NEOSHO, Mo. — Some of Neosho’s history is in for a bit of reclamation.
A fund drive of the Neosho Arts Council is underway to restore three historic murals that trace various facets of either the community’s or county’s past. The project is about preserving history as well as art.
“The Mural Restoration Project is working to ensure that three wonderful works of art will be around for another generation to enjoy,” said Sarah Serio, arts council president. “These pieces tell the story of our community. Public art helps us connect with our community and, in this case, it also educates about our community.”
All three of the murals not only reflect local history but are historic in themselves. The oldest one, the “Centennial Mural,” which hangs in the Neosho Newton County Library, was created in 1939. Another, the “Rocketdyne Mural” at Crowder College, was painted in 1963, and the third, the “Safeway Mural,” a tile piece, was created in 1965.
A commission for the “Centennial Mural” was initially sought through the renowned artist and Neosho native son Thomas Hart Benton. He turned down the job and recommended one of his Kansas City Art Institute students, Duard Marshall, who went on to gain considerable recognition as an artist.
Commissioned to commemorate Newton County’s centennial, it depicts 100 years of the county’s history and growth. It includes images of the county’s first settlers and natives of the Osage tribe, scenes from the Civil War, and notable figures and regional industries.
At 7 by 30 feet in size, the oil painting was housed in Municipal Auditorium for 68 years until being reinstalled in the library in 2008.
The two other murals were created by Lawrence Sanchez Jr., who worked as a technical artist for Rocketdyne, a Neosho plant that produced rocket and missile engines for America’s early space exploration. The plant operated in the late 1950s and the 1960s.
Sanchez painted the “Rocketdyne Mural” for the plant’s cafeteria. At roughly 9 by 44 feet in size, it depicts an Apollo-era space capsule, a satellite, planets, stars and the artist’s interpretation of future space stations.
“When it was painted in 1963, we’d only just started to orbit the Earth and it’d be another six years before we sat foot on the moon,” said Serio. “This mural was what everyone at Rocketdyne was working towards.”
In 2013, the mural was moved to Crowder College, where it’s displayed on a wall in the science wing of Davidson Hall.
The second local mural to Sanchez’s credit, the tiled “Safeway Mural,” is of the same size as the “Rocketdyne Mural.” It’s a familiar mural located on the exterior wall of the Mills Park Centre, across from Big Spring Park at the entrance to downtown.
The mural was created as part of a contest by the Safeway grocery that was the original occupant of the building where it hangs. Tracing the first 125 years of Neosho history, it includes images of early pioneers, as well as local businesses, the Neosho National Fish Hatchery, Rocketdyne and Crowder College.
After enduring the effects of weather for more than half a century, the mortar that holds the mural tiles in place is crumbling, causing tiles to break or fall; some of the tiles are missing. The Kansas City restoration specialists that inspected the mural recommended that the structure to which it is attached be inspected by a structural engineer or contractor to determine structural integrity before restoring the mural, according to a restoration report that NAC commissioned.
The two painted murals are in need of cleaning, repair of their framework, and improvements to their display lighting, along with other repairs, the restoration report said.
The costs to revitalize the murals is estimated at $40,000, which can hopefully be raised by this fall when the work would begin, said Serio. The project had been planned for last year, but it was put on hold because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The restoration specialists contracted to do the work will be required to stay in Neosho for the duration of the project and NAC deemed that imprudent under the pandemic, Serio told me at the time the plans were placed on hold.
To date, more than $15,000 or 40% of the goal has been raised. Some of that has come from corporate and individual contributions, but NAC has also been conducting a variety of fundraising projects.
Currently, paintings that were created last month in NAC’s plein air painting competition are being sold with 35% of each sale going to the restoration project. The paintings vary in size and subject matter and range from $25 to $400. They may be viewed and purchased at www.neoshoarts.net/ piein-air-paintings.
NAC is also selling fleece picnic blankets and note cards at the Neosho Area Chamber of Commerce offices, 216 W. Spring St.
Businesses wishing to contribute as corporate sponsors may do so at three different levels — $500, $1,000 and $5,000 with company recognition increasing at each level. Individual contributions are also being sought and may be made in honor of someone or as a memorial contribution.
Contributions may be mailed to Neosho Arts Council, Mural Restoration Project, Post Office Box 605, Neosho MO 64850.