On Sunday May 22, 2011, an EF5 tornado swept through Joplin, Missouri. In minutes, winds reaching up to 200 miles per hour reduced homes and buildings to rubble. One of the deadliest tornadoes to strike the United States left 158 people dead and some 1,150 others injured.
Joplin is Travis Pratt's hometown. He's a painter who studied ceramics at The Kansas City Art Institute and now splits his time between Kansas City and Joplin. After the storm, Pratt and his father went to visit family members. The scene was disorienting.
“I couldn’t recognize where I was,” Pratt says. “All those neighborhoods used to have giant trees that would touch over the street and these old houses, some of the coolest in the town, were just all wiped out.”
Pratt took a few photographs as they walked to the house where his great grandmother Ruby had lived. And a few blocks away, the home where his grandfather lived was gone. His cousins and his brother lived just up the road, and they'd lost everything too.
Pratt put down his camera and for the next two weeks, he says, “it was just a lot of work in the sun.”
After the clean-up was over, Pratt says, he felt compelled to paint the scenes he'd photographed.
“My work has always been about a sense of place and the idea of home,” Pratt explains. “The tornado hit and it was just, it’s like I couldn’t not paint them. It was just this form of subjective painted journalism. I just saw these images that I had to respond to.”
In 2014, the work debuted in two large-scale shows at Kansas City's Leedy-Voulkos Art Center. Currently, several of his tornado series paintings are on view at Weinberger Fine Art. But until now, the work had never been shown in Joplin.
“The Joplin Paintings” opened earlier this month and is showing through the end of June in the Upstairs Gallery at the George A. Spiva Center for the Arts.
"It just feels complete now that they’re showing in Joplin," says Pratt. "I’m glad it’s kind of taken that long and that it’s in the upstairs of the gallery so people have to choose to go up there and engage with the work."
It’s not unusual for Spiva to show work inspired by the storm. Since the tornado, the center has hosted several shows that have attempted to use art as a tool for healing.
Josie Mai, Spiva's executive director, says his larger paintings confront the viewer directly with the devastation.
“For sure they are more difficult for an audience in Joplin,” Mai says of Pratt's paintings. “Some (people) won't come, and that's OK. I tell patrons and the public that these are the most beautiful works technically and conceptually to come out of that storm. They are personal, intricate, but airy. How scenes of destruction can be beautiful is an amazing feat.”
Among those who have seen the paintings, Pratt says, response has been positive.
“My friend Mike lost three friends, which is really tragic. But for him to experience those paintings, you can’t really compare it to someone who’s looking at it from the outside,” he says. “I had some uncles who said, ‘I saw enough of that when it happened,’ but cousins, brothers – my mom – really likes them. My dad loves them.”
After six years, Pratt’s family has mostly recovered from the storm. But around Joplin today, he says, there are small, poetic reminders of the storm. Trees that were damaged came back, but are changed.
“They just kind of look funny, like angry cacti or the trees from Mario Brothers – it’s pretty hilarious at times," he says. "And there’s still the stray scrap of tin wrapped around a tree up high or a piece of fence wrapped around a tree. Random piles of rubble that just got grown over with grass.”
“The Joplin Paintings” by Travis Pratt are on view in the Upstairs Gallery through June 29 at the George A. Spiva Center for the Arts, 222 W. 3rd Street, Joplin, Missouri, 417-623-0183. Locally, Travis Pratt’s paintings from Joplin are a part of a group show, “Point of Reference,” through July 1 at Weinberger Fine Art, 114 Southwest Boulevard, Kansas City, Missouri, 816-301-4428.
Julie Denesha is a freelance photographer and reporter for KCUR. Follow her @juliedenesha.