One of the best modern muralists was Neosho-born Thomas Hart Benton, whose fluid figures give a picture of real life. One of his murals, which depicts images of slavery, outlaws and other scenes in Missouri history, is located at the State Capitol in Jefferson City.
Another hangs at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. Just three years before his death in 1975, Benton painted Turn of the Century, Joplin. That mural that hangs in Joplin’s City Hall at 6th and Main Streets.
Now, the Joplin artist community is working to create yet another mural just a few blocks to the north. A series of billboards will be turning into a welcoming sight for the city’s downtown area.
The majority of the work is being done by MSSU Spiva Art Gallery Director and teacher Burt Bucher, the MSSU Student Art Group Focal Point, and adjunct professor Jason Stamper.
After being approached by Downtown Joplin Alliance Executive Director Trisha Patton about creating a mural, Bucher says the group quickly determined that the space the Alliance had selected at B and Main Streets was intriguing and would be a great visual and technical challenge for students.
“We were given a conceptual framework and began building our visual framework around the initial ideas generated,” Bucher says.
He says this phase of the project took a considerable amount of time.
“One primary focus of a professional muralist is to work on visual and technical problems. Student groups work at a slower pace than that. We needed quite a bit longer for brainstorming, working through technical issues that arise with a project of this magnitude and coordinating diverse course schedules.”
After steadily reworking visual problems and refining composition, the group created a smaller scale painted mural.
Patton presented the scale painting to officials from the City of Joplin, who reacted enthusiastically.
Patton says the mural project will revitalize an area near the site of a former car dealership, roughly across the street and to the north from the downtown post office.
“The billboards at B and Main St. used to be eyesores,” Patton says. “Because of signage codes, the billboards were too big to be used as signs.”
She said the years had taken their toll. The signs were covered by layers of dirt and deteriorated paint. Members of the Downtown Joplin Alliance power washed and primed the signs with the support of Neal Group Construction and Sherwin Williams.
Patton says one idea was to welcome visitors and shoppers to Downtown Joplin.
“We wanted to give them visual showcase of what the city has to offer culturally,” Bucher said. “We also brainstormed about the pillars of our community who invested in the future of Joplin long ago. We consistently came back to George A. Spiva as the primary focus of the mural.
Spiva, a local businessman who helped found the Missouri Southern Spiva Art Gallery, the downtown Spiva Gallery and the MSSU Spiva Library, died in 1967 after a fatal heart attack. His twin focus on Joplin as a center for both business and the arts helped give the mural project its thematic approach and mirrored the goals of the Dowtown Joplin Alliance.
The murals at B and Main will serve as both an enticement and attraction in downtown Joplin.
One phase of the project has involved projecting billboard scenes on the panels at night.
“There has been tremendous dedication by Burt Bucher, students and others doing the work,” Patton says. “There have been four nights where they started after 9 p.m. and ended as late as 1:30 in the morning. I want to acknowledge them for that.”
She says the mural at B and Main consists of three sections. On the leftmost panel, geometric patterns welcome shoppers and visitors to “Downtown JOMO.”
The center panel features historic and current architecture and people in the downtown area in Joplin’s past.
On the far right, people in the modern era are seen enjoying bicycle rides and other recreation.
“We are really excited,” Patton says. “At the time we started, there were zero murals on the docket for downtown this year. The only murals were at a Joplin swimming pool and elementary school. This is one of six murals happening between now and end of the year in Joplin.”
Downtown Joplin Association, which has existed under various names since 1989, has consistently dedicated itself to the revitalization of downtown Joplin through economic development, historic preservation and beautification. One primary achievement has been the development of the “Third Thursday” events that bring people to the downtown area every month.
In photo: An artist’s conception of the left panel of the new mural in downtown Joplin.