November 23, 2014

Connecting the Dots

Tim and I had talked about driving into downtown Kansas City to do a bit of touring, but we just never seemed to summon the necessary energy to tackle the traffic that goes hand-in-hand with any urban downtown center.  After cancelling our plans on Saturday, we finally got our act together and headed there on Sunday, October 26.  I know it’s not a big deal for most people, but we just don’t like to fight traffic these days.  Sunday, however, can be a perfect day to tour urban areas.

We started by driving by the new Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts to see what has become an architectural icon in the city.  What a dramatic building (I’m sorry I wasn’t able to get a photo). 

Our next stop was Union Station, which is celebrating its centennial this year.  Kansas City’s Union Station is just as grand as the one I had just visited in Omaha, although the Beaux-Arts architecture style here is much more traditional.  Union Station houses restaurants and shops, as well as a science museum and other exhibits, and is a civic center of sorts for Kansas City.

Kansas City Union Station

Freight House Pedestrian Bridge

We walked through Union Station and crossed the railroad tracks on an original freight house bridge that has been converted to a pedestrian bridge.  The bridge led us to one of Kansas City’s top five barbecue restaurants.  Jack Stack Barbecue is housed in a former freight house, and its soaring ceiling and beautiful oak bar were almost as noteworthy as the barbecue itself.  The ribs and burnt ends were divine, as were the cheesy corn bake and baked beans.  It was a perfect spot to get my barbecue fix.

Real Kansas City Barbecue

The main attraction for the day, however, was the Nelson-Atkins Museum, one of the top museums in the country.  We were there primarily to see a special exhibition entitled “The Plains Indians:  Artists of Earth and Sky.”  This groundbreaking exhibition was organized by the Musée du quai Branly in Paris in partnership with the Nelson-Atkins Museum to showcase Plains Indian masterworks gathered from both European and American collections. 

I had never thought of American art and artifacts, particularly Indian art, being housed in a European museum, but it only makes sense once I thought more about it.  In fact, many European collections have some of the best examples of eighteenth and nineteenth century pieces since French fur traders collected many items produced by Indian artists to ship home to Paris.

The 137 masterworks on view are some of the best examples of Plains Indian art in existence.  Spanning more than four centuries, they reflect the enormous changes in the lives of Plains people over their long history.  These works of beauty embody the cultural values and religious traditions of Plains Indian cultures. 

Painted Buffalo Robes Tell a Story

The individual pieces, as well as the collection as a whole, were astounding, probably more so to Tim and me because of our recent explorations in and around the country that the Plains Indians called home.  What fortuitous timing that this exhibition should be in Kansas City when we passed through.  Just think – if Tim had not wanted to see a World Series game, we may have skipped Kansas City altogether.  Our being able to see the exhibition was just meant to be.

I cannot explain how much I loved wandering from item to item, and being able to recognize what much of what I was seeing.  I usually enjoy art exhibitions, but rarely feel such excitement when viewing works of art.  I felt like a kid in a candy store – a store with lots of eye candy that is.  Because of where we have been traveling and all that we have been learning, I was able to really appreciate this exhibition.  I’m not sure it would have had the same impact on me six months ago.  It had so much more meaning to me now, and I felt so fortunate to be able to see these amazing items.

I think the items in the exhibition helped to connect the dots for me – pulling together so many of the things we’ve been seeing and places we’ve been visiting since we arrived at Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site and then started to follow the Missouri River.  I love making connections, and there were so many to make here.

For example, when we were in Pierre, South Dakota, at the Cultural Heritage Center we were disappointed that the showpiece of that collection, the “Horse Effigy,” was traveling – lo and behold here it was in Kansas City.  The “Horse Effigy” is the most famous of all Plains Indian sculptures.  Carved ca. 1880, it depicts a lunging horse in its last moment of life.

"Horse Effigy"

We also keep running into Swiss artist Karl Bodmer, who traveled to the Plains with German explorer Prince Maximilian.  The exhibition features an extraordinary buffalo robe painted by an artist ca. 1830 and collected by Prince Maximilian while he was in South Dakota.  Bodmer painted a woman, who was likely the artist, wearing this same robe.  The original watercolor is owned by the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, which we visited.  Connections, connections.

Robes Representing the Buffalo Collected by Prince Maximilian

Watercolor by Karl Bodmer Depicting the Buffalo Robe on Display
(Joselyn Art Museum Photo)

And let’s not forget Lewis and Clark.  On display is a buffalo hide that an artist painted and embroidered to make a dress.  The dress, which is decorated with materials from trade with Europeans, was collected by Lewis and Clark during their expedition.

Woman's Side Fold Dress Collected by Lewis and Clark

These were just a very few of the pieces on display.  The photos below include some of my other favorites.  I also liked that the exhibition traced Plains Indian art up to the present.  I never expected to see beaded shoes on display, but they were beautiful, even though I would never be able to walk in them!

Scalp Shirt Worn by Red Cloud
Beaded Adaptation of Designer Shoes

Beaded Valise Honoring Family History

The exhibition theme extends to the museum’s sculpture park.  Several tipis have been set up to share the historical importance and innovative qualities of this perfect form of architecture.  I also think they provide a wonderful juxtaposition to one of the museum’s signature sculptures, the “Shuttlecocks,” created by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen.  Is it me, or is the shuttlecock reminiscent of an upside-down tipi?

Tipis and a Shuttlecock

This exhibition has been one of my very favorite things we’ve seen since setting out on the road.  Although Tim and I rarely feel compelled to explore larger cities, I’m sure glad we made the effort in Kansas City.


  1. You are really educating me! I had no idea there was Indian Art or that it would be in Europe either. It does make sense tho. Beautiful pieces. Glad you got that ah ha moment in KC! LV

    1. I have learned so much during our travels, and I enjoy sharing at least a few things in the blog. Kansas City was a very special stop.


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