Linda Passeri led the design and painting of a mural in an underpass on the Fassnight Creek Greenway Trail. The project is a collaboration between Ozark Greenways, the City of Springfield, Springfield-Greene County Parks and Passeri, whose giant designs are found in several locations in Springfield and the region. (Photo by Shannon Cay)

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Bicyclists and walkers along the Ozark Greenways Trails are treated in summer to lush grasses, wildflowers, wildlife and the occasional concrete box culvert — an underpass beneath busy streets.

A pilot program underway promises to splash some color and whimsy on those gray city passageways, and could serve as a model for other public art projects. You can see the first one now, and get a hint of what’s to come.

A technicolor mural celebrates Missouri’s native pollinators with larger-than-life lily pads, butterflies, bees and a hummingbird inside the Fassnight Creek Greenway Trail underpass below Jefferson Avenue at Bennett Street. The 50-by-5-foot mural brightens both sides of the wide culvert.

This public mural is on the walls of the Jefferson Avenue underpass along the Fassnight Creek Greenway Trail. (Photo by Shannon Cay)

It’s one of three underpass murals planned on the Fassnight Creek trail, with the second at the Campbell Avenue underpass expected sometime this fall.

Using art to elevate city life

The mural project is a collaboration between Ozark Greenways, the City of Springfield, Springfield-Greene County Parks and local artist Linda Passeri, whose giant designs pop from a Commercial Street building, a pedestrian railroad underpass, the Woodland Heights Neighborhood and Joplin Arts District.

Many Ozark Greenways trails already feature murals and sculptures. Murals by other groups enliven the exteriors of private office buildings, railroad underpasses and landmarks. The partners in this public/private pilot project signed on for two reasons.

They see a need to establish standards and protocols for public art projects that other community groups can use to guide their own projects.

And murals in city culverts? They saw it as a creative way to elevate city culverts into inviting, attractive spaces — a “placemaking” component in Forward SGF, the city’s comprehensive plan.

Forward SGF, the City of Springfield’s comprehensive plan, contains three themes that determine crucial aspects of the quality of place: community physical image; arts, culture and historic preservation; and health and well-being. The plan states, “Quality of place should serve as a north star to guide all future decision-making.”

Then-Greenways Director Mary Kromrey found a willing project partner in Tim Rosenbury, the city’s director of Quality of Place Initiatives.

“I’m fond of saying that sewers and utility poles and roads make living in a city possible,” says Rosenbury, an architect by training. “But it’s beautification and art and culture that makes living in a city worthwhile.”

Muralist Linda Passeri, who coordinated this project, says she hopes the beauty of this mural will keep people from tagging the underpass. (Photo by Linda Passeri)
This public mural is on the walls of the Jefferson Avenue underpass along the Fassnight Creek Greenway Trail in central Springfield. (Photo by Shannon Cay)

They identified the Fassnight Creek Greenway Trail, which Kromrey says serves as a continuous corridor for walkers and bicyclists in that area. It connects two parks — Fassnight Park on the west and Phelps Grove Park on the east; neighborhoods and schools; the nearby Springfield Art Museum and Grant Avenue Parkway slated for redevelopment. The trail going west from Jefferson includes two more box culvert underpasses at Campbell Avenue and Grant Avenue that someday will complete the three-mural trail when funds are available.

All those elements make the mural “right for its place,” Rosenbury says.

The Hatch Foundation provided a $12,470 grant for the mural, which was completed in September 2023 to coincide with the Celebate Springfield festivities at nearby Phelps Grove Park. The city covered the cost of minimal staff time. The grant funded Passeri’s and other artists’ time, and the costs of surface prep and painting materials. The total project cost $10,640; the remainder was donated for a second underpass mural on the trail.

Everyone: Grab a brush

This mural had an added twist for artist Linda Passeri: It had to be an interactive, community project.

Aside from working through the technical and legal issues involved in slathering public art on city property, was it possible — even feasible — to set an army of volunteers loose in a box culvert for a paint-by-number exercise? 

Passeri was game.

The Fassnight Creek Greenway Trail mural started with a basic outline. (Photo by Linda Passeri)

“I wanted to explore the possibilities of doing this and involving the public,” she says. “What does this look like? What’s it going to cost? How do we manage involving the public, because that’s an important aspect of this project.”

The design had to be something simple enough so that people with no experience could put their hand on a brush and feel successful, she says.

As a professional muralist, Passeri also understood the technical execution necessary to create art in a public tunnel. She went to work, inspecting the condition of the culvert and taking measurements. On paper, she sketched the design for a mural for each side of the culvert that would span 50 feet long and 5 feet high. 

Greenway Trail mural volunteers on the day they registered to paint in 2023. (Photo by Linda Passeri)

City personnel cleaned the culvert surface, then Passeri and a team of Joplin artist friends applied a masonry primer over the entire surface. Next, they outlined her design on the walls of the culvert, and two artist friends pre-painted their specialities: honey bees and a hummingbird.

Then, Passeri labeled each outlined flower petal, each stem, each cattail and lily pad according to color.

“It was a giant paint-by-number,” Kromrey says, laughing. “She had a color code and folks could go in with paint brushes and follow the template on display.”

Weeks before, Ozark Greenways and partners reached out to the community and invited applicants to be part of a “Public Paint” at the underpass, shifts available 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. one day only, on Saturday, Sept. 30, 2023.

A volunteer paints the details on the first Greenway Trail mural. (Photo by Linda Passeri)

More than 85 volunteers answered the challenge, and on paint day, here they came, Kromrey says. Some painted their full hour, some 15 or 20 minutes. They finished in one day.

“Some folks were avid trail enthusiasts from different parts of town and wanted to participate,” Kromrey says.

Neighbors came to watch. Grandparents brought their grandkids to paint. Trail users passed through. “Some folks just hung out to watch it unfold. So it was just fun.”  (Kromrey is on loan part time to Ozark Greenways through September after taking a job at a private engineering firm.)

Passeri is pleased about the results. “It’s happy,” she says. “It makes you smile when you see it. It leaves you with a good feeling and pride in our community.”

Muralist Linda Passeri, who coordinated the underpass project, discusses finding two tall volunteers to tackle this particular mural section. (Photo by Shannon Cay)

When the volunteers went home, Passeri and her artist friends applied finishing touches. Later, a crew would apply an “anti-graffiti” coating that allows removal of marks without substantial damage to the paint.

Social media lit up with compliments from trail users who were surprised to see the mural for the first time, Kromrey says. In January, the mural project won the Placemaking Award from Better Block SGF.

“I loved the fact that it wasn’t just the product that engaged people, but it was also the process. That, to me, is placemaking,” Rosenbury says.

Prospects for a colorful future

Passeri hopes Springfield will embrace more public art that’s accessible to all, with no barriers.

“I would consider public art and art in general a necessity in life rather than a frivolity,” she says. “Public art in any community makes a community seem to care. It gives you a sense the community cares about the people who live there… It does increase the quality of life in our community.

“Moving forward, there are so many opportunities in Springfield for public art, and there are so many artists who have varied styles. The diversity of talent in Springfield would be great if we could reflect that in our public art.”

Muralist Linda Passeri says this will be the next space rife for art. All of the squares you see are where graffiti has been covered up. (Photo by Shannon Cay)

For now, the pilot project is just that — a trial, says Kromrey.

“We tried it. We tested it and we learned some things. We’ll make some changes to the process and we’ll do it again. As we’ve learned from these different experiences, hopefully that will create public art guidelines that could be shared with anybody… so that we can support integrating the arts into our public spaces.”

A future goal is to share several sample projects with the Missouri Department of Transportation and Greene County, which also own underpasses along Greenways trails.

“If we can start to get some examples and costs that address not only the installation cost but the ongoing maintenance costs, I think that will make it more palatable for the many partners involved with trail underpassess.”

For now, Ozark Greenways is focused on city-owned underpasses, and Rosenbury plans to see the pilot project through completion with two more murals as Greenways secures the funds.

“I love these kinds of small wins, he says. “We (city) didn’t do much. It was really Mary, the Hatch Foundation and definitely Linda and the volunteers. But when you have these kinds of community partners, it makes it really easy for the city to do what the city needs to do.

“I love that we — each organization — had a role and we stayed in it. That was something that worked really well.

“And, voila! Over a weekend this mural shows up. So, more, please.”

Rebekah Polly painted this particular portion of the mural. (Photo by Linda Passeri)

Kathleen O'Dell

Kathleen O'Dell is a veteran journalist who has covered health care, business, education and investigative pieces throughout her career. She's a St. Louis native and a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism. In addition to working for a Texas newspaper, she was on the first staff of USA Today in Washington, D.C., and spent most of her newspaper career at the Springfield News-Leader. More by Kathleen O'Dell