those decisions.
"I haven’t really been to any of these places, so this’ll be a new experience for me," he says. "But I don’t want the project to center around my experience."
To that end, the plaques don’t have any information about who made them or put them there. So whoever sees them will just have to think about why.
C.J. Janovy is an arts reporter for KCUR 89.3. You can find her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.