When people make a plan to view art in a city, they usually seek out places like galleries and museums. But that means that they’re missing out on seeing artwork that’s readily accessible and free to view.
I’m talking about public murals.
Public murals not only mirror the character of the people and places where they are displayed, they are a physical part of them, transforming plain brick facades into chapters of a city’s cultural history.
This art form is currently thriving in Joplin, and more and more chapters of our community’s story continue to be written with each stroke of a paintbrush.
Just in downtown Joplin alone, there are 10 locations where people can view public murals. I recently spent an afternoon strolling through the heart of the city to see these murals, and because I’m obsessive about organization, I’ve put together a walking tour based on what I saw for people who want to learn more about Joplin’s public art but don’t know where to start.
Well, I’ll tell you how to start.
Start by checking out this a map of the different downtown murals:
Then follow along below as I offer more details about each one.
And the best part?
It won’t cost you a dime.
With the exception of mural #11, the tour makes a loop, beginning and ending close to Memorial Hall (212 W. 8th St.), where there’s ample space to park your car. You can then hop in your car and drive to mural #11. Or don’t park your car at all and just follow the tour entirely behind the wheel, if that suits you.
The choice is yours to make; the art is yours to view.
- Celebrating the Performing Arts in Joplin (2014), Main and 8th Streets
When I first saw this work, painted by contemporary realist and New York native Garin Baker, I thought it represented the world-renowned performing arts community in Baker’s home town. After all, I didn’t recognize the buildings in the mural.
When I looked closer, I was surprised to see these buildings did exist in Joplin, and they served as the foundation of a thriving performing arts community right here in southwest Missouri.
Divided into three sections, this mural depicts the past, present, and future of the performing arts in Joplin. The left section shows the energy of the street in front of the Club Theater on a weekend evening in the early 1900s, when people came into the city to see live theater shows.
The center part of the mural shows the Fox Theater, which was built in the 1930s. It was at this theater where Joplinites were introduced to talking picture shows.
The right panel shows contemporary performers (who are actual dancers from Karen’s Dance Studio in Joplin). They represent the success of Joplin’s performing arts today, and the hope for its future.
- Geometric Mural #3 (2015), 7th Street and Wall Avenue
This simple mural adds a bit of freshness to the side of this old brick building. It is one of several murals created by TANK, a collaborative public arts group that supports, promotes, and creates public art in Joplin.
- Graffiti, in the alley between 6th and 5th Streets, and Joplin and Wall Avenues
Before you dismiss graffiti as senseless vandalism, take a walk through this downtown alley. Seeing the talent of these Joplin artists reinforces the idea that graffiti is being recognized as a legitimate form of art these days.
I love how the mural below jumps off the building and continues into the asphalt.
- Paper and Pencils (2014), 5th Street and Wall Avenue
Initially, seeing this mural reminded me that I needed to write down my grocery list, but I was pretty confident that artist Taylor Kubicek had something else in mind when he painted these airborne pencils. After researching Kubicek’s intent, I learned that this mural is a metaphor for life’s ideas which rise from the ground, then transform into winged things that take full flight towards their destination. Not all ideas continue to fly; some are criticized and shot down back to earth.
- Geometric Mural #1 (2013), 3rd Street and Wall Avenue
Art is featured both outside and inside of this building, which is the home of Spiva Center for the Arts. Inside is an art gallery with free admission (which is open on Sundays!), and outside is another mural by the public arts group TANK, called Geometric Mural #1.
It’s always a challenge trying to get a photo of this mural without a car parked in front of it (thanks to the many patrons visiting Spiva), but you can still see most of the mural here.
- Drawn to the Power of Words (2015), 2nd Street and Wall Avenue
Yet another TANK project, this two-part mural’s theme is the power of the written word.
Admittedly, I did not grasp the meaning behind this piece until I did some research; the symbolism is always much deeper than my linear mind can process at first.
The mural on the left represents the inner workings of the printing press (go, Gutenberg!); the black and red wires represent the positive and negative poles of power, which parallel the positive and negative reactions of the very words they produce.
On the right side of the mural, those same wires twist and converge, ending at a light bulb. A moth is drawn to the light bulb, as we all are drawn towards the light that is created by language.
Whoa. That’s some heavy stuff.
- Downtown Gateway Mural (2014), Main and A Streets
The theme of these two murals seems much more straightforward to me.
The mural on the left welcomes visitors who are entering downtown Joplin from the north.
The mural on the right highlights prominent attractions and people of our city, including George Spiva, a prominent businessman, philanthropist, and supporter of the arts.
This crowd-sourced project was organized by Burt Bucher, a professor at MSSU, who assembled a team of students and volunteers to create this massive pair of murals.
- I Am Joplin Mural (2013), Main and 6th Streets
I love optical illusions, and this mural offers an quite an illusionary experience. Standing across the street from it, I see the vibrant red words “I Am Joplin” featured in the center of a comparatively bland black-and-white background.
But while standing directly in front of the mural, I see that those black-and-white forms are anything but bland. They are photos of over 300 unique Joplinites.
Designed by the organization Art Feeds as a “love letter to Joplin,” this project recruited Joplin residents to complete the sentence “I Am…” in relation to their role in the community. Kevin Deems Photography snapped the photos of people holding up signs with their completed sentences and the photos were compiled in the mural.
- Murals at City Hall, 602 South Main Street
Okay, so these murals are inside of a building but they are still free for the public to view. They are housed in Joplin City Hall, which is open Monday through Friday, so if you take this tour during those days, then you can peek at the following murals:
Joplin at the Turn of the Century (1973): This mural was painted by Regionalist Thomas Hart Benton, who was born in nearby Neosho, Missouri. It was his final signed mural.
Here, Benton captures the dynamic energy of Joplin during its booming mining days, using images to represent the positive side of prosperity (like the hope-filled faces of the family in the covered wagon arriving in Joplin to pursue their dream), and the negative side of success (the rampant gambling at Joplin’s House of Lords saloon).
If you’ve ever wondered how a project like this comes together, you can walk up to the mezzanine level of City Hall to see the exhibit “Evolution of a Mural.”
Route 66 – Joplin, Missouri (2010): No, this isn’t another work of Benton’s, but you’re close. Benton’s grandson, Anthony Benton Gude, painted this mural which depicts Joplin in the mid-1900s, during the height of the Route 66 culture.
Heartstrings of America (2011): This piece is a powerful representation of the strength and compassion of the human spirit. After the 2011 tornado devastated Joplin, “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” came to the city with its project “7 Homes in 7 Days,” which rebuilt some of the leveled homes within just a week’s time.
Part of this project also included having volunteers hammer nails into their hometowns on this wooden map of America, and then using colored string to connect their nails to the one centered in Joplin.
- Route 66 Mural Park (2013), 619 South Main Street
The final stop on the downtown mural tour pays homage to the Mother Road culture – and offers a great photo op.
Route 66 Mural Park features two nostalgic murals and an oversized 45-record imprint of Get Your Kicks on Route 66.
The upper mural is called Cruisin’ into Joplin, and it shows a vintage car arriving in Joplin on Route 66 from the west.
The lower mural is called The American Ribbon, and it traces the route of the Mother Road from start to finish. Jutting out from the mural is a bifurcated 1964 red Corvette, which makes a fun backdrop for photos.
Both murals were created with ceramic tiles from Joplin’s own Images in Tile.
11. Belonging to All the Hands Who Build (2016): Northwest corner of Broadway and Mineral Streets
You’ll have to backtrack a bit to see this 60-foot mural in Joplin’s East Town section, but it will be worth it. If you’re following the tour in numerical order, you’ll head east on Broadway (old Route 66), and you’ll need to turn left on Mineral in order to see the mural because it is painted on the east side of the historic Earl Smith grocery store building.
East Town is the only historical African American neighborhood in Joplin, and its residents came together to create this mural which tells their own stories, as well as those of important African American figures in Joplin’s history.
The first time I saw it, I was awed by its simple beauty. Pink magnolia blossoms and graceful hummingbirds share the space with prominent figures in East Town history.
On the lower right side of the mural, there is a key to the people depicted in the mural:
1. Betty Smith: Current East Town resident who is passionate about preserving this neighborhood’s history.
2. Melissa Cuther: Schoolteacher who helped the Duke Ellington Orchestra find housing when they came to Joplin because no area hotels would allow them to stay because of the color of their skin.
3. Duke Ellington Orchestra
4. Marion Dial: Principal of Lincoln High School, which provided education for African Americans before desegregation.
5. Clovis Steele/Buddie Mitchell: Clovis wrote a book about growing up in East Town. Buddie is his nephew and current neighborhood resident.
6. Marvin McMillan and Nellie: Marvin is a Lincoln High alumnus and Nellie is his dog.
Whew! You made it.
Are you tired?
You’ve just experienced a crash course in Joplin culture.
To read more about my adventures in the area, visit JoplinMOLife.com.