The farther east we got from Little Rock, the wetter the surrounding country. Forests and ranches and hills flattened out and gave way to cotton farms, then rice paddies and swampland as we neared the Mississippi. There were more and more lakes, creeks, bayous and rivers, as well as flood control levees. We never spotted a razorback, but water birds were frequent, and there was more roadkill. The biggest sight we saw was the Bank of England, Arkansas. We crossed the highway bridge to Memphis, next to a busy railroad bridge overlooking barges moving up and down the Mississippi. Mississippi steamboat
Downtown and Midtown Memphis is shabby but struggling hard to improve. There are too many boarded-up buildings, but then there are the Great American Pyramid and the spruced up Beale Street. The Pyramid houses sporting events and special exhibits (currently a display of Florentine art). Our hotel was near Georgetown, the ritzy suburb to the East, so we spent some time driving around. A glance at the guidebook revealed many places of interest, and we resolved to choose two, one for each day. But after we drove to Mud Island (opens in early April) we discovered that "early" meant the 12th and not the 5th so we drove back to the Lictherman Nature Center for a stroll.
We started out being watchful of the territorial Canada Geese and forgot to watch the boardwalk, took a slip-and-fall and (fortunately) just scratched the exterior of our camera. Sigh! Some of the geese were happy to be fed, along with some turtles and fish in the lake, and a group of mothers and young children were enjoying some wildlife education. After we left the lake area and the hissing geese, we tramped around paths, decided we could not climb over a very large tree that had fallen across the way, ducked through a hidden amphitheater and under some yellow tape, enjoyed the wildflowers, being unable to name any of them, and walked past the potting barns where many volunteers were busily preparing for a large spring planting.
In Germantown we were directed to The Commissary, one of two barbecue restaurants we sampled. The meat is roasted until it is nearly falling apart, and pulled off the roast, served with barbecue sauce (we preferred the sweet), cole slaw, baked beans and garnished with a deviled egg and a tangy pepperoncini. A commissary, according to the blurb on their menu, was the name for a small rural general store, and that's how this old wooden building started out. The low ceiling and small separate rooms reminded us that at one point shoppers bought groceries, tools and blue jeans here. Memphis Library
After lunch we consulted some style manuals in the main library, centrally located at 3030 Poplar Avenue. The building was completed in 2000, and is a joy to behold. In front, where a few smokers had stepped out for a break, are fanciful granite cylinders, some erect, some lying down. The cylinders are engraved with words and pictures from the pages of books of all kinds. Those that are lying down have "rolled" in curving paths across the front patio, leaving the impressions of words in the pavement. It's nice art and an attractive invitation to come in and sample the books. This is another wonderful new building of which Memphis and Shelby County can be proud. Librarians tend to be old-fashioned, however, and it's interesting how many will think nostalgically of their crowded old musty buildings despite the obvious benefits of the new ones!
The second day it rained, but we found a real Memphis treasure -- the National Ornamental Metal Museum. This is one of the most exciting sights we've found in our travels, principally because it represents a new creation of some very creative artists. Museum is a bit of a misnomer, because the facility is primarily a hands-on educational center, where aspiring metalsmiths from around the globe gather to compare and create techniques. The NOMM is located on some of the grounds of a former United States Marine Hospital, built by the WPA, and partly fallen into ruin. The bulk of the property was occupied by an Army Reserve Center, which has now shut down (and presumably moved to a newer location). The museum occupies the former nurse's dormitory, and an adjoining building houses the library of metalworking and metallic art. The city cooperated in establishing the museum by leasing the property for a dollar a year; a very wise decision.
Metal means just that -- we saw stunning works in bronze, iron, brass, silver and gold; the baser metals were less well-represented. Many of our favorite works were abstractions, although the ordinary metal work was just as lovely. The wrought-iron gates, erected in 1989 to commemorate NOMM's tenth anniversary, are sprinkled with rosettes, each of a different style, made by blacksmiths from all over the world. The current exhibit represents a Spider sculptures selection of work from those who have been employed at the museum during its twenty-five year history, arranged in galleries on two floors. Also on the second floor was what appeared to be a metal designer's workshop, crowded with books and papers and computer terminals. Behind the main building is a lovely garden overlooking the Mississippi, filled (naturally) with metal sculpture and art. The Schering-Plough smithy featured a number of forges, along with a wide variety of metalworking machinery, and a new foundry is under construction next to the smithy. If we had stayed longer we might have had some demonstrations, but most of the staff were off on field trips, giving metalworking lectures to groups of 700 students.
With manufacturing work becoming highly automated, and metal industries moving overseas, metalworking had been in danger of becoming a lost art in the United States, but the establishment of NOMM has helped to reverse the trend, and large numbers of students are anxious to produce creative individually crafted metal works for sale. So there is a renaissance; the business cards of many of the metal workers who have spent some time studying at NOMM are tacked up to the wall of the smithy, just above the window sill where the smithy cat lies quietly dozing.
On the way from NOMM to Corky's where we had another fine pulled-pork barbecue luncheon, we continued to talk about the museum and its wonderful art and teaching programs. From our point of view, this is a must-see exhibit, especially if you grow tired of the standard city museums (one each of art, natural history, and regional history). It made us understand that there are a lot of very creative people living in Memphis.