By Scott Meeker
Globe Staff Writer
JOPLIN, Mo. —
His voice filled with concern, Don Larker tried to break the news gently.
“You might want to sit down,” he told Paul Whitehill, owner of Images in Tile. “You spelled Albuquerque wrong.”
Whitehill’s head whipped around to take in the mural that depicts the path Route 66 cuts across the country, where a crew was putting on the finishing touches along the south wall of the Pearl Brothers building near Seventh and Main streets.
“Did they?” he asked, zeroing in on the New Mexico portion of the mural.
“April Fools,” Larker said with a laugh, as Whitehill broke into a grin.
Larker, an Amarillo, Texas, resident was passing through Joplin on Friday as part of his work as a distributor for Real Time Products, the maker of more than 400 Route 66 items. Having seen the Galena, Kan., mural that Images in Tile recently installed there, he said he wanted to check on the progress of the two the company is putting together on Main Street. The chance to rib its creator was just a bonus.
The murals are just two of eight that are either under way or in the planning stages for Joplin.
The smaller of the two murals by Images in Tile, which sits at ground level, was in its final stages of completion on Friday. Installation will begin today on the larger of the two, which will be placed high on the side of the building so that it can be seen from a distance.
“My target is to be done by the 24th, which will give us a week’s buffer between finishing and the start of the (Route 66 International Festival),” said Whitehill.
A dedication of the murals will be held on Aug. 1, the opening day of the festival. He said that he expects the mural park to be a draw for travelers as they come through town.
“That’s the whole point behind the murals,” he said. “Joplin, unfortunately, doesn’t have much of a Route 66 identity. When I did the mural in Galena, I met more than 400 people from all over the world, probably. Everybody I talked to, I asked: ‘Where did you stop in Joplin?’
“The answer was always ‘Nowhere.’”
Like Images in Tile, Art Feeds has two murals in the works. The first, themed “I Am Joplin,” will be made up of several hundred pictures of local residents holding signs that say “I Am ...” Each of the photos, taken during sessions with Kevin Deems Photography, will express each person’s individuality while paying tribute to the community as a whole.
Meg Bourne-Hulsey, founder and executive director of Art Feeds, said that it will be installed by mid-August on the side of the Orpheum Building at Sixth and Main Streets, across from City Hall.
The second mural will be displayed in the courtyard of Jefferson Elementary School.
“The kids came up with the concepts for the mural from their own imagination, so they have ownership of it,” Bourne-Hulsey said.
Work also continued this past week on other mural projects. “Rise of the Phoenix,” a large-scale triptych tile mural, is being created by Phoenix Fired Art, 1603 S. Main St.
“We just finished firing the last 32 large tiles and all of the small tiles,” said Heather Grills, executive director of the art studio.
The mural, which was funded through a Kickstarter campaign, will cover a 4-by-16-foot wall facing 17th Street on Main.
Work will go on hiatus while Grills is out of town for several weeks, but she said that installation will begin when she returns.
At Missouri Southern State University, a group of art students are working on a mural that adorns the walls of the tunnel that connects the dorms and the main campus.
“It’s meant to empower students,” said Jordan Murdock, who is helping to coordinate the project. “One side shows a bunch of different college students. The other side shows different figures throughout history (such as Martin Luther King Jr., Jane Addams and Langston Hughes) who received degrees and pursued their passion.”
Only a few painting days remain before the mural is finished, Murdock said Friday.
Also in the works is the “Downtown Gateway Mural.” Designed by Burt Bucher, an art professor at Missouri Southern State University, and art students at the school, it will be displayed at Main and A streets.
“We’re probably about 90 percent done with our line work,” Bucher said. “We’ll be starting color on Thursday.”
He said the mural is “roughly” 50 percent finished at this point. The hope is for it to be complete by the first week of the fall semester, with a dedication ceremony offered for faculty, staff and students who worked on the project.
The Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce’s Cultural Affairs Committee also has a mural that is in the design stages. New York artist Garin Baker has been commissioned to oversee the mural, which will be displayed on the side of the Corner Greer & Associates building at Eighth and Main streets.
An artistic identity
Michael Donovan, assistant director of the Missouri Arts Council, said that Joplin seems to be reaching a “critical mass of public art that invites people to view and be moved by.”
Other Missouri cities such as Cuba and Chillicothe have made outdoor murals part of their identity, he said. In Cuba, the murals are close together and have an economic impact in that they draw in people from Interstate 44 who might not otherwise stop to visit.
What’s happening in Joplin, however, is unique.
“Most of what I see in community murals is paint-based,” Donovan said. “What I see proposed in Joplin is a variety of mural types, from tile to painting and photography. They’re spread throughout the community, and certainly it’s unique to see a large number of murals in a short amount of time.
“It’s unusual, but we’ve learned to expect that from Joplin.”
Whitehill, with Images in Tile, said that there was a growing interest in public art prior to the tornado. That push was sidetracked by the storm, but it’s back on track and he said he believes it’s more important than ever
“As tragic as it was, Joplin needs more of an identity than just the tornado,” he said. “A lot of this is coming from the private sector and people with passion” for the arts.
Hulsey-Bourne, with Art Feeds, said that having “public beauty” that everyone can connect with is important. She pointed to the graffiti mural that was created after the tornado at 20th and Main streets as an example of how art can inspire people and give them hope.
“I love seeing this movement,” she said. “It’s about making things beautiful rather than just rebuilding.”
Grills said that she is happy that Phoenix Fired Art can be part of the surge of interest in public murals.
“I think it’s a desire to beautify our community,” she said. “We’ve been through so much and we want to make what we have a beautiful place to live. The artists are excited about it, and the public seems more willing to support art in public places.”