Marta Churchwell: Local history takes center stage in murals, art exhibits |  Ways of life

Marta Churchwell: Local history takes center stage in murals, art exhibits | Ways of life

There’s some major visual art happening in downtown Joplin right now, and it’s worth a look considering its connection to local history.

One is downtown’s newest addition to public murals, a much-deserved tribute to local Black history. Created on the north exterior 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 performed or lived here in the past.

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

The celebration for 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 yet been set.

The delay will allow organizers to create a more intense celebration than was planned for last weekend.

“We are regrouping and organizing a much bigger event. We hope to have family members of some of the mural’s subjects attend along with Missouri officials,” said Nanda Nunnelly-Sparks, leader of the Langston Hughes Cultural Society and 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 a strong artistic background. His work was displayed in an exhibit in Harlem and earned a listing as one of the top 30 black artists in America in 1994. His work has appeared in respected national publications and is 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 kind personality, combined with his determination to keep working despite the recent 100-degree temperatures, won over many in the community.

Austin’s mural, mostly in black and white, features two of Joplin’s native sons, literary great Langston Hughes and jazz great Charles McPherson, surrounded by musicians who played in Joplin, influencing McPherson as a child living here and led to a musical career spanning over 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.

Along with these images are references to local Black history – the Lincoln School, which served black students, and Melissa Cuther, one of the pioneers of the African-American community who taught at Lincoln School in the early 1900s. Also includes a Joplin banner 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 that close the Cosgrove location are “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 will last until October 29.

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

The move will usher in an era for the historic Cosgrove Building, and it seems fitting that one of its final exhibits will be “Reflections of Joplin,” featuring works focused on local history in celebration of the city’s centennial next year.

The works were created by members and students of Local Color Art Gallery and Studio, our artists’ cooperative at 10th and Main Streets. It features 90 pieces in a range of media documenting Joplin landmarks and historical figures.

This exhibition is wide ranging in documenting our community through art. But it is just as interesting as a collective artwork, one that required considerable research but allowed for creative freedom of style. However, it led some of the artists to deviate from their typical style. Abstract painter Mary Parks created a mining scene in a realistic style. Jesse McCormick usually creates paintings that are mystical in nature. In this exhibition he presents his skills in architectural painting. The exhibition is a showcase of the range of talent of local artists.

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

Mango’s large-scale paintings are allegories of both urban and natural environments. Some pieces are symbolic narratives of the devastation of 9/11 and the rebuilding of the New York skyline. Another is a Utah desert setting, teeming with spirituality, a smoldering storm that serves as a harbinger of something to come. Mango mixed his paint with sand from that Utah desert to give the painting dimension.

These exhibits, particularly “Reflections of Joplin,” bid an honorable 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 worth the time to see.

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