A central theme of the design is storytelling. In working with East Town residents on this project, I’ve learned the most by listening to them tell stories about their neighborhood. Many of the people I talked to have great pride in East Town and, repeatedly, I heard people say that they wanted the stories to be preserved or to reach a broader audience. This mural design does not attempt to tell these stories as completed statements, but to provide seeds for ongoing conversations.
The right half consists of many smaller images that create a sort of illustrative map of the neighborhood that freely switches between time periods, scales, and perspectives. Like the mural as a whole, this section is not intended as simply a practical source of factual information, but as a stylized expression that says more about memory and storytelling than about how to find a specific location.
This side will necessarily remain an ongoing design project throughout the painting process. This concept sketch lays out the basic composition, but the details are so small on paper that they will evolve with each larger iteration of the design. Broadway seen from the east will be marked with its three names and lined with various buildings from both past and present.
The surrounding landscape will be dotted with various important places, including historic churches, the Boys and Girls Club, Crosslines, Washington and Lincoln Schools, the Cox home, etc. Special emphasis will be placed on Ewert and Landreth Parks, as they occupy important places in the imaginations of the people from the neighborhood.
At the far right end, a figure sits at a desk writing on a yellow legal pad. Clovis Steele and his nephew, Buddie Mitchell, inspired this figure. Clovis, who died last year, wrote extensively about East Town, documenting the businesses up and down Broadway and publishing frequent columns about East Town in the Joplin Globe. Several people on the design team, including Buddie recommended Clovis be included in the mural. It struck me that Buddie talked with such pride and clarity about growing up in the neighborhood. The man on the right represents a sort of allegorical storyteller that blends qualities of the two men.
The let half contains larger figures and addresses some of the most important ideas that came up repeatedly in community and design team meetings. Some of these are illustrated more directly, while others are addressed through symbols that allow broad interpretation. The larger forms and bold hue and value contrasts will catch the viewer’s eye, hopefully bringing them to explore the mural more thoroughly.
A common contemporary scene unfolds at the far left end. A house, silhouetted by a colorful twilight sky, contains a gathering of friends. The curtains haven’t yet been drawn across the picture window, but the lights are on, giving us a glimpse inside. The group consists of people of various races and ages, reflecting themes of diversity and of coming together that were by far the most reiterated ideas expressed by the design team.
Betty Smith inspires the largest figure in the mural. Betty is seriously dedicated to telling the story of East Town. She is in her 80s and has some trouble getting around, so she wasn’t able to attend design team meetings. But from the very first conversation I had about the project in East Town, people started telling me I needed to talk to Betty. She has been very helpful and kind. I can see why she is so admired in the neighborhood.
Directly behind the largest figure is a scene from Lincoln School. Melissa Fuell-Cuther is the most fascinating person I’ve learned about through this project. Among many great achievements, one story that Betty Smith told me stands out as representative of her drive and dedication to providing opportunities to black students in a segregated society. She worked with Mrs. Wilder in organizing performances of national touring acts at Memorial Hall. In many cases, she would arrange for these artists to do matinee performances at Lincoln School, as she realized her students would not have the opportunity to attend the evening shows. Because of this, students at Lincoln were able to experience live performances by some world-renowned artists, including the Duke Ellington Orchestra in 1939.
The large figure holds a magnolia flower. When asked to choose a plant that represented East Town, many residents (including Betty) named the magnolia. Because these trees are beautiful and tough, thriving even in harsh environments and surviving substantial neglect, they are a wonderful symbol for East Town. The hummingbirds, which will be buzzing to and fro throughout the painting, represent grace, strength, and endurance. As they seem to move from scene to scene, they also represent the spreading of the East Town narrative. Also, they’re bright and beautiful.
The entryway to Lincoln will be painted into an existing recess in the mural wall. Standing at the entrance, greeting students to the school, is the much-loved longtime principal, Marion Dial.
Mural Title: Belonging to All the Hands Who Build
(from the Langston Hughes poem, Freedom’s Plow)