6 murals that show the pride and perseverance of America’s heartland
How do you capture the spirit of a community in a painting? Give the locals paintbrushes
When artist David Loewenstein set out to capture the spirit of Middle America in a series of murals, he knew he’d need help along the way. As he traveled from town to town, he encountered communities brimming with tradition, perseverance, and optimism. In this photo essay, Loewenstein discusses his collaborations with communities that helped the Mid-America Mural Project come to life. The project is explored in the 2016 documentary, Called to Walls. All photos © David Loewenstein.
— The Renewal Project Staff
Listening Back, Dreaming Forward: Local volunteers teamed up with visiting artists to research, design, and paint this sprawling visual poem honoring the cultural history and dreams of things to come in Tonkawa, Oklahoma. The resulting mural, divided into five interrelated panels, reflects the community’s dialogue with its past: the Cherokee Land Run and its effects on the Tonkawa Tribe, current efforts to revitalize downtown, and whimsical visions of future community-building endeavors.
The Imagineers: Situated adjacent to Newton, Kansas’s historic train depot, The Imagineers was designed and painted by a group of local volunteers working in collaboration with outside artists. The mural focuses on a group of Newton area residents, gathered around a table, engaged in the process of recalling and re-imagining their community. Using quilts, model railroads, and board games as metaphors to explore their cultural history and cultivate new ideas, the figures at the table are surrounded by symbols of Newton’s Mennonite and Hispanic heritage, wheat farming, and the Chisholm Trail.
The Butterfly Effect: Dreams Take Flight: Two months after an EF5 tornado devastated nearly one-third of Joplin, Missouri, residents came together to create this magical evocation of a community rebuilding, remembering, and looking forward. Inspired by the metamorphosis of butterflies, the poetry of Langston Hughes, and the capacity for renewal expressed in the imaginations of children, the mural captures the story of Joplin’s unbroken spirit and hopeful outlook after the storm.
From a Dream to The Promise: Known to many as the “Athens of Arkansas,” Arkadelphia’s passionate and enduring support of education is the focus of this mural. Underneath a decorative archway of soaring pine trees, a young student holding a symbolic pine tree sapling considers his future and potential. His journey unfolds amidst references to Arkadelphia’s cultural history, including Peake School, the Arkadelphia Promise, and the Hunter-Dunbar Expedition. These are centered around the majestic figure of a woman, symbolizing education and mentorship, who lights the way to the young man’s future.
Storytellers: Sharing the Legacy: Situated along Elm Avenue in historic East Waco, Texas, this mural honors the legacy of Waco’s vibrant community. Divided into three parts, the bottom-third of Storytellers pays homage to Paul Quinn College, the Alpha Theater, Kermit Oliver, Doris Miller, and Juneteenth. In the middle, a series of symbolic pictograms refer to East Waco’s cultural, geographic, and economic life. The top section takes inspiration from the tradition of hand-painted signs in Waco.
Working Together Toward a People’s Art: Painted alongside the Pioneer Spirit Hike & Bike Trail in Hastings, Nebraska, this 210-foot-long mural explores the community investment that takes place for a project of this nature to come to fruition. Each vignette highlights a different part of the process—from initial research to sketching to projecting the design—and features many of the design team members from Hastings. Special details include local artist Dave Stewart holding up the mural’s magic mirror, prehistoric fish from the Hastings Museum, and a colorful evocation of the Fisher Rainbow Fountain.