Following the 2011 tornado that left much of Joplin in ruins, the town came together in similar ways to look to the future with hope of recovery. This hope manifested itself in the form of murals and art placed around Joplin that still stand today in memory of that devastating day.
Many murals that came to life following the tornado featured similar subjects that mean something different depending on who is asked. That subject is butterflies. Paired with that, the murals and art themselves were meant to represent Joplin’s recovery. Sharon Beshore, Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce cultural affairs committee co-chair, was project director for the mural “The Butterfly Effect: Dreams Take Flight” and said they first wondered if they should even do the mural because they wanted to be respectful due to the recent tornado, but artist David Loewenstein assured that it would instead bring hope to the community.
“Well, the meaning I think that it’s a piece of public art that was so relevant to the period of time for children and adults,” Beshore said. “We didn’t want to be recognized as a tornado town, and we still don’t—we don’t want to play off that at all. But the relevance of this at the time was very important and I think right now it reflects our history. …”
Going forward from the tornado, Patrick Tuttle, Joplin Convention & Visitors Bureau director, agreed that Joplin is not defined by the one event, but instead as a town they must focus on recovery and look forward—which the town has done over the past 10 years, and the murals represent that.
“You can’t ignore (the tornado), it is a big piece,” Tuttle said. “The line being passed around is Joplin is not defined by a single event. … You talk about the tornado 10 years after it, it’s really about recovery. It’s about how we as a community made things happen. …”
“The Butterfly Effect” mural was originally planned for April or May 2011 as a community-based mural, but after the tornado the plans took great changes. The mural was then decidedly about representing healing for the community.
“… We knew at that time that art was healing, but it’s one thing that you’d gone through a devastating tornado, with the number of people killed and one-third of your community torn up, and then think about doing a project like ours and how much time people could spend doing this,” Beshore said. “But (Loewenstein’s) assurance that it would be for healing, and healing for the community, that was what we needed to hear.”
Featured in “The Butterfly Effect” were numerous butterflies, and the same showed up in other pieces of art that were installed in Joplin. This included the “On Wings of Butterflies” tile mural in Mercy Park, the several butterfly statues that sit at varying businesses, and more. Children and adults alike came to see butterflies as a kind of symbol of hope following the tornado, and that symbol has lasted since.
“… The butterflies, I don’t know, it just seemed liked believe it or not there were butterflies all over the place after the tornado, and in our gardens and all around,” Beshore said. “But also children, apparently, unbeknownst to many of us working too were seeing butterflies in whether their dreams or maybe around town. But I don’t know, it was a hopeful—I think the butterflies signified hope to all of us at that time, something that we all needed. …”
“On Wings of Butterflies,” recognized as the world’s largest zen art tile mural, Tuttle said it was created in a way so individuals could stand in front of the wings and tell their own story.
“The butterfly took two directions,” Tuttle said. “One, we thought about metamorphosis … and we had kind of landed on the butterfly to be the impetus of our recovery—a lot of good things happened …”
Loewenstein also described the usage of butterflies in their mural as representing metamorphosis. The mural included community involvement from 200 kids and 100 adults.
“… And that’s what the hope was, that Joplin would kind of have that rebirth and metamorphosis after the tornado,” Beshore said. “But the children, of course, were not thinking that. But the butterfly people became something common that developed a little later, I guess, as children were interviewed and talked about the butterfly people.”
A subject that made its way around Joplin was the concept of “butterfly people,” which were often seen by children. These butterfly people were often associated with protection.
“… The second piece is that Docter Larry Brothers, one of our optometrists, talked to several people and he interviewed them, and basically they shouldn’t be alive today, they shouldn’t be here,” Tuttle said. “And he found out some of the details that if they had a strong religious background and/or a strong family background, they referenced angels protected them. If they didn’t have a strong religious background, or possibly didn’t have a strong family background, they referenced butterflies protected them. Almost identical stories, but how they associated with how they were protected and how they survived is the unique thing about that. So, we landed on that as part of the story as well to put it out to the public.”
Taking the idea a step further, Eric Haun painted a mural titled “161” that features 161 butterflies to represent all 161 who died in the 2011 tornado. While all murals and art installations are holding up well, they still stand to show a piece of Joplin’s past that will never be forgotten.
“… Right now it’s just part of our past that we don’t want to forget,” Beshore said. “But yet it’s playful, too, in many ways and it’s hopeful, and we need to keep that kind of hope here in Joplin. … I think we need to continue to have hope and think about the future in Joplin. And you know, we lived through this—I think this is about resilience and the community working together during this time. …”