Missouri Murals: The Art of Storytelling

March 21, 2019

On the Mississippi riverfront, along Route 66, across urban areas and in small towns, hundreds of murals tell Missouri's story – in scenes filled with famous (and not-so-famous) faces, significant places, everyday life and historic events that changed the world.

A masterpiece by one of Missouri's most accomplished artists adorns the walls of the state capitol in Jefferson City. Thomas Hart Benton's A Social History of the State of Missouri fills the House Lounge with images of Missourians, real and imagined – 235 of them to be exact. Completed in 1935, the artwork focuses on how the people of Missouri shaped the state.

The mural features frontiersmen, fur trappers and farmers as well as some of Mark Twain's most famous characters, Huckleberry Finn and Jim. One wall depicts Missouri's biggest cities and their early manufacturing facilities, brewing operations and speakeasies. Several scenes reflect the political and social issues of the day including slavery, prohibition and religious persecution.

Other murals painted by Benton can be viewed at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, the Truman Library and Museum in Independence and Joplin's City Hall.

While Benton painted Missouri's best-known mural, other artists have created a wide array of artwork on walls throughout the state.

Experience the history of Chillicothe in a series of 20 outdoor paintings that decorate downtown buildings. The Murals of Chillicothe include historical scenes from 1928, the year the city became the "Home of Sliced Bread" when a local baking company began using the world's first automatic bread slicer.

The 1,500-foot-long Mississippi River Tales Mural in Cape Girardeau extends across a 15-foot-tall wall that protects the city from flooding. The mural's 24 panels represent the area's history and its connection to the Mississippi River. The other side of the wall features 47 famous Missourians, from Calamity Jane to Yogi Berra. Another mural in Cape Girardeau, located inside the Kent Library at Southeast Missouri State University, pays tribute to the industries that shaped the region, including agriculture, timber and mining.

Cuba Missouri's Historical Murals, 12 outdoor murals located on Route 66, showcase the golden age of the famous highway and local and national history, including visits from Harry S. Truman, Amelia Earhart and Bette Davis. A 140-foot stretch of artwork portrays an 1864 Civil War battle between Union and Confederate troops. The extensive mural collection earned Cuba the designation of "Route 66 Mural City."

At the Power & Light District in Kansas City, an 18,000-square-foot mural pays tribute to the city's historic 18th & Vine Jazz District. In St. Louis, the riverside neighborhood of Carondelet is home to several murals featuring an eclectic assortment of images, from a historic scene in 1769 to pop art flowers and vegetables on the wall of a community garden. Murals in Springfield include a towering tile mosaic of a plant-filled garden and a 380-foot-wide painting of a herd of wild horses.

Following the devastating tornado that hit Joplin in 2011, temporary works of art began to appear as symbols of strength and hope for the future. The artwork inspired the local chamber of commerce to commission a permanent mural. More than 300 community volunteers, including 200 children, assisted a professional mural painter in creating The Butterfly Effect: Dreams Take Flight. The mural includes a quote from famous poet and Joplin native Langston Hughes: "In time of silver rain the butterflies lift silken wings to catch a rainbow sky and trees put forth new leaves to sing in joy beneath the sky." Other murals in the city celebrate the performing arts, Route 66 and the power of the written word.

Additional Show-Me State murals include:

  • Louisiana Murals: Twenty-four outdoor murals commemorate a series of historic events and include images of the town's Missouri River bridge and the Delta Queen riverboat and the nearby Stark Bro.'s Nursery and Orchard, founded in 1816.
  • Dexter Murals: Outdoor murals depict Dexter's oldest houses, built from 1890 to 1910. The homes, located on Walnut Street, are still occupied by local residents.
  • Bernie Murals: Three outdoor murals portray scenes from Bernie's history, including a historic mill and covered bridge.
  • West Plains Historical Murals: An 12-panel outdoor mural depicts successive time periods including the arrival of early settlers, the Civil War and important events in West Plains history.
  • Branson, Missouri Mural: Located in the historic downtown area, the outdoor mural features the music, activities and other attractions that draw millions of people to this popular vacation spot.
  • Prairie Passage Mosaic Mural: The 500-square-foot glass mosaic is located in the Official Missouri Welcome Center/Rest Area on Interstate 35 between the Iowa border and Eagleville. The mural displays the prairie landscapes, personalities and history of northwest Missouri.

Written by Liz Coleman

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