For most people, the objects that wash up on the banks of the Mississippi River are nothing more than trash. For artist Bryan Payne, they’re his medium of choice.
Among discarded Styrofoam cups, broken bricks, plastic soda bottles and other discarded garbage, Bryan finds desirable items decades, sometimes a century old.
“It’s like ‘I Spy,’” Bryan says. “I read the river and look at signs of where debris could be.”
He’s not on the lookout for any debris, though. Bryan mudlarks, or scavenges the banks of rivers for artifacts of the past. He mostly keeps his eyes peeled for broken pottery shards that he can turn into mosaics.
Mudlarking originated in London, England in the late 18th century. Mudlarks would search the River Thames at low tide for items they could sell. Now, it’s more widely a hobby for artists and historians. Mudlarking in London eventually became so competitive, people had to get permits from the city in order to do it. A permit isn’t necessary in St. Louis, however.
Bryan says he only knows of one other mudlarker in the area.
Mudlarkers are notoriously secretive of their spots, Bryan says. He reads the river to speculate where the best debris could be. One spot he likes to share with people is near Lumiere Place and Casino downtown. There, he finds old casino coins people might’ve thrown in the river, or metal objects from the Union Light and Power Plant upstream.
He looks for things with lines: pottery shards, lost necklaces; anything that can create some kind of story in his mosaics.
“I can make a whole other shape, a whole other life with that,” Bryan says.
He’ll find inspiration from almost anything: a Styrofoam mattress pad stuck in the sand, a cracked plastic hat, a broken Bengal bracelet. Trash isn’t just trash to him, he says.
“I know it’s disgusting and we need to pick it up, but it has its own beauty,” Bryan says.
Though much of his art is based off his mudlarking finds, Byan also curates galleries and does work with the City Museum. He plans on finishing a screenplay this month after writing it for seven years. The movie is based off of events that happened during the Great Flood of 1993, when the Mississippi devastated countless families in the St. Louis area.
If you’d like to buy Bryan’s art, contact him through his Instagram.