Inspired by the fantastic new mural we stumbled upon inside a welcome center along Interstate 35 in northern Missouri last December, I started looking into efforts by other states to spruce up their highway pit stops with art. And lo and behold, I find out from several knowledgeable sources that the great state of Iowa – where I live – has one of the more impressive programs.
Which means an estimated 17 million people who stop at an Iowa rest areas each year may be in for a treat – if they stop at the right one. Thirteen rest areas or welcome centers – most along I-80 and I-35 – have been redesigned as part of Iowa’s “art-in-transit” program to include site-specific, regionally-themed art projects during the past 10 years – the latest in 2009 and more to come. Iowa has even printed “rest area posters.” For more info see: (www.iowadot.gov/maintenance/restareaposters.html)
I know, I know – I should be blogging today about the thwarted terrorism attack at the airport of my youth (my native Detroit). But I’m far more excited to share my latest unlikely discovery – a beautiful new mural we chanced upon inside – of all places – the spanking new welcome center along Interstate 35 in the northern Missouri city of Eagleville.
Installed in September 2009, the mural fills a long wall inside the Eagleville Welcome Center (opened in February 2008) and is made of 600,000 pieces of multi-colored glass tile. An homage to Missouri history, culture, and topography, the mural has all kinds of scenes (the Missouri River, the Kansas City Jazz and Negro League Baseball Museums) and portraits (Jesse James, Harry Truman, Thomas Hart Benton) and cultural touchstones (from the American Bison to the Missouri River steamboat, Arabia.) Among other things, I learned that Walt Disney not only grew up on a farm near the small town of Marceline, Mo. (the Disneys’ barn is featured in the mural) but that the main streets in every Disney attraction are based on Marceline’s main street. Walt even recreated the barn on his home property in Los Angeles.
Apparently I am not the only one curious about the many images embedded in the mural, which was designed by a Washington State couple who won a competition to design the mural, funded through a federal grant. At the center, I picked up a very helpful 16-page pamphlet all about the mural – entitled “The Prairie Passage” – produced by the Missouri Department of Transportation.
I love finding art in unexpected places – and I love that someone bothered to perk up my drive through northern Missouri. This rest area is a far cry from the dreary ones I remember from the family road trips of my 1960’s youth. Which leads me to wonder – how much of this is going on at other interstate rest areas and welcome centers across the country? Is this effort on the rise or in decline? Which states or rest stops have the best public art installations? I have seen some great examples of rest area public art in Iowa along Interstate 80 (funded by the Iowa Department of Transportation’s Art-in-Transit program). Googling for more info, I chanced upon a terrific website about rest area history (www.restareahistory.org) that may answer some of my questions.