By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
Globe Staff Writer
JOPLIN, Mo. —
When Rachel Wilson first heard a tornado was headed to Joplin the evening of May 22, her first thought was to call her brother, a nurse at St. John’s Regional Medical Center.
She reached him just as he began moving patients into a hallway. Five harrowing minutes later, she learned that he survived the EF-5 tornado that bore down on southern Joplin.
A day later, she started to find medical billings, chest X-rays and brain scans from St. John’s scattered in her Avilla yard -- some 25 miles away as the crow flies -- along with debris from peoples’ homes.
There were pieces of siding. Particle board fragments. Shirts. Pages from children’s books.
“Anything you can imagine as part of someone’s home or life,” Wilson said.
Her husband, a volunteer firefighter with Avilla, responded to the call for help in Joplin and spent long hours over the next week in relief efforts. She stayed home with their four young children, knowing she was needed there.
“I lost friends, I knew family members’ homes were damaged, and I was very emotional,” she said.
Having grown up and gone through school in Webb City, she has been a professional artist for several years. She is best known for her horse sculptures created from found wood now on display at the Titanic Museum in Branson and at Silver Dollar City.
In the days following the tornado, Wilson turned her emotions and her talent into art. She and her 8-year-old daughter sat in front of big sheets of newspaper, unfolding water-soaked items carefully.
“I started putting together into some form of sculpture the really interesting pieces I found, and it put my mind at ease,” Wilson said. “I found a lot of things that were from children, and I cried when I was doing it. But at the same time, I felt like I was taking these objects that had belonged to someone and instead of heaping them into my trash can, I was trying to give them some new purpose.”
It took Wilson three days to collect the tornado debris in her yard and another week to complete the art piece.
Using old plywood scraps and pieces of shingles, she created a large tree standing in a foreground of emptiness. Behind it is a large, horizontal board containing a collage of paper remnants from the storm.
She titled it “After,” and it is a featured work in the artCentral member exhibit on display through July 10 at the Hyde House in Carthage.
“I’m not sure what should be done with it after the show, but I think it should maybe go in a place where many can view it.”
At about the same time Wilson was calling her brother in the minutes leading up to the tornado, Joplin artist Angel Brame was in her home on South Winfield Avenue west of St. John’s, preparing for the storm in the way she, her husband and their 13-year-old son always did.
“Every time the sirens go off, we put on sturdy shoes, grab our cellphones, laptop and other electronics, our car keys, and it doesn’t matter if it’s 3 a.m. or 3 p.m., if we’re cooking dinner or watching TV, we head to the basement,” Brame said. “In this instance, it worked.”
Their lives were spared, but when Angel emerged from the basement she could see that most of their home was not.
A professional artist for six years, Brame was first drawn to painting at age 7 when her mother enrolled her in a painting class. As an adult, she earned a bachelor’s degree in ceramics at Missouri Southern State University.
In recent years she has produced numerous pieces of pottery for her business, Dragonflies and Mud. She’s known for a technique in which she uses liquid clay to add her own personal touch to each piece -- literally.
“I run my fingers through it, which leaves finger marks in it for a personal touch,” she said. “It creates soft grooves that allow the glaze to puddle up in different areas and create more variations.”
Her pieces are then fired at 2,500 degrees, rendering them microwave- and dishwasher-safe. Turns out they’re tornado-safe, too.
“My inventory of pottery was in the garage, and the two vehicles we owned were in the driveway,” she said. “But when we emerged from the basement, we found my husband’s truck upside down, the bed of it in our son’s room and the roof of it in the dirt,” Brame said.
“Then I looked down and saw the corner of a piece I recognized -- a piece that has a sister piece in a gallery in Springfield, and it’s one of my favorites. When I saw that little bit of glaze, I reached for it whether it was going to turn out to be intact or not.”
“The entire piece -- not a scratch on it. The fact that it survived is just incredible.”
She titled it “Blown Away,” and, like Wilson’s piece, it is a featured work in the artCentral member exhibit on display through July 10.
Brame was happy to report that she and her family closed on a house in Joplin Thursday, and once they’re settled her plan is to eventually get back into her pottery design.
“I can only go so long without touching clay before I get a little antsy,” she said.
“Blown Away” is for sale; although she will never forget finding it, she won’t mind losing it again if someone is interested.
“It’s the other pieces I collected from my fellow potters that I uncovered from the rubble that have meaning to me,” Brame said. “My pieces, I can do again. Their pieces, those were the joyful finds.”