By Kelsey Ryan
JOPLIN, Mo. —
Where East 20th Street intersects the Kansas City Southern Railway tracks, in an area that’s still mostly empty from the storm, stands a brightly painted tree — a colorful new landmark for the city.
The tree, which towers 30 or 40 feet into the air, is one of the few that remain in the area after the May 22 tornado.
“We just thought this tree was perfect,” said Dolores Bilke, who worked on the tree with husband Darrel, son Sean, daughter Ashley and grandpa Ted. “Every aspect of this tree seemed perfect. It stands alone. Battered, but stately. It portrays the strength of Joplin.”
The project was a collaboration involving the family and artists from The Tank, a public art group that also worked on the public mural at 15th and Main streets. The tree design was inspired by a Native American spirit stick art project that Joplin High School senior Ashley Bilke made for school two years ago.
“The Native Americans believe that the spirit sticks their medicine men carry, also called prayer sticks, were especially powerful if chosen from a tree that was struck by lightning,” Ashley Bilke said. “I feel like that’s applicable here, considering the tornado and the storm, which was part of the reason we chose a tree in the middle of the path.”
The idea to paint a tree like the spirit stick had been brewing for a while. But after the storm, the Bilkes saw an opportunity to make it happen. They got permission from the Dillons supermarket chain to paint the tree with the understanding that it may not be permanent if the chain chooses to rebuild on the same location.
“More than just bringing my idea and enlarging it, making it bigger and more prominent, we’re creating a piece for everyone to enjoy,” Ashley Bilke said as she held her colorful, twisted spirit stick. “This sits on a shelf in my room, and no one gets to see it, but everyone who drives down 20th Street will be able to enjoy this tree.”
The family would like to paint other trees in town, and has considered the idea of painting the names of all of the May 22 tornado victims on a tree.
The Bilkes aren’t strangers to loss. Four of their relatives died in the May 2008 tornado that hit south of Joplin. Richard and Kathy Rountree, their son, Clayton, and Kathy Rountree’s mom, Ruby Bilke, died near Highway 43 and Iris Road. They were driving to Seneca for a wedding when their van was hit by the tornado.
On May 22 of last year, the Bilkes were in their vehicle at 32nd and Main streets. They lost a rental property near the high school, but their home survived the storm, and they were safe.
“We were so fortunate this time,” Dolores Bilke said.
Passers-by have stopped to see the tree and the artists since they started working. Darrel Bilke said they haven’t received any negative feedback, which isn’t always the case with art.
“I’m always glad to see something to lift people’s spirits,” said Jeanette Roberts, of Joplin, who stopped by Monday with her husband, Warren.
“I’ve never seen anything quite like this tree,” Warren Roberts said.
The tree is the group’s way to remember those who lost their lives in the storm, and to honor the everyday heroes and the volunteers who came to Joplin.
“We heard so many people noting how buildings and houses could be rebuilt fairly quickly, but all of our beautiful trees could take decades or generations to grow back,” Dolores Bilke said. “Some trees, even though they were still standing, tree experts predicted that they wouldn’t make it through to the next year because bark was stripped off. That was our inspiration.”
Ashley Bilke said the paint colors represent different things: White is spirit, red is life, yellow is knowledge, black is clarity, blue is prayer, purple is healing, and orange is kinship with other living creatures.
“I feel like it’s symbolic of everything that we’ve gone through — how it’s been horrible, how it’s been hard,” she said. “We’ve been through a lot, but we’re still standing strong and we’re still growing. Even through death, like the death of this tree, comes life and beauty.”