Joplin, Missouri will always remember May 22, 2011. On that Sunday afternoon, an EF5 tornado devastated our city, destroying nearly one-third of it in a matter of minutes, and taking 158 lives (as of July 2011). The destruction and loss were substantial and heartbreaking. It was the deadliest tornado in the United States since 1947.
Our community has risen and rebuilt in the wake of the tragedy. Our citizens and leadership demonstrated resolve and that was met with generosity nationwide, by individuals, businesses, and volunteers. One vital piece of this was the spirit of art in our community. We gathered on September 22 to mark the one-year anniversary of the dedication of our community mural, “The Butterfly Effect: Dreams Take Flight.” Its creation brought together our community to begin healing in ways no one could have anticipated.
The Mural Project
The Joplin Chamber of Commerce Cultural Affairs Committee initially planned the community mural for Joplin nine months before the tornado occurred. Dave Loewenstein, a nationally recognized muralist, was commissioned to lead the community in creating a historical work of public art. The work was envisioned as a means of bringing together community children, adults, and artists, under Loewenstein’s guidance, to display the city’s rich history and creativity.
After the tornado, Loewenstein reached out immediately to express his concern and hope for the healing power of the arts in our community. He said, “Our project, and how it can engage the community, may be more relevant and useful, pertinent and powerful than we could have imagined.” Joplin’s circumstances created a whole new canvas, and a whole new conversation. Our community needed the mural project more than ever. We began work on July 11, 2011.
Hope Through Community
Over 300 children and adults participated in creating the mural. The project brought together diverse groups and helped initiate conversations about Joplin and our experiences that crossed generational, cultural, and economic boundaries. As we began work, mixed feelings regarding our recent losses were shared. As much as citizens wanted to record our history prior to the tornado, we had to acknowledge that the tragedy was now part of our story. We could move forward by putting this event in the context of our past successes and challenges.
In contrast, children of the community had no such complicated feelings. They drew enthusiastically without self-editing. They revealed and worked through their own thoughts and experiences. With that energy and ability to accept everything we experienced, we gained a new perspective. Hope was reinvigorated through art. The mural represented a step toward healing; it was a valuable opportunity to learn about, engage in, and create public art that we can enjoy in our everyday lives.
The work and focus that went into our mural opened up possibilities for further community-based projects. Organizations throughout the area responded by increasing access to the arts and creating appropriate services to continue to support recovery for children and adults. As a result, the arts have become more appreciated in Joplin. Audiences for both visual and performing arts have increased in the past year. Citizens, businesses, and the leadership of Joplin have recognized the importance of the arts to our city’s quality of life, economic development, and the education of our children.
Joplin continues to rebuild itself as a vibrant, culturally enriched city that supports economic growth, tourism, commerce, and cultural amenities for its residents and visitors. The Missouri Arts Council recognized Joplin as Missouri’s 2012 Creative Community. It is a strong statement about Joplin’s present art community and how they can help propel a community to the next level during a time of redevelopment.
As we approached the first anniversary of our mural’s dedication, we remembered the devastation our city suffered but, perhaps more importantly, we saw what the hope and expression of a community could create. This magical work was a constructive outlet for a pent-up need for self-expression and community outreach in the tornado’s wake.
Community-based arts can profoundly change and inspire its participants and audience. We hoped this project would help with healing and recovery. It exceeded our expectations in every way and continues to create ripple effects in our community.