In This Springfield Neighborhood, Artists Put Utility Poles to Work
Springfield, in southwest Missouri, is the state’s third most populous city. Its business districts are filled with historic buildings and gathering spaces that serve as platforms for artistic expression. But it’s a predominantly residential neighborhood on the city’s north side that’s becoming a new destination for artists.
If you were to stand in the middle of Lafayette Park and turn a full circle, you’d find at least one constant: the base of every utility pole is painted.
“This is the Campbell Soup pole here,” says Steve Miller, pointing out one pole that was created as a tribute after last year’s theft of seven Andy Warhol prints from the Springfield Art Museum.
“We found them – so to speak – and located them here on a utility pole in Lafayette Park,” Miller quips.
It was designed by Linda Passeri, who says she's painted 12 of the more than 130 poles marking this pocket of Springfield known as the Moon City Creative District. Miller and Passeri are two of its five members. The live-work community, which was zoned as such in 2013, allows artists who live here to operate studios in their homes, plus have a limited retail presence.
The poles display work ranging from love of nature to community pride, and help outline Moon City’s 10 square blocks.
“It’s a great way to delineate the boundaries of the district and to give us an outdoor art gallery,” says Passeri.
This expression also serves as a unifier for a part of Springfield where statistics show there’s more crime and higher unemployment.
Earlier this summer, Moon City held its inaugural Summer Solstice Arts Fair, which featured more than 15 local and regional artists, food vendors and live music.
Marian Chamberlain, Moon City’s artist liaison, helped organize the event along with Miller and Passeri. She pointed out one of her favorite poles: The Brittaney dog.
“It’s pastel," she said. "I like the colors. I’ve been working with my palate. It’s still realism, but I love the feel of the pastels and the feel of the papers.”
Also among the spectators was Bruce Bostick, who had made the 40-minute drive from Marionville, Missouri, to Springfield.
“I’m in awe. I’m in awe,” Bostick said, admiring the surrealism style of Andrew Batcheller, whose many paintings of birds, including the tropical Ibis, are done in full scale.
“The details he puts into this is hours of labor,” Bostick said. “Even with technique that some might employ, he makes sure that every square inch has been touched by this artist.”
Batcheller, who lives in Joplin and serves on its regional artist’s coalition, won the fair’s best in show for a painter. This was his first trip to Moon City.
“I love it. The first thing I saw was the pole. We don’t have anything like that in Joplin – we have thousands and thousands of ugly poles. I want to take it to Joplin, and we’re going to do it,” he said.
“It’s seeing art in everything you do, so why not in a utility pole?” said Tim Phillips, who has lived with his wife across the street from Lafayette Park for about 10 years. “This is just a great area. We love the old houses, the mature trees, the fact that everybody has a porch on their house up here and they use the porch. It’s just a very pedestrian, tight-knit community up here.”
The Moon City Creative District sits adjacent to Springfield’s first railroad, which in 1870 brought with it a sprawling business environment. But when the population shifted toward the south in the 1960s, combined with a decline in railroad travel, signs of urban blight set in. Now, activity along Commercial Street is picking up again.
I reconnected with Miller nearly three weeks after the fair at his home/gallery in Moon City to see the district’s live-work model first hand. Greeted with a blue Sharpie, I was asked to sign Miller’s guest registry – on the wall.
“I’ve probably got over 400 signatures at this point,” he said.
His century-old Victorian-style home is a popular tour space for art consumers, with several repurposed items on display.
“As you can see I pick up a lot of stuff," Miller said. "This is an old pulley system that came out of some industrial, manufacturing concern and I’m going to turn it into a clock at some point.”
There’s also the coffee table made from old wood pallets, and the wall piece composed of computer circuit boards that depicts a futuristic cityscape. Another project derives from an early 20th century sewing machine that Miller plans to turn into a wall sconce and mount on the front porch.
From the outside, it’s easy to recognize the property as that of an artist’s, and a gateway into Moon City. In Miller’s yard are planter boxes made of fluorescent-painted car tires, a lending library station, and a series of directional signs pointing you to artistic destinations: Austin, Texas: 615 miles. Eureka Springs, Arkansas: 88 miles.
“And there’s one here, Fernwood, Victoria, British Columbia: 2,100 miles," he said. "The Fernwood Neighborhood is where we got the idea for the pole painting. So I thought what better place to recognize that.”
Around 100 poles are still left to be painted in Moon City. The next opportunity comes this October, during the district’s biannual paint-a-pole stroll.
This story is part of Artland, a public-radio collaboration reporting on creative efforts that build community in unexpected places throughout the Midwest.
Follow Scott Harvey on Twitter: @scottksmu