a retrospective of Dumpster Archeology

The Last paintings of Edward Menges

Death is hardly the end of the story for an Artist.  A new paragraph is continually being written as long as their essence lives in the work they leave behind.  Michelangelo famously burned his drawings at the end of his life so the mystery of how he accomplished his greatest feats would not be easily repeated.    The period at the end of a “life” sentence metaphorically, is the day the Artist can no longer create Art.

Edward E Menges stopped painting several years ago when the dementia took over.  He was 96 years old when he died last October, still living in the same DeMun Neighborhood he had called home for decades.   The paintings that remain from that time period, stand as his last pieces of artistic self expression.  Did this local St Louis Artist, and painter try to tell us something of his soul in these last works?   If we can honor him and stop for moment to ponder what these last landscapes meant with that certain “light through the forest” motif and perhaps question among ourselves; how they ended up sitting next to a dumpster?

My bicycle trip through the DeMun Neighborhood that day was dependent on Kaldi’s coffee, a little jewel of a coffee-shop.   As I returned home with fresh caffeine in my blood, I spotted the winter scene beautifully vibrant and sticking out into the alley.  It spoke to me subconsciously of talent and wonderful self expression. I knew these paintings must be saved.

 A woman parked her car next to the building and I asked her about the paintings.  She pauses shifting her yoga mat and water bottle then tells me it might be from the “art professor” with dementia in her building.  It was good enough for me to smell a Dumpster Archeology story, save as many pieces I could and began my research into the mysterious Artist.

Edward Ellwood Menges was born on April 4th, 1921 and was raised as a boy in University city, so close to where he finished his life.  After a full career in the military , Ed returned to school to become an Artist, studying the Masters as he traveled throughout Europe in a Volkswagen camper, painting landscapes like Van Gogh.  He slept at all of Europe’s greatest hotels, in the parking lot with no sleeping bags.

  Edward was published in art journals in 1951 and 1954, he was described once as one of the three best Missouri landscape artists of the 1970s.  In 1957 he participated in a two-man art event showing 25 of his paintings in the public sphere.   In 1969 he got into some trouble as a teacher at Florissant Valley Community College, when Edward created a painting that certain people thought was particularly blasphemous.   This teacher had a long lasting impact at the college, teaching the history of art and attending conventions with speaking engagements on Religion and Art.  

Edward it seems found a niche in sports photography and painting at some point.   Perhaps it was those powerful moments, of two men in the heat of aggressive action colliding in mid-air amidst the colors and light that inspired the Muse.  He made some money in this sports town and is described in one sport’s memorabilia website as “World Renown”.    If this is true or perhaps Edward was playing angles, his work is hanging on the walls of many Midwestern sports fanatics.    

A person’s life told through the things that are left behind is the point behind  Dumpster Archeology and it is rare that a person offers so much online data.  This is the thing with artists, they explore their own culture, expose their souls and have a certain obsession with expression that is in essence, part of the artist life. 

A story always gets better when the living can add too it.  I knew that in some way, to find Edward was to solve the mystery of who threw out his paintings and why?   So this is where my mind was a month later on another rare day-off, on a bicycle casually riding north to the same coffee-shop with no plans other than reading a good book.  A dumpster diver always takes the long way through the alleyways of a city, so I made my way accidentally to the same spot.  A dumpster full of kitchen stuff was next to where I found the paintings and I dug around discovering a bag full of teas and protein bars.

An elderly woman eyed me with a smile as she tossed her recycling next to my dig.  We struck up a conversation and I talked about International students, dumpsters and the college exodus.  On a random chance I asked her about Edward Menges because she came from the building on that side. Her hands flew to her face and she sobbed.  I knew then as the tear streaked face looked up at me with eyes as deep as space.  

“I am Jane, his widow.”

Jane showed me the small one bedroom apartment they lived in for decades, with his paintings still on the wall.  Photos of Edward sat on bookshelves now used for her books.  The art supplies were gone to make way for her spiritual journey. Jane has big questions about healing, consciousness and death.    She told me about Edward and his need for attention, his passion for painting and I understood the answer to that question that is always asked.  

How can people throw away history?    

Three of his large landscapes hang in his former bedroom/studio/living room.  One is her favorite because she got him to stop work on it and gift it too her.  It is a vibrant colorful landscape with his signature light coming through the black curved lines of two divided thickets.  In her painting,  the color is everywhere like a kaleidoscope of rainbows through the trees, which speaks more of her, than of him.  

She didn’t dishonor him by placing his paintings by the dumpster, she just needed to move on and kept only what mattered most.  She had hoped for them to be picked up by strangers or artists to be re-purposed and I suppose that fits my bill. This is a common theme in the living people behind the dumpstered lives I discover.

To place a loved one’s possessions in the trash, is too purge ever so slowly their grip on your existing.  Are we too hang on to the objects of each other like an old cartoon ball and chain? The freedom to discover ourselves is what living is all about and Jane is now discovering her own answers to life’s complicated puzzle.  Edward is now free to find his own legacy.

Somewhere out there are thousands of Edward’s paintings.  He sold for years in Art galleries and Athletic memorabilia events.  In a mid-west sports town like Saint Louis, a painter who painted sports could get a certain label, and a teacher who educated thousands of students on how to economically survive as an artist could be remembered on superficial levels.  

It seems he didn’t stick to one genre or medium and his imprint on the St Louis art scene is invaluable, yet after decades without a gallery showing, and outliving many collectors who retained his work, one starts to slip into obscurity.   Which leaves us with a small point of reference on the legacy of Edward E. Menges.  12 paintings left by a Dumpster from his last painting years.

Including:    A forest afire with the red and orange of dimming light.  A winter scene bleak but for the rays of the majestic sun shining through empty branches.  A singular spring ball of sunlight dancing on the yellow colors of re-birthing shrubbery.  A purple explosion of rain drenched trees and perhaps a light shining through the mind of an artist. 

Edward was a man slipping into dementia, frail and weak, but with the love of his life by his side, living a meager but happy life, frequently walking the short distance to one of American’s best zoos and Forest parks.   He was painting his last moments of self expression on to wooden scraps with the remnants of personal artistic experience.   His legacy has yet to be written so fresh off his departure from the vessel that carried his name.  There is something enriching about absorbing the spirit of an Artist and to honestly discover the essence of what they were trying tell us.

For more on the Story.… The Widow and the Paintings

Dumpster Archeology Update#
  After I created this blog post, it randomly was read by the editor of All the Art magazine in St Louis.  I then wrote a 700 word version of this story, that was published in the 2018 Spring Issue (read here).
 Jane Menges continues to live in the same apartment.   I visit from time to time and catch her in the garden working on the flowers.  I help her with the hose and we sit under a little tree under the “new bench”…as her husband’s hand built one sit in the back now… and talk about how hard it is for her to get groceries.  She never remembers me at first then… calls me the “the trash guy” and we are back.  She has dementia too.  I can’t help to wonder when she finally leaves that apartment, alive or dead, if the remaining paintings will join the others at the dumpster, or be treasured by someone.