Mention the artists of Joplin and many will remember Thomas Hart Benton. Yet Joplin was home to another painter: the talented watercolorist Robert Higgs, who was instrumental in founding the Ozark Artists Guild, which would later become the Spiva Center for the Arts.
Robert E. Higgs was born in Anderson on August 16, 1916. He lived and attended school in Anderson. After graduation, he attended commercial art school in Kansas City, then the Chicago Academy of Fine Art.
In 1937, he began to work at Joplin for the Coca-Cola Co. as a decorative artist. His ability to paint was well known to Anderson. In 1939, the congregation of the First Baptist Church in Anderson asked him to paint a mural. He had a studio in Joplin, where he painted a fresco of Christ ascending to heaven. When completed, it was installed in the sanctuary of the church.
He married his wife Marie in the early 1940s when he was a struggling artist. Verne Wilder, owner of Wilder’s restaurant, had a liver and white pointer named Old Joe. According to the Wilder family, Higgs painted an oil painting of the dog. “Although Verne didn’t like the painting, he bought it because Mr. Higgs needed the money to get married. The painting proudly hangs in a private family collection.
In 1943, he participated in the 13th annual exhibition of the Springfield Art Museum with a watercolor entitled “Corner of Fourth and Pearl”. He received an honorable mention. He entered the United States Army in February 1944, serving in the Philippines before traveling to Japan. In 1946, he was stationed near Hiroshima with an infantry headquarters unit. His artistic skills led him to be in charge of 14 painting projects by Japanese artists for the occupation forces. Some of his work has been featured in Stars and Stripes, the military newspaper.
He was injured in Tokyo in 1945. During his convalescence, he obtained permission to paint in the streets of Tokyo. Later he was commissioned for paintings and sketches of places in and around the city of Kyoto. The Visitor Liaison Office ordered a book of 87 art boards that included reproductions of paintings by various artists depicting cultural, historical and scenic places in Kyoto. He was one of the artists presented. The book was intended for official visitors.
“Touring Kyoto and Vicinity” showed a variety of his works. One painting was titled “War’s Desolation,” which could easily have been taken from Hiroshima. Another is a vibrant and contemporary street scene, while another is that of the classical Higashi Honganji Buddhist temple in Kyoto. Higgs has occasionally included sketches of his wartime service in art exhibitions in recent years.
Ozark Artists Guild
When he left the service, Higgs returned home to Joplin and accepted a position as art director for Joplin Printing Co. A mural of him still occupies one wall of the printing press.
Joplin had had an arts league in the 1920s, but it had disbanded. However, interest in art continued and was stimulated by the return of veterans as the post-war economy grew. In 1947, a number of people decided there was enough interest to form a new arts league. At their second meeting, Higgs was the guest speaker. He presented a series of watercolors of Japan, including rice paddies and the Tokyo Bay area.
Thus began a long relationship with the artistic community of Joplin. The group organized itself under the name Ozark Artists Guild. Higgs and six other artists were the founding artists of the guild. He was elected president for the first two years. They first met at the YMCA, then got a room in Joplin’s First Public Library.
He has been active in presenting classes, speaking to clubs and serving the community. In 1950 he helped design flyers for the Joplin Community Chest collection, while continuing to work for Joplin Printing Co. and commission paint.
“The Ozark Artists Guild has been involved in community service projects. For example, in 1951, members painted six underage circus paintings for the Joplin Children’s Home, while Higgs’ “Fall Scene” was donated to the foyer for its permanent collection.
He has often been a lecturer in clubs on subjects related to art. Speaking of watercolor paints, he was painting a picture or demonstrating the use of casein paint and oil. He could show various printing processes such as simple screen prints.
He has given one-man shows in cities like Santa Fe, New Mexico; Tulsa, Oklahoma; Springfield, Missouri; Joplin; Pittsburg, Kansas; and Wichita, Kansas, in the 1950s and 1960s.
He led the decoration team as an interior designer and artist at Christman’s in 1954. That year he oversaw the decoration of a model house “House of Tomorrow” for Brady Stevens Realty, then another. home for Rolla Stephens Realty. He maintained a private studio and workshop for building custom frames in his home.
Spiva Art Center
When George Spiva donated the Zelleken House at 406 Sergeant Avenue to the Guild, Higgs was instrumental in the move in 1958. He continued to teach watercolor lessons. The name of the guild has been changed to Spiva Art Center.
He was selected by Art-Mart Inc., of St. Louis, sponsor of the International Schools of Painting, to teach a session of the 10th Annual Summer School at Martha’s Vineyard in 1964. He ran painting workshops in Springfield , Missouri and Dallas.
The Zelleken house quickly became too small. George Spiva donated $ 100,000 for the fine arts building on the Missouri Southern State College campus, providing a venue for Spiva Art Center activities and college art classes. The building was scheduled to open in the fall of 1967.
On February 5, 1967, a solo exhibition of Higgs’ work opened at the Oklahoma Museum of Curatorial Art. The exhibition included watercolors and tempera. Higgs had been one of 10 artists selected by the Missouri State Council on the Arts to appear in a statewide traveling exhibit.
However, on the same day, he passed away suddenly at his home after going to church. He was 50 years old. The Fine Arts Building opened on September 5, 1967, with the Robert Higgs Memorial Exhibition, the Spiva Art Center’s star attraction. The Springfield Art Museum held a commemorative exhibit the following month with 80 of his paintings and sketches.
By the time of his death, his works had been exhibited in Springfield, Tulsa, Kansas City, New Mexico, Kansas, Texas, Ohio and California. His works had been collected by Ford Motor Co. and IBM.
A week after his death, Joplin’s impresario Fern Wilder wrote: “For this handsome man-artist was ‘on his way’ to national recognition and success. He had a great talent: painting. and he painted what he thought: beauty. Bob loved beauty, and it characterized his life and his thinking. In a more or less sordid and troubled world, Bob was needed.
Wrote Les Pearson, editor of the Higgs News Herald: “His first thought was consideration for others. It was for them that he created beauty.