Martha Churchwell: Local history takes center stage in murals, art exhibitions | Lifestyle

There is significant visual art currently developing in downtown Joplin, and it deserves consideration given its connection to local history.

One is the newest addition to downtown’s public murals, a much-deserved tribute to local black history. Created on the north side of Bruce’s Point of View Optical at First and Main streets, it is a stunning montage of local black landmarks and national artists who have moved or lived here in the past.

The other art of note is a few blocks south at the Spiva Center for the Arts. It features two exhibits that are the last to hang in the 109-year-old Cosgrove Building, which Spiva has called home for nearly 30 years.

A celebration to mark the completion of the new mural was planned for last Saturday night, but was canceled with the arrival of much needed rain that day. The celebration has been rescheduled for September, but no date has been set yet.

The delay will allow organizers to build a celebration with more focus than last weekend’s planned.

“We are regrouping and putting on a much bigger event. We hope to have family members of some of the mural subjects in attendance along with Missouri dignitaries,” said Nanda Nunnelly-Sparks, a leader at the Langston Hughes Cultural Society and the Minnie Hackney Community Center, which spearheaded the mural project.

The muralist commissioned for the project was Alexander Austin, a black artist from Kansas City with an extensive background in art. His work was exhibited in Harlem and he was listed as one of the 30 best black artists in America in 1994. His work has appeared in respected national publications and hung in the homes of celebrities. Among his works is an 18,000-square-foot mural in Kansas City’s Power and Light District.

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

Austin’s mural, mostly in black and white, features two of Joplin’s native sons, literary great Langston Hughes and jazz luminary Charles McPherson, surrounded by musicians who played in Joplin, affecting McPherson as a child living here and leading to a musical a career spanning more than 60 years. Mural images include Scott Joplin, Marian Anderson, Ella Johnson and Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway, Sammy Davis Jr., Dizzy Gillespie, Mamie Smith and Duke Ellington.

Between these images are references to local black history — Lincoln School, which served black students, and Melissa Cutter, one of the pioneers of the African-American community, who taught at Lincoln School in the early 1900s. It also includes a banner of Joplin Uplift, 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 of organizations serving the black community – the Langston Hughes Cultural Society and the Minnie Hackney Community Center – and arts organizations Connect2Culture, Post Art Library, Joplin Arts District and Spiva Center for the Arts, along with Visit Joplin .

At Spiva, the two exhibits closing the Cosgrove venue are “Rhapsody: The Urban Fantasy Paintings of Rob Mango” in the Main Gallery and “Local Color: Reflections of Joplin” in the Regional Gallery and Upstairs Gallery. The exhibitions continue until October 29.

By then, the art center expects to move into the new Harry M. Cornell Arts and Entertainment Complex, which is nearing completion at Seventh Street and Joplin Avenue.

The 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, featuring works focused on local history in honor of the city’s 500th anniversary next year.

The works are created by members and students of the Local Color Art Gallery and Studio, our artists’ co-op at 10th and Main Street. It features 90 pieces on a range of media documenting Joplin landmarks and historical figures.

This exhibit is far-reaching in documenting our community through art. But it’s just as interesting as a collaborative art project that requires considerable research but allows for creative freedom of style. However, this caused some of the artists to deviate from their typical styles. Abstract artist Mary Parks created a mining scene in a realistic style. Jesse McCormick usually creates paintings that are mystical in nature. In this exhibition he shows his abilities in architectural painting. The exhibition is a demonstration of the breadth of talent of local artists.

Spiva’s main gallery features the surrealist paintings and sculptures of Rob Mango, a Manhattan-based painter and sculptor who has exhibited widely across the US and Europe and has had his work reviewed in publications such as Art in America, the Huffington Post and the New York Times.

Mango’s large-scale paintings are allegories of both urban and natural settings. Several pieces are symbolic narratives of the destruction and rebuilding of the New York City skyline since 9/11; another is a Utah desert setting pulsing with spirituality, a seething storm serving as a harbinger of things to come. Mango mixed his paint with sand from that Utah desert to add dimension to the painting.

These exhibits, especially “Joplin’s Reflections,” bid farewell to an era for a historic building as well as for Spiva. Meanwhile, the mural is a well-deserved recognition of the contributions of our black community. All are worth your time to see.

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