Discovering art and culture in Missouri
by Flash Parker
I came to Joplin expecting an outdoor playground on the plains—what I found was an arts and culture oasis. Joplin is home to an active live theatre scene, and serves as a community arts destination of the highest order. As a regional creative hub Joplin is both inspiring and exciting—who knew? For me, my visit was one surprise after another.
Change of plans
The open road brought me to Joplin—both figuratively and literally. I came to Missouri to experience historic Route 66 and to kick start a trip along The Mother Road. But almost immediately upon arrival, my plans changed. I popped into the Red Onion Café to refuel, and overheard a pair of visitors discussing Joplin’s art scene. Interest piqued, I finished my delicious bleu moo sandwich (an artistic achievement in its own right), and headed off to visit Joplin City Hall, home to several of the city’s beloved murals.
Route 66, Joplin, Missouri, completed in 2010 by artist Anthony Benton Gude, captures what is essentially the spirit of an entire era in one bold masterpiece. The mural is nostalgic and whimsical at once, and an incredible counterpoint to Joplin at the Turn of the Century, 1896–1906, the remarkable visual fable crafted by Thomas Hart Benton, Gude’s grandfather. These pieces are but two of Joplin’s more than 25 murals (12 of which are in the downtown core), each serving as a colorful ode to time, place and a sense of community.
Public displays of reflection
Buoyed by this pretty town’s sense of artistry, I continued searching for masterworks—and found them in quite a few varied forms. At 8th and Main I found artist Garin Baker’s remarkable “Celebrating the Performing Arts,” an ode to Joplin’s arts scene, and a tip of the hat to how that scene has changed over the years. From ballerinas to early 20thCentury street panoramas to a majestic turn-of-the-century theatre, Baker’s work is a celebration of the artists’ world.
At the northwest corner of 15th and Main Streets I found muralist Dave Loewenstein’s Butterfly Effect, an uplifting story of the notorious tornado that ravaged Joplin in 2011. Public art projects like this were a coping mechanism and healing tool for the people of the city, instituted as a way to bring local communities closer together to create something beautiful out of random chaos.
I stopped next at the beautiful George A. Spiva Center for the Arts (don’t miss the mesmerizing Geometrically-Inspired Mural #1 adorning the façade at the corner of 3rdStreet and Wall Avenue), where an exhibit showcasing entries in the annual PhotoSpiva photography competition caught my eye. Founded in 1977, PhotoSpiva is the longest-running photography event of its kind in the country, and a showcase for truly sensational regional and national photographers. I also caught an exhibition called Uncommon Threads: A Dozen Shades of Gray, where quilted panels tell the story of aging. I made a mental note to challenge my grandmother to quilt me something creative next Christmas.
In nearby Schifferdecker Park, I found the Joplin Museum Complex, where I shook hands with dino bots on the front lawn, and wrapped my visit by exploring the Everett J. Ritchie Tri-State Mineral Museum, the crown jewel of the museum complex. The Mineral Museum includes a world-class collection of zinc and lead ore, as well as other spectacular mineral specimens mined from the Tri-State District, as well as illustrations and exhibits showcasing geochemical and mining techniques dating from the 1870s.
In the neighborhood
Inspired by Joplin’s dynamism, I wandered down Sergeant Avenue, into the Murphysburg Historic District, where 19th– and 20th-century architectural treasures have been lovingly restored. Stunning examples of Queen Anne, Dutch Colonial, Prairie Style and Colonial-Revival homes stand proud along the tree-lined boulevards, while wrought-iron fences, spiraling staircases, grandiose grotesques and marble water features call to mind a time when horses clopped over cobbled streets, families gathered to perform Sunday afternoon vignettes and the home was the center of the universe. So caught up in my trip into the past, I pondered if any of the home owners would allow me to book a ticket for the evening’s Heartland Opera Theatre performance via the electric telegraph.
I heard of Heartland Opera—or HOT, as it is colloquially known—at the Spiva Center for the Arts, and decided to take a flyer for a night at the theatre. Coincidentally, “HOT Scandals” was on the docket, a cabaret-style show that’s naughty in all the right ways. Heartland’s productions are earnest, honest and above all else, local—it is truly thrilling to watch skilled talent take on the complex works of masters like Gilbert and Sullivan, Lucy Simon and Stephen Sondheim. I came away amused and impressed.
Another noted theatre in Joplin is the Joplin Little Theatre. Housed in a cozy stone citadel it is an artistic treasure in its own right. Built in 1939, the Little Theatre is the oldest continuously operating theatre west of the Mississippi. I saw more of Joplin’s artistic side in a few hours than I could have possibly imagined, and by day’s end I had scribbled a list of at least a dozen other attractions in my notebook, confident that Joplin was no longer simply part of the journey, but a destination in and of itself.
Driven by art
The next morning, before setting back out onto the open road, I visited the Route 66 Mural Park, and remembered why I had been drawn to Joplin in the first place. The collaborative mural is actually two pieces of art—an upper piece commemorating Joplin’s place on this most historic of thoroughfares, and a lower piece composed of a US map and flashy ’64 Corvette. Just one more artful reminder of why I’ll someday soon be cruisin’ back to Joplin.
Discover the best of Joplin’s arts and culture.