Jorge Leyva keeps a small collection of work by his contemporaries in the back of his studio. The short hallway between the office and his break room is decorated with paintings, pottery, sculptures and etchings from area artists Leyva admires.
“It’s somebody else’s art in my studio,” said the Joplin artist. “I’m honoring the creativity of other artists I consider my colleagues. It has nothing to do with how much they cost or how big they are. I invite them to come to my studio and live in the same place where I produce my own work.”
With fellow artists Jeff Youngblood and Jed Schlegel, Leyva has been attempting to establish an official community of all his local colleagues with the formation of a regional artist organization.
In a recent letter drafted by Leyva, he beckons “all artists living or working within a 50-mile radius of Joplin” to assist in forming an official group that will, among other goals, “establish a strong artist presence in Joplin and the surrounding communities” and will “create a single voice representing all artists in all art forms.”
Leyva, Youngblood and Schlegel, artists who work in different mediums, emphasized in the text the all inclusive nature of their effort, inviting a range of famous, professional, amateur and even student artists.
“I want to gather all of them,” Leyva said. “I want to gather the professionals as well as the amateurs. I would like to see the artists form an organization (in which they can) think about each other and help each other, and work for one purpose: that we become a part of this great quality of living and that we give what we can to the city and their development and progression.”
‘A little disorganized’
The letter served also as an invitation to an initial brainstorming meeting at the George A. Spiva Center For the Arts held June 24. Leyva described it as a “positive failure” to the extent that he, Youngblood and Schlegel had prepared the room for the expected turnout of more than 40, yet ultimately hosted nearly 90 area artists.
According to Schlegel, a potter and longtime Joplin artist, the meeting was successful beyond the numbers.
“People had great comments and great questions,” he said. “The purpose of that meeting was just to see if there was interest. Overwhelmingly, artists were interested in forming that organization.”
Leyva agreed that the meeting was a positive start, but hopes to avoid any future obstacles.
“I think that when you get a lot of artists together, it’s going to get a little disorganized,” he said. “But I do believe that when 70 to 80 artists come to a meeting, regardless of how disorganized it can be, it shows the need for artists to come together. You can’t build a play without the players.”
Schlegel also finds a challenge in creating a representative voice for a group that specializes in finding their own unique voices by nature.
“Part of the problem of why artists don’t get together is that we are very individualistic,” he said. “We have our own thing that we’re trying to say or do.”
Schlegel believes, however, that this obstacle can still be turned to the group’s advantage.
“Everybody has their field as an artist, but none of the rest of us know about it,” he said. “So if we could come together as one, at least we could share information.”
A little more than a decade ago, according to Leyva, he proposed a similar idea known as Art Forum. While he claims that the short-lived dialogue among colleagues had some positive influence on the artists’ community, it did not flourish on a regional level as he had hoped, and served more as a social event.
“Even though there is a need for a social gathering of the artists, because artists are very, very social, having an organization is a big responsibility,” he said. “People have to take it seriously. I saw the need to talk to Spiva (Center for the Arts) to give us permission to (organize) at the center because people would be more inclined to take it seriously, not just as a social event but actually a commitment to the arts that would allow us to work.”
And while Spiva is not involved in the management of the group, it is in complete support of the initiative.
“A number of artists I’ve spoken with think it’s overdue,” Jo Mueller, director of Spiva, said. “It helps educate the community about the original art we have here.”
While Spiva has been a cultural gathering point in the community for many years, a regional artist organization would attempt to make some unprecedented progress in the area. For instance, there’s a collective aspiration to create an official network of artists. This network would provide constant support. According to Schlegel, it would also provide some professional artists with long-deserved recognition.
“So many people think of most artists as hobby artists and that they’re just doing that for fun,” he said. “For so many artists, that’s a very serious thing. It’s not only what they do for a living. It is who they are.”
To this end, Schlegel emphasized that the creation of a regional artist organization would bring out local professionals that several people in the community, including those involved with holding cultural events would not have known of.
“So many times when communities desire to do things they look to the outside,” he said. “Who is in Chicago, or who is in New York. At the same time, there may be very competent and good artists that are local that I’m sure the local people would rather support. That network doesn’t yet exist for those entities to be discovered.”
A cultural arts or civic center and an arts district were listed as priorities by Joplin residents in an “envisoning” session held June 26 by the city of Joplin.
City leaders, meeting at the council’s annual retreat at the Joplin Senior Center, heard continued support for initiatives already on the city’s to-do list, called the “Blueprint for the Future.” The blueprint was created by City Manager Mark Rohr as a way to connect residents’ ideas with those of the City Council.
The largest number of speakers called on the council to support arts projects and develop a plan for construction of a cultural arts center.
More than half of the audience, about 30 out of 50 people, stood up to signify support for arts development in Joplin.
Rohr described the effort as “timely” given the current cultural programs currently planned. Rohr declined further comment, stating “We’ve got a lot going on. You’ll just have to wait and see.”
The Globe has since learned that Rohr will make a presentation on a city redevelopment plan at Tuesday’s council meeting.
Sharon Beshore, of the Joplin Chamber of Commerce Cultural Affairs Committee and the Missouri Arts Council, also suggested the importance of group efforts.
“I think a group of people coming together is always better than working individually,” Beshore said in an e-mail response to Globe questions. “In addition to an organization which can help support artist needs, the social and professional benefit to artists could come from ideas shared and exchanged, in addition to the support they can offer from working with each other.”
In the past couple of years, there has been a stronger initiative to enhance the community arts, notably with the Discover Downtown’s Third Thursday program, in which a segment of downtown Main Street is transformed into an “art walk,” of varied exhibitions and indoor galleries. Additionally, restaurants and business that would normally be closed at night remain open past dark.
Leyva, who is on the Cultural Affairs Committee, has been instrumental in getting programs such as these off the ground and plans to continue his work through an official organization.
“Joplin can easily become a destination,” he said. “How wonderful would it be if artists have established something strong enough here that people coming by would stop in Joplin just to see the art?”
For many, this would likely be a welcome contribution. Members of the Southwest Missouri Lodging Association communicated a distress to the Conventions and Visitors Bureau concerning a decrease in Joplin hotel revenues in previous years. During a press conference addressing the issue, Pete Hall, the association’s president, expressed a desire to see a further growth and development of art programs in the area to bring in more visitors.
Leyva hopes that if the organization has a positive effect, it will be equal between artist and community.
“We have to work toward educating our community that the arts are important,” he said. “We’re going to leave a legacy for the next generation so people are not afraid of having art careers.”
What’s next for artists?
A meeting of area artists was held on Thursday to discuss an official name and mission statement. The mission will focus on “the needs of the artist” and how those needs can transfer to the region as well as the city of Joplin.