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Fascinating Rivers

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Published on: Feb. 2, 1996

Last revision: Oct. 20, 2010

"I just drew because I liked to do so," Missouri artist Thomas Hart Benton once wrote. As he drew, his art and painting matured, until he became a nationally renowned artist.

Benton began his artistic career in Neosho, 16 miles south of Joplin, where he was born in 1889. Railroad trains got Benton's attention first. He called them "the most impressive things that came into [his] childhood."

But later in life, rivers - particularly the rivers of his native Missouri and the Ozarks - became the objects of his affection.

Benton took his first float trip in Gasconade County at age 11. The trip kindled a sense of wonder for flowing water. He would later write:

Muddy or not, the rivers have charm. Great sycamores hang over their banks and in the summer when the current moves slowly these are duplicated in the stream below. On one side or another of the rivers' outcropping white bluffs hang and break the monotony of tree branch and foliage.

At 17, Benton left Neosho and his family for Joplin, where he took an artist's position at the Joplin American. Following his family's wishes, he ultimately finished school at a military academy in Alton, Illinois. But art was his abiding interest and he enrolled at the Chicago Art Institute, before going to Paris.

In 1924, his father became seriously ill and Benton returned to Springfield, where he spent contemplative time on river banks. In the decade after his father died, Benton took many overland and water trips through the deep South, trips that would inform his art.

Benton's work spanned decades, and even into maturity he continued to be fascinated with rivers. Lyle Woodcock of St. Louis, John Callison of Prairie Village, Kan., and Bill Rogers of Eminence all have fond memories of floating with Thomas Hart Benton on Missouri waterways and observing the artist at work in the 1960s and 1970s.

Callison's friendship with Benton began in the late 1960s. After receiving a gift of a Benton lithograph from a friend, Callison became intrigued by the artist, and designed to meet him. His background in farming gave him much in common with Benton, and they both loved the Ozark rivers.

Callison went on three float trips with Benton. One was on the White River. An outfitter in the Ozarks, Harold Hedges, provided the canoes and gear, says Callison. "April was the best time because of the high water. We would stop at the

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