Thomas Hart Benton was world renowned for his painting and murals, and Joplin provided the bookends for his artistic life.
Local historian Brad Belk made a presentation on Joplin’s 150th birthday on Thursday talking about Benton, his life in Joplin, and the creation of the mural displayed in Joplin City Hall, which was dedicated March 23, 1973, the city’s 100th birthday.
“Thomas Hart Benton’s artistic ability to interpret and illustrate realistic lifestyles and culture endeared him to average Americans,” Belk said. “Benton made an effort to create art for and about ordinary people. His Joplin mural is emblematic of portraying a lead and zinc mining community during the early 1900s. Benton began his career as a professional artist in Joplin, and nearly seven decades later he returned on March 24, 1973, to present his mural titled ‘Joplin at the Turn of the Century 1896-1906.’”
He also talked about Joplin resident Mary Curtis Warten, who contacted Benton in the early 1971 and spearheaded the creation of the mural.
“Mary Curtis Warten was a tireless supporter of the arts community,” Belk said. “While in Joplin, she devoted her life to improving the culture of our city. Her inspiration and introduction to the idea of a Benton mural stems from a local club known as the Ridpath Club, one of Joplin’s oldest women’s study clubs.”
For her club program in 1971, Warten presented biographical sketches covering three Missouri artists, George Caleb Bingham, Joe Beeler and Benton.
Researching Benton’s past, she discovered that the artist began his career in Joplin. At the time, Warten was serving on the 1973 Joplin Centennial Committee and was president of the Joplin Council for the Arts. Belk said it was then that the idea of asking Benton to paint a mural for Joplin’s Centennial celebration came to her. “And from that simple premise, a mural was born,” he said.
A legend’s start
Belk talked about Benton’s childhood as the son of a U.S. representative from Missouri who was introduced to art at a gallery in Washington, D.C., before returning to a rebellious childhood in Neosho.
His parents sent him to work with a cousin, Willie McElhany, in the surveying business in the rough-and-tumble mining community of Joplin in 1906.
“This timeless story,” Belk said, originates with Benton sipping a beer at the infamous House of Lords when some roughneck seasoned lead and zinc miners begin teasing him about staring at a painting of a nude woman that hung over the bar. In his defense, the 17-year-old Benton proclaimed his interest purely from an artist point of view. His tormentors fired back saying, ‘So you’re an artist, Shorty?’
“Well, the 5-foot-5 Benton quickly responded, ‘Yes, by God I am, and I am a good one.’ This animated bluff led him to proving his abilities as an artist for the Joplin American newspaper.”
Belk said Benton talked about his time at the Joplin American as the foundation of his art career and how “by a quirk of fate, they made me an artist in a short half-hour.”
“Timing is everything,” Belk said. “The Joplin American newspaper was in business for a brief period. Two years before or two years later, there would not have been a newspaper for Benton to receive his first paycheck as an artist.”
Returning to Joplin
Belk said Warten’s role in bringing Benton back to Joplin near the end of his life and career is not talked about as much as it should be.
“She did more than just convince him to create this mural,” Belk said. “She held his hand through this whole situation and worked with him from the very beginning, and then she was responsible for the book. She was responsible for the retrospective exhibition. Without her, there is no mural and we’re not celebrating it today. She’s not a forgotten lady — she just hasn’t been mentioned enough, so I think it’s important that we recognize her gift to Joplin.”
Belk talked about how her husband, attorney Henry Warten, helped her get in touch with Benton through a mutual friend, Benton’s attorney in Kansas City, Lyman Fields.
The Wartens had a conversation with Benton, and the mural idea was not warmly received at the beginning, Belk said. “But before it’s all over he agrees to move forward on this idea. There was a lot of give and take, and the beautiful thing about this is, in the mezzanine of Joplin City Hall we’ve got correspondence between Warten and Benton, and so they came up with a theme and the committee signed off on what he does, and we have the mural today, and thank God we do.”
Belk said the Joplin mural is one of Benton’s final works before his death in 1975.
And Warten did more than just bring him for the dedication of the mural.
She organized one of the most extensive exhibitions of Benton’s work ever created at the Spiva Art Gallery, which was then located on the Missouri Southern State University campus.
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