Joplin: A Canvas of Creativity
From murals to sculptures, textiles to jewelry, cinema to theater, and music, Joplin is the place for art lovers! Find creativity, imagination, and inspiration when you find yourself in Joplin.
From the time we became best friends in elementary school, I recognized that Gina was a talented artist. I was always entertained by, and impressed with, the elaborate doodles that she drew on the notes that she passed to me in class (which were sometimes intercepted by a displeased teacher)
Gina's skills developed over the years, from doodles to intricate sketches and paintings that continue to wow me.
When I found out that she was coming from Chicago to visit me in Joplin, I wanted to make sure to show her the artistic side of our city, so I checked out the website of Joplin’s Connect2Culture, an organization that promotes the arts in our area, to help me plan the following itinerary for Gina’s visit.
Gina’s quick, direct flight from Chicago brought her to Joplin with plenty of time left in the day for us to explore. The first thing I wanted to do was show her a piece of artwork by the well-known regionalist artist Thomas Hart Benton.
Completed in 1973, Benton’s mural, “Joplin at the Turn of the Century, 1896-1906,” was one of his final works and is displayed in the lobby of City Hall.
Benton was born in the nearby town of Neosho in 1889. He studied art in Chicago and Paris, then worked at his studio in Kansas City until his death. His home and studio are now part of a Missouri state historic site.
Benton’s Joplin mural depicts the history of our community’s development in a naturalistic, realistic style. Visitors can learn about Benton’s artistic process in creating this mural on the mezzanine level of City Hall in the “Evolution of a Mural” exhibit, which features Benton’s preliminary sketches of the mural. (To see other murals that tell the story of Joplin’s community, check out this mural tour).
With Benton still on my brain, I took Gina to the George A. Spiva Center for the Arts next, where we found Benton-related items in the gift shop (the center is a steward of the Thomas Hart Benton Trust).
This bustling regional art hub was the vision of Joplin businessman George A. Spiva over 70 years ago, and it continues to make both local and national artwork accessible to residents and visitors - and admission is free.
After completing our walk through Spiva’s galleries, I figured we could use a break. “Are you up for a refreshment?” I asked Gina. It was late afternoon by this point, and I thought that we could get some cocktails and an early dinner before our next activity.
“Sounds great!” she said, and we headed to nearby Club 609, a popular, urban eatery in the heart of downtown. Happy Hour had already begun here, and we ordered one of the restaurant’s signature cocktails, a Key Lime Martini.
Club 609’s menu features a variety of bar bites, salads, sandwiches (the Chicken Cordon Bleu is my go-to), burgers, and entrees like Apple Pie Pork Chops and Bacon Wrapped Scallops. We placed our order, and while we were waiting for our food, I pointed to the far wall where brightly colored paintings dotted the exposed brick. “Let’s go check out that art,” I said.
We walked over and read the artist’s statement for Fancee Nancee Designs. Not only was this local artist featured at Club 609, she was also a participant in Joplin’s First Thursday ArtWalk - the next activity on our schedule.
First Thursday ArtWalk, held on the first Thursday of the month, spotlights local artists at downtown studios and galleries, businesses, and restaurants, like Club 609. It worked out perfectly that Gina arrived on this particular Thursday, and I was excited to see what awaited us at the other ArtWalk venues. (Had she been in town on a different Thursday, maybe we could have caught a Pro Musica performance. Music is art, too…)
We left Club 609, and I pulled up the ArtWalk map on my phone. We lingered at Urban Art Gallery, where several local artists displayed their work. I observed Gina as she thoughtfully examined the pieces on display, her expression strikingly similar to the one she captured in her self-portrait.
“What are you thinking?” I asked her.
There was a glimmer in her eyes. “This stuff is amazing. It makes me want to bring out my sketch pad.”
Ah, sweet inspiration. It’s a beautiful thing.
We kicked off the second day of our art tour with Van Gogh Lattes (made with vanilla, honey, and almond) from Joplin Avenue Coffee Company. We’d been there the previous night for ArtWalk, and now we had another chance to see the eclectic work by local artist Charlie Zimms Art displayed inside.
“Where are we going next?” Gina asked as we walked to my car.
“To Jorge Leyva’s studio.”
An internationally known artist, Jorge works out of his studio at his home, so I had called ahead to schedule an appointment. Even though I’d been to his studio several times before, I'm always excited to see Jorge - and the new things that he's working on.
The moment we got out of the car, Jorge greeted us with his usual exuberant warmth. A native of Peru, Jorge first came to Joplin to attend college at Missouri State Southern University. After moving to California, Jorge returned to Joplin to explore his craft here. He’s been a big proponent of giving back to the Joplin community, and his work can be spotted throughout town; there’s a sculpture of his in front of the Joplin Public Library, and one in front of the George A. Spiva Center for the Arts.
“Come in, come in,” Jorge said, waving us inside his studio. Larger-than-life paintings hung from the cavernous walls. Gina’s eyes grew wide, absorbing the vivid shapes and colors around her. “This is mind-blowing,” she said.
She and Jorge started talking shop, and before I knew it, two hours had passed. Before we said goodbye to Jorge, he led us out to his front yard to the garden - the sculpture garden, where several of his metal sculptures seemingly sprouted from the ground.
We left Jorge’s studio feeling uplifted, energized, and hungry, so we headed to Crabby’s Seafood Bar & Grill. We felt like we were in an art gallery as we walked to our table, passing painting after painting, an air of urban sophistication permeating the dining room.
I ordered Crabby's signature Jumbo Lump Crab Cakes, and Gina ordered the Grilled Atlantic Salmon with a cup of the Butternut Squash Bisque, made with molasses, brown sugar, cream, and spice - perfect for a fall day.
After lunch, we went back to my house to rest and freshen up for our evening excursion: a light meal at The Board Room, which consisted of an artfully arranged charcuterie board paired with glasses of wine; then a performance of “Clue: On Stage” at Joplin Little Theatre - it had us laughing as the characters bumbled along trying to unravel the mystery of this whodunnit.
Laughter is always a great way to end the night.
Just like when we were teenagers, Gina and I stayed up late talking on Friday night, so we slept in the next morning. Around 10 a.m., we rolled into Joplin Empire Market just after it had opened.
The market is run by Downtown Joplin Alliance, an organization which fosters the revitalization of downtown Joplin and manages other major events such as Third Thursday and Joplin Arts Fest.
We took our time stopping by each vendor, and Gina bought some local honey and lavender lotion to bring back to Chicago with her, along with a handcrafted necklace.
We left the market with hearty appetites, so we bee-lined it to The Bruncheonette, where the menu is quirky, and the food - mainly from local producers - is art.
Gina ordered the “Henny, I Shroom the Kids,” a po’ boy filled with Hen-of-the-Wood mushrooms and coleslaw, and I got the Garden Benny, a vegetarian twist on Eggs Benedict, which is made with fresh asparagus, tomatoes, avocadoes, local microgreens (from one of the vendors we saw at Empire Market), topped with dreamy pink Hollandaise made from earthy beets.
Next, I wanted to show Gina Local Color Art Gallery & Studio, a space where a cooperative of area artists sells their paintings, art glass, jewelry, woodwork, ceramics, and more.
“This is gorgeous!” Gina said, unfolding a hand-dyed silk scarf patterned with swirling colors. “It would be perfect for my mom.”
“I’ve bought many gifts here for people over the years,” I said. “I love that each piece is unique. And speaking of unique pieces, remind me to show you the painting that I made here when I took a Vino and Van Gogh class. It’s actually not bad...for me.”
Since both Gina and I were craving something sweet, we stepped next store to Caroline’s, an old-fashioned ice cream parlor where you can also find nostalgic candies, chocolates, and coffee made from regional roaster Onyx Coffee Lab.
At this point, we were ready to get outside and enjoy the beautiful fall day, so we headed to Mercy Park, a tranquil oasis in the middle of the city.
On the Wings of Butterflies mural.
It also happens to contain an outdoor art gallery featuring two murals and the Rotary Sculpture Garden.
Large bronze sculptures of people and animals dot the path at intervals, adding pops of human creativity to the park’s canvas of nature.
Thoughts and worries drifted away as Gina and I walked beneath the azure sky. I felt like a kid again, playing outside with my best friend.
What comes after playtime? Nap time! We drove back to my house, and I said a quick “hi” to my family before collapsing on my bed. I knew I had to rest up for our Saturday night plans: dinner and a movie at Bookhouse Cinema.
With just 45 seats, Bookhouse Cinema is Joplin’s only micro theater, showing independent, artsy movies - an ideal stop on our Joplin arts tour.
The menu at Bookhouse caters to both carnivores and herbivores. We got the Beer Battered Cauliflower with a side of Vegan Wasabi Mayo to share, then Gina ordered the Falafel Shawarma, and I ordered the Pulled Pork & Spinach sandwich, which was topped with a red onion chutney.
Gina ordered a cocktail, and I ordered a beer, and guess what? We were allowed to bring our drinks into the theatre with us to watch our movie, the newly released Language Lessons which won an Audience Award at the SXSW Film Festival.
Sitting in the theatre, we reminisced about our teenage years when we spent many Saturday nights at the theater watching movies like John Hughes Sixteen Candles. Now we were watching an independent film and sipping adult beverages.
Where have the years gone?
We began the day sipping coffee and flipping through old photo albums. My youngest daughter shuffled into the room, still shaking off sleep, and came over to look at the photos with us. Suddenly, her eyes grew wide. “What's going on with your hair there?”
I laughed. “Big hair was in fashion back in the 80s,” I told her. “Maybe it will become popular again - like Mom jeans.”
“I sure hope not!” Gina said.
After our trip down Memory Lane, our next stop was Finn’s, a sophisticated American restaurant that serves brunch on Sundays. While the Bottomless Mimosas sounded tempting, we opted for coffee to accompany our food: Raspberry Cream Stuffed French Toast for Gina and Clark’s Cheesesteak Omelet for me.
When we finished, I told Gina, “Not only did I bring you here for the delicious food; I also brought you here to see more art.”
That’s one thing that I love about our community: our local small business people and creatives find ways to partner together in order to help each other be successful.
With Gina’s visit winding down, we had just one more place to visit: George Washington Carver National Monument, located 20 minutes south of Joplin. This national monument is dedicated to George Washington Carver, who was born on this land as an enslaved person, and who later went on to become a scientist, teacher, artist, philanthropist, and inventor of many applications for the use of peanuts and other plants.
Gina and I began our visit by walking through an exhibit that detailed the timeline of Carver’s life. As a young boy, he spent a lot of time exploring the surrounding woods and prairie and familiarized himself with native plants and their properties. The scientist inside of him yearned to find practical uses for those plants; the artist inside of him longed to capture their untouched beauty on paper.
As we finished the exhibit, Gina said, “What couldn’t this guy do?”
“Let’s go see where he got his inspiration,” I said, leading us out of the visitor center and onto the paved trail that wound through the land that had served as Carver’s real-life classroom over a century earlier.
The tranquility of the landscape was palpable. We paused next to a bubbling spring, watching newly fallen leaves dance in the moving water, then continued on until we came to a bench that faced a statue of young Carver and sat down.
“I’m so glad you came for a visit, Gina,” I said. “I hope you had fun.”
“I did!” she said. “I got to hang out with my best friend, eat great food, and see incredible art."
“I hope you’re inspired now to go back to Chicago and crank out some of your own work.”
We sat in comfortable silence for a moment, then watched as a late-season butterfly flitted in front of us, finally alighting on the statue of Carver.
“I’ll take that as a sign,” said Gina. “I’m getting out my paints as soon as I get home.”