JOPLIN, Mo. — After making a preliminary trip to Joplin last December, artist Dave Loewenstein was excited about the prospect of creating a community mural. But after the May 22 tornado destroyed a third of the city, Loewenstein said, he wasn’t sure how much enthusiasm remained for the mural project. “Things changed here quite a bit,” he said over the weekend. “We weren’t sure exactly how that was going to change what we were going to do, but we came down in early June and met with some folks, and they said, ‘We want to do this more now than ever after what’s happened.’”
|Philip Ledbetter, an employee of St. John’s Mercy, contributes to Joplin’s public mural on Saturday at 15th and Main streets. A wall of the Dixie Printing building is the showcase for the project. GLOBE/BILL STEWART|
Loewenstein is the lead muralist for the Community Mural Project, a community-based project that seeks to develop high quality works of art through a collaboration driven by local people. Last year, Loewenstein completed murals in Tonkawa, Okla., and Newton, Kan., as part of the project. Joplin is the latest stop on a six-state mural project.
The Joplin mural’s canvas is an exterior wall of the Dixie Printing building at 15th and Main streets. An army of artists took up brushes Saturday and Sunday, completing the mural portion that could be reached from the ground. The mural crew, over the next several days, will finish the upper portion while standing on scaffolding.
After arriving in Joplin, Loewenstein’s team collaborated with more than 200 area children and about 15 local artists and other residents to come up with the theme for the community mural. Although the organizers never intended to feature tornado-related images in the project, Loewenstein said, the storm was a recurring theme in the children’s drawings. “What we discovered when we worked with the kids at the Boys & Girls Club, even though we never mentioned the tornado once, many of them, because they lived through it, were drawing about it,” he said. “So we included some of the challenging imagery that they made in a portion of the mural to show how Joplin has been challenged with a lot of things recently.”
The mural is a depiction of the Joplin community. If viewed from left to right, it begins with historical images of a miner and of George Washington Carver. Next is a depiction of a student at a table drawing a design, and near the center are chaotic images of the tornado’s destruction. Loewenstein said the message is one of hope and pride. “The last part of the mural shows the enormous community and nationwide response to what happened, and a real vision for the future,” he said.
Assistant muralist Amber Hansen said it is important for people to realize that art is not only about a “lone artist” toiling in solitude to create a masterpiece that is purchased by a wealthy buyer for his personal collection. “That’s not the full potential of what art can do,” she said. “Art can bring together a community. It’s an outlet for sharing your feelings and your experiences, and the kids and the design team displayed that immediately for us.” She said it is important for the community to “beautify and not just clean up or pragmatically build.”
Carissa Fisher, whose home on Arizona Avenue was destroyed by the tornado, dabbed green paint into the mortar between bricks Saturday as she said the mural project is a good way to show her children, her 3-year-old daughter in particular, that the community is rebuilding. “When we drive through town, it’s so horrific for her still, but every time she sees something that’s been rebuilt or a painting like this, it makes her feel so happy,” Fisher said. “It is important that everyone who was affected by it sees that not only is Joplin coming back, but it’s coming back with more beauty.”
Lacey Eagleshield, first-year art teacher at Joplin High School, said she encouraged all of her students to take part in the mural project. She said art can be a useful tool in helping children express their emotions about traumatic events. “It helps with the healing process,” she said. “If they’re not able to express in words how they’re feeling, it helps to draw it out. It’s kind of a therapeutic process.”
For Loewenstein, the project shows the power of art and the effect that it can have on a community. “Something that’s important to me is to show that art has a much higher purpose than we’re accustomed to,” he said. “It’s not just that thing in a museum, and it’s not just that thing that is on the refrigerator, although those things are fantastic. It can serve a real community purpose, and by doing this out here at this time, I think we’re making that case.”