Art History

Marta Churchwell: Local history takes center stage in murals, art exhibits | lifestyles | Pro Club Bd

Downtown Joplin is currently home to some significant visual arts that are worth a look given their relationship to local history.

One of these is downtown’s newest addition to public murals, a well-deserved tribute to local black history. Laid out on the north facade of Bruce’s Optical Point of View at First and Main Streets, it is a stunning montage of local Black landmarks and national artists who used to perform or live here.

The other major art is a few blocks south at the Spiva Center for the Arts. It includes two exhibits that are the last to hang in the 109-year-old Cosgrove Building that Spiva has called home for almost 30 years.

A celebration to mark the completion of the new mural was scheduled for last Saturday night but was canceled with the arrival of much-needed rain that day. The celebration has been pushed back to September, but a date has not yet been set.

The delay will allow organizers to throw a celebration with greater fanfare than was planned for last weekend.

“We are regrouping and putting together a much larger event. We hope that family members of some of the murals will participate, along with Missouri dignitaries,” said Nanda Nunnelly-Sparks, a director of the Langston Hughes Cultural Society and Minnie Hackney Community Center, which led the mural project.

The muralist commissioned for the project was Alexander Austin, a black artist from Kansas City with a strong artistic background. His work hung in an exhibition in Harlem, and he was listed as one of the top 30 black artists in America in 1994. His work has appeared in prestigious national publications and hangs in the homes of celebrities. Works credited to him include an 18,000-square-foot mural in Kansas City’s Power and Light District.

This artist is the real deal. His approachable personality, coupled with his determination to keep working despite recent 100 degree temperatures, won over many in the community.

Austin’s mural, mostly in black and white, depicts two of Joplin’s native sons, literary greats Langston Hughes and jazz luminary Charles McPherson, surrounded by musicians who performed in Joplin, influenced McPherson as a child living here and led to a music career spanning more than 60 years . Murals include Scott Joplin, Marian Anderson, Ella Johnson and Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway, Sammy Davis Jr., Dizzy Gillespie, Mamie Smith and Duke Ellington.

Interspersed with these images are references to local black history—the Lincoln School that served black students, and Melissa Cuther, one of the pioneers of the African American community, who taught at the Lincoln School in the early 1900s. It also includes a Joplin Uplift banner, a reference to a local black-owned newspaper published in the late 1920s.

The mural project has been in the works for several years as a collaboration between organizations serving the black community – the Langston Hughes Cultural Society and the Minnie Hackney Community Center – and arts organizations Connect2Culture, Post Art Library, the Joplin Arts District and the Spiva Center for the Arts , along with Visit Joplin.

At Spiva, the two Cosgrove exhibitions conclude Rhapsody: The Urban Fantasy Paintings of Rob Mango in the Main Gallery and Local Color: Reflections of Joplin in the Regional and Upstairs Galleries. The exhibitions run until October 29th.

By then, the arts center is expected to have moved to the new Harry M. Cornell Arts & Entertainment Complex, which is nearing completion at Seventh Street and Joplin Avenue.

This move will usher in an era for the historic Cosgrove Building, and it seems only fitting that one of its final exhibits is “Reflections of Joplin,” which features works focused on local history to mark the city’s bicentennial coming up year to celebrate.

The works were created by members and students of the Local Color Art Gallery and Studio, our artist cooperative on 10th and Main Street. It includes 90 tracks in a range of media documenting Joplin landmarks and historical figures.

This exhibition is wide ranging to document our community through art. But it’s just as interesting as a collaborative art project that required a lot of research but allowed creative freedom of style. Still, this caused some of the artists to deviate from their typical style. Abstract painter Mary Parks created a realistic-style mining scene. Jesse McCormick typically creates images that are mystical in nature. In this exhibition he shows his skills in architectural painting. The exhibition is a representation of the breadth of talent of local artists.

Spiva’s main gallery features the surrealist paintings and sculptures of Rob Mango, a Manhattan painter and sculptor who has exhibited extensively in the United States and Europe and whose work has been featured in publications such as Art in America, the Huffington Post and the New York Times were reviewed.

Mango’s large-scale paintings are allegories in both urban and natural settings. Some pieces are symbolic narratives about the destruction and rebuilding of the New York skyline on 9/11; another is a Utah desert backdrop throbbing with spirituality, a seething storm that serves as a harbinger of something to come. Mango mixed his paint with sand from the Utah desert to add dimension to the painting.

These exhibits, particularly “Reflections of Joplin,” bid an honorable farewell to an era for a historic building as well as for Spiva. In the meantime, the mural is a well-deserved recognition of the contributions of our black community. All are worth the time to look at them.

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