Ted Stillwell loves a good story.
And the Independence mural artist and columnist has enough of them to keep folks entertained for hours.
That’s why he is so excited to be the featured artist this month at Art Squared, 111 North Main Street, on the Independence Square.
On a bright, crisp morning last week, he was visiting with a teacher from Fort Osage High School, about Fort Osage and the many activities that took place at the historic Eastern Jackson County historical site.
One of his featured paintings, which was part of a 4-by-16-foot mural that celebrated The Examiner’s 100th anniversary back in 1998, shows Chief White Hair smoking a peace pipe at Fort Osage with two members of his tribe, George Sibley, a Fort Osage benefactor and the namesake for the city of Sibley; and William Clark, of Lewis and Clark fame.
Anyone familiar with Missouri artists might notice a similarity between the work of Stillwell and the iconic Thomas Hart Benton, who painted the massive mural in the front entrance to Truman Library.
After bidding his new fans adieu, Stillwell takes a seat in the back of Art Squared and talks about a memorable four-month journey he took with Benton while he was painting one of his final murals, honoring the Joplin, Missouri, Centennial back in 1974.
“I’ve been lucky,” Stillwell said, a twinkle in his eye, as he twists and turns his trademark ponytail. “For being an old, burned out hippie, I’ve been able to meet a lot of interesting people and do some amazing things.”
He is a columnist for The Examiner, has built 25 homes, and has spent many years in the creative broadcast industry, both radio and television.
His love of history, his passion for storytelling and his unique brand of art come together every Wednesday in The Examiner as he writes and illustrates “Portraits of the Past” – a newspaper column about the history and folklore of our neighborhoods.
But early in his career, he was a disc jockey. But after “too many years” of spinning records – yes, records - on turntables across the state, the music industry and teenyboppers finally got to him, so he switched gears and began writing and reading the news.
“That was one of the best decisions I ever made,” Stillwell said, “because if I wasn’t on the news side, I’d have never met Thomas Hart Benton.”
Benton was in the process of painting a mural for the Joplin Centennial. It told the story of Joplin at the turn of the 20th Century and even featured a likeness of Benton at a local diner.
“The four months I spent with Mr. Benton while he was painting that mural was like a college education,” Stillwell said, “in fact, I learned more than I could ever learn from college. We kind of became friends, and even had coffee on occasion.”
When asked if Stillwell ever showed the curmudgeonly Benton any of his work, he paused for a moment, and said, “Well, yes I did. He was quite courteous and polite. Let’s just leave it at that.”
With Benton serving as an inspirational muse, Stillwell began painting murals across the state.
A 41-foot mural on the history of Independence is on public display in the banquet room of the Courthouse Exchange Restaurant on the south side of the Independence Square. The oil painting on canvass traces Independence history from the wagon trail days to the Truman era.
Another Stillwell mural entitled “Jesus and the Children,” hangs inside the front foyer of the Fairmount United Methodist Church, 2119 South Holke Road, in eastern Independence.
Another Stillwell mural greets passengers arriving on Amtrak at the historic railroad depot in downtown Lee’s Summit. The 20-by-40-foot painting represents the history of Lee’s Summit.
The journalistic side of Stillwell takes over before he begins a project, as he does painstaking research on his subject.
Sometimes months of research are involved before starting a painting and he says his paintings become like companions.
“They become so real,” Stillwell said. “They’re like your children. And I love each and every one of them.”
Surprisingly, when asked if he had a favorite, he nodded yes.
“A mural I did called ‘A Rich Heritage,’ based on the black community of Independence is probably my favorite,” he said, of the mural that is on permanent display on the second floor of the Roger T. Sermon Community Center, Truman Road and Noland Road. “I am so proud of it.”
The State of Missouri, in cooperation with LINC (Local Investment Commission for the City of Independence) created the first Ted Stillwell Award, with the local artist being the first recipient, in October of 2014.
The Ted Stillwell Award is presented each year to someone who has done outstanding work to preserve our local heritage and history.
“It doesn’t get much more special than that,” Stillwell said, grinning. “Not bad for being an old, burned out hippie.”