TOURISTS got their kitsch on Route 66; museum offers exhibit to celebrate highway's art

Saturday, July 21st 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) _ Tourists got more than their kicks on Route 66.

Modern-day pioneers plying the original U.S. Route 66 _ which spanned 2,400 miles and eight states _ loaded up their Model T's, and later, their Nash Ramblers, with souvenirs.

Rubber tomahawks made in Taiwan. Plastic turquoise jewelry. Cookie jars shaped like tepees. Salt-and-pepper-shakers shaped like American Indians in war bonnets.

A cavalcade of kitsch. A cornucopia of camp. A jamboree of junk. Or is it?

Look again, a state museum is urging visitors.

In conjunction with the famed highway's 75th anniversary, the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture has opened an exhibit that celebrates the art of the ``Mother Road.''

It beckons even before you reach the museum's doors: ``Tourist Icons, 500 feet,'' screams a garish yellow tepee with bright red lettering.

On the way in a series of Burma-Shave signs jog the memories of those old enough to recall the upbeat jingles, posted one line at a time on consecutive signs along the road.

``To me, it's a fun exhibit. It has a lot of glitz and color,'' said Duane Anderson, director of the museum and co-curator of the show, which runs until February. ``But there really is a serious message behind it.''

The scene is set with a rusty gas pump, a teardrop-shaped plywood travel trailer and other staples of the era.

``I can remember that hanging out the side of the '51 Chevy,'' said Bill Parks, a middle school librarian from Fort Worth, Texas, inspecting a cylindrical evaporative cooler that blew water-cooled air _ and errant droplets _ across passengers.

Parks' family drove along Route 66 from Texas to California in the early 1950s.

``I remember two water bags in the front, just like it is there,'' Parks said, pointing to two-gallon canvas bags hanging from a bumper. ``Spare water for the radiator _ and you could drink it.''

Hundreds of items, many of them loaned by locals, invite visitors to follow the historic route not only from Chicago to Santa Monica, Calif., but also into the cultural divide that marked the Southwest.

Much of Route 66 _ which was cobbled together in 1926 from a network of existing roads, and which, until its 1937 realignment, veered north into Santa Fe _ ran through American Indian territory.

The railroad had been bringing visitors for decades, and they bought curios. But Route 66 was different.

``The train came through one time a day going west, one time a day going east. The cars just kept coming and coming, both ways,'' said Joseph Traugott, curator of 20th century art at the Museum of Fine Arts and the exhibit's other curator.

The flood of novelties sold at diners, service stations and tourist courts often were American Indian-made or had American Indian themes.

The artists already were making expensive items for wealthy patrons. During the Depression they also began making popular objects _ ashtrays and candlesticks _ out of nontraditional materials, as well as miniature versions of traditional baskets and pottery.

``As the market increased, people discovered they could actually make more money making smaller works that were easier to sell, than the great masterpieces,'' Traugott said.

Scholars and collectors were horrified, dismissing the work as inauthentic. Not so, say the curators.

Even the imported curios that present a distorted view of American Indians _ the mugs and whiskey decanters with sacred images and the Route 66 Barbeque Barbie doll _ have their place in art history.

``I consider all of this to be art,'' Traugott said. ``What all of these objects do is capture cultural visions and artistic visions. And you may not agree with the vision _ but they are extremely successful at communicating that vision to the public.''

The curators hope visitors to the exhibit will rethink and discard their preconceived notions about the distinction between kitsch and fine art.

But they may be too awash in their own memories.

Marion Magarick said her mother was pregnant with her when she ventured west in 1941.

``I have the whole trip diary at home,'' said the Austin, Texas, teacher. ``I know they wrote about crossing the desert, which they tried to do in the daytime. They went into a store and got a block of ice _ and my mother sat on it.''

``It really is a nostalgia trip for someone like me, who has been on 66 many times,'' said Sisi Glass of Phoenix, who has a small, hand-painted chest purchased on one of those trips.

``My dad loved Highway 66,'' she said. ``I guess it was a great road to drive.''