Q&A: ‘Dear World, From Joplin With Love’

BY Tom LeGro  May 23, 2012 at 1:41 PM EDT

One year ago on May 22, 2011, a massive tornado with 200 mph winds devastated the city of Joplin, Mo., killing 161 people and destroying 8,000 buildings, including many homes.

On Tuesday’s NewsHour, we reported on the recovery in the city of 50,000: “Three million cubic yards of debris have been hauled away. Damaged homes have been torn down, leaving empty foundations. Others have been rebuilt, but at a cost. The storm caused $2.8 billion in damage, the costliest tornado since 1950.” That is just some of the physical recovery. The emotional recovery, of course, is not as easy to sum up.

Last year, we reported on how art has helped with that effort: a mural created by Dave Loewenstein and the Mid-America Arts Alliance depicting life in Joplin both before and after the storm and an exhibit at the Spiva Center for the Arts showing works created in response to the storm.

Marking the one year anniversary of the tornado, a new exhibit, “Dear World, From Joplin With Love,” opened Saturday at the Spiva Center for the Arts. Art Beat exchanged emails with executive director Jo Mueller and public relations coordinator Lori Marble about the exhibit.

Can you describe the “Dear World, From Joplin With Love” project?

Jo Mueller and Lori Marble: “Dear World, From Joplin With Love” opened this past Saturday, just days before the one-year anniversary of the EF-5 tornado. This is a powerful collection of portraits and messages. On one hand it’s a platform for participants and viewers to see how far we’ve come as a community, but most importantly it’s a means of sharing Joplin’s messages; messages of resilience, hope, love, gratitude, survival and just the most amazing grace under pressure.

Robert Fogarty and his team came to Joplin during the first week of April 2012 and photographed over a hundred individuals and groups for the Joplin portraits. Spiva printed 50 of these for display and created four oversize banners for the exterior of the building. A video monitor in the lobby plays a loop of images from the portrait sessions. These images are not included in the exhibit, but they are just as powerful as those in the gallery and very representative of the heartfelt messages from Joplin.

Who are some of the people who participated?

Jo Mueller and Lori Marble: “Dear World, From Joplin With Love” focuses on storm-affected residents, first responders, volunteers, and city officials who share their thoughts and feelings in photographer Robert X. Fogarty’s distinct message-on-skin style. We put out an “open call” to the residents of Joplin to come to Spiva and share their message and sit for their portrait. The response was amazing. We were heartened to have the galleries swarming with people eager to share.

How did the photographer Robert X. Fogarty and his Dear World project become involved with Joplin?

Jo Mueller and Lori Marble: It was one of those serendipitous things: Joplin native Brent Beshore met Robert at a conference. Their conversation turned to the Joplin tornado, Robert’s Dear World project, and, because of Brent’s ties, also to Spiva Center for the Arts. From there, it became a collaborative project for the Dear World team (Robert, journalist Adam Karlin, who wrote the narratives, and Jonny Rosenbloom, who handled production), Spiva, and the citizens of Joplin who graciously chose to participate.

What has the reaction been from the community?

Jo Mueller and Lori Marble: The reaction to the exhibit has been what we expected — a full range of emotions. Some portraits elicit big smiles because the viewer relates to the message or loves the attitude of subject’s face or stance. Other portraits can take the viewer’s breath away because they know the “backstory” or have some idea of the loss of the individual/group photographed. Most everyone walks away with one or two favorite images that really “speak” to them and express what they’ve been thinking or saying these past twelve months.

What kinds of messages did people write?

Jo Mueller and Lori Marble:
“Dorothy Has Nothing On Us”
“Value Our Story; Imagine Our Future”
“Stronger Than We Were Before”
“Pay It Forward”
“Life Wins”
“Each 1 Change 1 Life”
“Action Has Magic, Power & Grace”

How do you think art helps communities like Joplin heal after disasters?

Jo Mueller and Lori Marble: Some of the most amazing things to spring from the disaster were the many examples of public art. They were colorful, visible reminders that in the face of such loss, there was still much to hope for, much to be thankful for. Chainsaw-carved eagles captured the spirit of Joplin High School when they appeared next to the “Hope” high school sign. Impromptu murals sprang up with messages of hope, love, and encouragement. A group of people who later founded “The Tank (puh-blik art)” created beautiful mosaics that incorporated found objects.

In September, Spiva issued an area artists’ challenge for an exhibit called “On the Other Side,” art created in response to the tornado. More than 80 artists accepted the challenge. Nearly 3,000 people saw the exhibit; more than a few commented that they really hadn’t wanted to see it – they were afraid it would be too emotional – but were glad they came and talked about the healing they experienced.

Located between the disaster zone and downtown, “The Butterfly Effect: Dreams Take Flight”, is the community-based mural project that was in the works for a year prior to the tornado. Ultimately, it involved the input of more than 300 children and adults who took part in design discussions. The overriding impulse was that the mural should not memorialize the tornado, but go beyond it and illustrate the community’s spirit and character. The mural project was a huge gift to Joplin: its completion showed the community that we could come together and thoughtfully create something in a matter of weeks that would be lasting and beautiful. Many of the children’s drawings were incorporated directly in the final design and for them the mural is an important touchstone: Ownership of their part in the mural is tremendously empowering.

Children participated in a project to create Joplin, designing and making cardboard buildings that were recently displayed at Joplin’s Third Thursday Art Walk. Art therapists continue to offer sessions for children, first responders, survivors. Making art is safe; it’s a way to express things that may not be talked about. It’s healing.

What are a few of your favorites from the exhibit?

Jo Mueller and Lori Marble: Every time I view the exhibit I have a different “favorite” image. The first time through I fell in love with the young lady’s portrait that contained the “Dorothy Has Nothing On Us” message running up and down her arms. It was part a reaction to the words and equally my appreciation for the way she had set her jaw, tilted her head and planted her fists on her hips as if to say “Don’t be messing with us again.”

The portrait of Brody German’s back with the message “Survived” has become almost iconic with this exhibit and our response as a community. You see the Brody’s back and scars from his injuries — he’s a second-grader held by his father Bradley in much the same way he held him as he ran to St. John’s in search of help. The look in that father’s eyes is one instantly recognizable by any parent: it is poppa-bear mode, very protective.

Finally, what’s your sense of how far Joplin has come since last year’s tornado?

Jo Mueller and Lori Marble: Just today, the one year anniversary of the tornado, a national news outlet posted a series of images taken immediately following the tornado, the same scene at six months, and then a final shot of what the location looks like today. Unless you were here, it would be hard to imagine the amount of destruction and debris that was everywhere inside the tornado’s path. Fast forward one year and where once there were piles of rubble there is new construction. Parks have reopened, trees have been planted and neighborhoods are rebounding.

Aside from the physical manifestations, there is this beautiful rebirth of community, of pride in our resilience, of knowing we will survive. Nothing can replace the 161 lives lost that late Sunday afternoon, but Joplin is a wonderful community and it is returning in a beautifully strong fashion.

“Dear World, From Joplin With Love” runs through July 13 at the Spiva Center for the Arts in Joplin, Mo. To see more images and to read more of the messages, visit this website.