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Samuel Clemens, who is said to have taken his pen name Mark Twain from the cries of riverboat crewmen, found the inspiration for his classic works while growing up in the river town of Hannibal, Mo. Today, more than 125 years after the first pressing of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, there's a new set of artistic characters in Twain's boyhood home.
Looking uphill from the bank of the Mississippi River, it's hard to remember Hannibal was almost gutted by a massive flood in 1993. After the waters receded and life got back to normal, a steady influx of artists has slowly given the 177-year-old town a new feel.
On a Saturday afternoon you can find a few of them holding a roundtable of sorts at Java Jive, the local coffeehouse. "Everyone I'm talking to is, like, dyin' in the summer shows — [it's] hot," says Steve Ayers, a potter with a Mark Twain-like mustache who seems to know just about every artist in town.
Stepping outside onto Main Street where a street musician is playing steel guitar, Ayers talks about the effort 14 years ago to recruit other artists to live in Hannibal. "I came here in '85, and it's a great little town," he recalls. "I always thought it would be a great place for artists to live, but there weren't any here. So more than anything else, we did it just 'cause I'm lonesome. You wanted somebody to share a beer with."
The sales pitch was something like: Come to Hannibal; it's cheap to live here and easy to get to art shows.
The project to formally recruit artists has faded over the years, but Ayers says that's not really a bad thing. "It works much better when it happens kind of naturally," he says. "When you're doing an active recruitment, you'd have all these people coming in who always wanted to be artists, and they were never happy. When you had friends inviting friends, they invited in people they liked, and it just worked much better."
He has plenty of company now: There are nearly 50 active artists in this little town of 18,000. Their presence here has changed the look and feel of Main Street, where they now occupy a quarter of the storefronts. Many of their shops specialize in the kind of accessible folk art that appeals to tourists who come to visit Twain's hometown.
And the community has rallied around them; the art council's budget has tripled. Some banks and the local hospital have ditched corporate art and now decorate their walls with local work.
Nancy Kaufman was a fixture of the art scene in Santa Fe for 30 years, where she co-owned two galleries. But in 2005, she decided to take some time away from the art show circuit and set up a little shop on Main Street in downtown Hannibal.
When the door to Kaufman's shop is propped open, you can hear a train howling by in the distance. Kaufman might be seen threading turquoise, magenta and deep blue yarn through a 6-foot-long loom. The shop's walls are filled with multicolored woven art.
Kaufman recalls: "When I first moved here, I said, you know, this place reminds me of Santa Fe when I moved there in 1976, because Santa Fe then — it was dead all winter long, and we only had a couple months of tourism. But right now it just has the feeling of something that's right at the beginning of its growth."
As soon as she saw this old drugstore on Main Street, Kaufman dreamed of turning it into a place where she could weave and talk to customers. "To bring something to life, back to life, and to give it new life — it's creativity, it's a birth; it's exciting to us," she says. "I think that's just the nature of the artist."
Most artists in Hannibal don't own shops and instead make their money traveling to art shows. Being located near the center of the Midwest makes it more convenient to get to those shows.
Melissa Dominiak is a painter who moved here from Seattle. She's now in the process of rehabbing a massive former church. "It's shaped almost like a clover leaf," she explains. "I'm guessing the vaults are 35, 40 feet high. There's a house next door, and there's an empty lot on the side of the house, and this church was $70,000 — that's what we bought it for."
She says she'll put her studio here and try to rent out the rest of the space for special events. Like many of the artists here, Dominiak says Hannibal's central location, affordability and thriving arts community make being a struggling artist just a little less painful.