For almost two years, the corner of East Capitol Avenue and Lafayette Street has been a dark reminder of the past — of what was, an empty shell of the space that once hosted lively celebrations packed with community art, music and vibrancy.
On May 22, 2019, it all screeched to a grinding halt.
An EF-3 tornado tore through Jefferson City, causing irreparable damage to 619, 621 and 623 E. Capitol Ave.
Owners Holly and Nathan Stitt had no choice but to demolish the buildings.
The Stitts purchased the properties in 2012 and, along with business co-owner Quinten Rice, opened Avenue HQ at 621 E. Capitol Ave. in December 2015. The event space celebrated the arts, hosting comedy nights, displaying the public’s artwork, and bringing color and culture to a previously dilapidated part of town.
After demolition in September 2019, a bare, wooden fence was constructed around where the commanding brick buildings once stood.
But an opportunity was created.
After more than a year of planning, designing and working out logistics with city officials, artist Amy Greenbank began applying the first strokes of paint in April to turn the 60 feet of dull fence boards into a colorful mural that honors the historic community and celebrates the arts.
“To me, it’s a big relief to see something artsy coming back to this area,” Holly Stitt said, noting even without the HQ building, having creativity again on display at that corner will bring a sense of vibrancy to the entire community.
And that’s what public art does.
“I’m all for public art. Period,” Stitt said. “It brings a vibrancy to people. It makes people think, ‘Wow, this town has a lot of creativity.’ It’s a vibe; it’s a way of bringing attention to areas that need it. It has a whole lot of positive aspects.”
Leann Porrello agreed and was quick to rattle off some of those positive aspects: Public art beautifies a space, improves quality of life, promotes tourism and can even be multi-functional — Free Little Libraries, for example, are visually appealing additions to neighborhoods that also provide books to it residents.
However, Porrello — the cultural arts specialist with the Jefferson City Parks, Recreation and Forestry Department as well as an artist herself — said public art is far from thriving locally compared to other communities of similar sizes.
It was a sentiment Stitt echoed: “I think there’s a conservative juncture here in Jefferson City, and people think that art and public art and murals will actually ruin an area or a business versus enhancing it and making it more of a place that people want to be.”
So with multiple arts-focused organizations in town, there’s been a push in recent years to bring more public art to the community, and with JC Parks in particular, there’s been some success.
In 2018, the department joined the St. Louis-based Sculpture on the Move program, which allows a community to rent a sculpture to display in a public setting for a year at a time. The program costs JC Parks $2,000 per year for two sculptures.
Currently, “Dissident” — a 10-foot tall abstract piece made of welded steel featuring a bright green circle that frames the view of the Missouri Capitol — is on display in front of the former Avenue HQ location on Capitol Avenue. Also, “Soccer Dude” graced Riverside Park before suffering damage to its arm and needing to be removed.
Having to take away “Soccer Dude” was not ideal, Porrello said, but it left a $1,000 surplus and provided the opportunity to create a new piece of public art — a mural in McClung Park.
“We have this beautiful space,” Porrello said, referring to the newly remodeled pavilion at McClung, “and adding art was just a bow on top.”
After hammering out the concept — a mural on the side of the pavilion that celebrates its history as a dance hall while also reflecting its setting in nature — the department issued what’s referred to as a “call to artists.”
With the help of the city’s Cultural Arts Commission, the number of applicants was whittled down to two then placed up for a public vote on social media — something that had never been done for a piece of art on city property, Porrello said.
“Public art is for the community,” she added, so it was important to JC Parks that the community played a role in selecting what would be featured in the park.
Ultimately, artist Alex Eickhoff’s design was chosen, and as of January, a squirrel and chipmunk can be seen dancing amongst the trees on a 5-by-12-foot rectangle of stucco along the side of the pavilion.
Also in the works, Porrello said, is a sculpture series for Community Park that will represent the history and stories of the residents of the Historic Foot District, which was a Black neighborhood until the 1960s when federal urban renewal claimed the majority of the homes and businesses.
Led by the Parks Department, a committee of current and former residents of the area, along with representatives from Lincoln University, have been collaborating for more than a year to gather stories to represent the people and their experiences in The Foot — positive or negative.
Porrello said while it will likely take a few years for the entire series of five to seven sculptures to be selected and installed — mostly because of the $8,000-$15,000 price tag associated with purchasing a permanent sculpture — the first two have been identified after a successful call to artists garnered more than 40 applicants.
Through funding help from the JC Parks Foundation and private donations, Porrello expects the sculptures will be unveiled June 19 in a Juneteenth Day celebration at Community Park.
Funding will always be an issue for public art, Porrello said, which is why she hopes to create a public art-specific master plan that will hopefully one day lead to a budget within the Parks Department that’s dedicated to bringing more art to public spaces.
Dollars and cents aside, public art — and murals specifically — are challenging to produce locally because they must pass through a detailed application process and receive Jefferson City Council approval.
It’s a burden Stitt is all too familiar with; in addition to owning the Capitol Avenue properties, she serves as the chairwoman of the city’s Cultural Arts Commission, which is responsible for the mural in front of the former Avenue HQ. (Stitt refrained from voting on the project because she owns the property.)
“The process is a little overwhelming and daunting, so I think it stopped people from wanting to do it because it gets a little hard,” Stitt said, adding one of the reasons the commission wanted to produce the mural was to become familiar with the process and become a resource for future mural projects in the city.
“We’re hoping to create an open dialogue for people who may have buildings that they may want something creative on and artists who are willing to do murals and start doing the connections and help them through the process,” she said. The Cultural Arts Commission, therefore, will serve as “the arts arm of the city.”
In an attempt to make the process smoother, the city code regarding murals is being examined as part of ongoing conversation to update the city’s comprehensive plan, which has not been updated since 1996. The draft plan contains sections for everything from housing and transportation to environmental resiliency and culture.
Stitt and Porrello are hopeful changes will be made to city ordinances, specifically when it comes to murals. Right now, in addition to a lengthy application and review process, only one mural is allowed within 500 feet of another, Porrello said, which can make it difficult to grow public art in certain parts of town.
“If someone handed us $20,000 tomorrow, we would still be restricted by those ordinances,” Porrello said. “So before we talk about ‘more of a budget, less of a budget (for public art),’ we have to get these ordinances handled to make more opportunities for an artist.”
Despite the challenges, the Capitol Avenue mural serves as a reminder of what’s possible locally with the future of public art — and it’s bright, literally.
Greenbank, the mural’s artist, is thrilled to be a part of the process, even if it did take longer than expected. She worked with members of the Arts Commission and then the City Council to finalize the design, and with copious amounts of paint in bright colors, she began the process of turning that brown fence into a joyous celebration of art.
The piece depicts various styles of artistic expression — music, dance, theater, visual art — all in Greenbank’s signature, bright and cheery painting style. It’s also a seek-and-find with five hidden shoes in the painting to represent the five shoe factories that were once housed near the property.
And subtle, swirly lines representing the wind are a nod to the tornado that forever altered the corner.
“Everything in the mural means something,” Greenbank said. “It’s showing that we’re trying to move forward with the arts and have more involvement with local artists. I think it’s going to be neat to have something so bright because we’ve had some tough times lately, and this gives off that happy vibe.”