Carthage Art History Good News

‘Forged in Fire’ Mural Stands as a Tribute to Lowell Davis’ Love for Home and Nature

Dedicated during the nation’s bicentennial celebration, Lowell Davis’ sweeping mural “Forged in Fire,” on the south wall of the east wing of the main floor of the Jasper County Courthouse, has wowed visitors and school children more than four decades.

Push the button under the mural; a courthouse visitor can listen for about four minutes as Ron Peterson Senior’s booming baritone radio voice describes the scenes from left to right as they tell the history of Jasper County and Carthage in vivid colors and detail.

Auctioneer and former Presiding Jasper County Commissioner Danny Hensley said this mural was one of Lowell Davis’ most significant contributions to Davis’ hometown. Hensley used to give tours of the Courthouse to thousands of school children a year, and the mural was always a highlight of the tour. “I think anyone who goes through Carthage and takes a tour of the town if they don’t come up and see this mural, they’ve missed a lot,” Hensley said. “It’s just a really neat history starting back with the Indians and coming on forward. It tells the story of Carthage and Jasper County. I’m just really proud of it.”

Davis was proud of the mural too. He used to come to the Courthouse to see friends and conduct business, and he’d pause by his creation and look it over and talk about it to anyone who happened to be around. Some recognized him as the mural’s creator, and others didn’t, but he was willing to talk to all of them when he was there.

Lowell Davis passed away on Nov. 2, 2020, at the age of 83, at his home in the community he created northeast of Carthage called Red Oak II and is buried in the whimsical cemetery in a plot he designed himself.

About the mural

The “Forged in Fire” mural was dedicated as “a Bicentennial Gift to the City of Carthage from the Soroptimists International of Carthage” on Oct. 10, 1976. It was a year of celebration to commemorate 200 years after the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, 1776.

A 24-page booklet printed as a program for that mural dedication said the artist, Lowell Davis had an idea for a mural in the Jasper County Courthouse in the 1950s as a 19-year-old Carthage native returning from service in the United States Air Force.

An article in the program by Carthage Press reporter Neil Campbell said Davis made drawings of a proposed mural back in the 1950s. He was to rediscover those drawings in 1976 when the Soroptimists first approached him about the project.

“It would be the group’s bicentennial contribution to the city, and they wondered if Davis might be interested,” Campbell wrote in the article. “The club had also been ‘kicking around’ the idea of a mural for several years. Only then did the organization’s idea and the artist’s dream begin to merge. A crash program of research followed, using The Press files as primary source material. Care was taken that ‘every face, every building, every tombstone was faithfully rendered.”

Lowell Davis article
The Carthage Press article featuring Lowell Davis, artist of the Forged in Fire Mural

A photo in The Carthage Press from Oct. 8, 1976, shows Davis inspecting the mural with a young boy, Jason Scott, then 8, who served as the model for the young boy and his dog listening to an older storyteller in the lower right corner of the mural.

The caption of the photo says George Guinn, then living in the Drake Hotel, served as the model for the storyteller and names Artie Baugh Jr., as the model for the Osage Indian and Sibyl Fielder, Diamond, as the model for Annie Baxter on the left side of the mural.

The Oct. 10, 1976 dedication of the mural, according to the booklet, was headlined by then Missouri First Lady Carolyn Bond and featured local political figures of the time, State Rep. Robert Ellis Young, State Sen. Richard Webster, and U.S. Congressman Gene Taylor in various roles.

Lowell Davis is with political figures
Lowell Davis meets with local politicians Robert Young, Richard Webster, and Gene Taylor.

Ruth Evans, then president of the Soroptimist International of Carthage, read the welcome;  Presiding Jasper County Judge Byron Fly led the Pledge of Allegiance; Carthage’s Ida Ruth “Platt” Locarni, described as a mezzo-soprano in the program and accompanied by Frances Pierce, sang “This Is Our Country” and Let There Be Peace on Earth;” Dallie Miessner, the Chair of the Mural Committee, introduced Davis; Harriette Murray, the 1975 president of the Soroptimists, presented the mural; and then-Mayor Byron C. Hallam accepted it.

Campbell’s article said the mural became an “around-the-clock endeavor” and said Davis suspended all his other work to devote full time to the project.

“A mural is to the artist, at least to this artist, as Carnegie Hall is to the musician,” Davis said in the article. “I truly believe this is the ultimate challenge.”


Other works and honors

On June 8, 1937, Davis was born in Lawrence County to Berton Clayton Davis and Nell Marie Davis; Lowell Davis grew up in Red Oak, MO, near the Lawrence-Jasper County line and moved to Carthage during his elementary school years.

He married Rose Castillo Davis in 2003 and has three daughters and three sons from previous marriages: April Davis Brunner, also an artist, Heather Davis, Wren Davis, Phillip Davis, Jeb Davis, and Aaron Davis.

He attended Mark Twain School and Carthage High School.

Davis described his time at Mark Twain school in an interview in September 2017 when the school celebrated its 100th birthday.

“I came from a country school,” Lowell Davis said. “I was in the fifth grade, and I went to Mark Twain when we moved to Carthage. The painting I did for the school’s 75th birthday, that’s me outside the school with a bicycle, and homemade clothes, and a $5 bicycle, and I’m looking at the school. It’s just so big compared to the country schools I was used to going to. There was a teacher here; she noticed my talent. It was Mrs. Esterle, she gave art lessons here, and she paid my way to taking art lessons for three years, so I dedicated that painting in there to her.”

Lowell Davis created a sculpture for Mark Twain School’s 100th birthday that still stands near the Main Street entrance to the school.

Davis served as an airman in the U.S. Air Force, then made a name as a commercial artist while living in Texas in the 1950s and 1960s.

A short Carthage Press article from Jan. 10, 1969, which may have been the first written about Davis, said he was “gaining considerable nationwide attention for his paintings.”

In 1974 he moved back to Carthage, Missouri, bought Fox Fire Farm northeast of Carthage, and in 1987 started buying homes and buildings from his hometown, Red Oak, Mo., and created Red Oak II, a small community on a loop around a tiny lake.

“I don’t believe that an artist should be restricted to use only paint of clay,” Davis wrote on the Red Oak II website, “It can be anything including junk, wood, even an old building. To me, Red Oak II is a combination of a painting and a sculpture, and it is just made from things that someone else threw away.”

In his final years, Davis created dozens of sculptures at businesses and other institutions around Carthage.

In 2016, when talking about one of those sculptures he created at the Jasper County Road Barn on the corner of North River Street and Missouri Highway 96, Davis said he couldn’t paint anymore because of arthritis. Still, the sculptures “got his adrenaline pumping again.”

His 3-D art with colorful names is scattered across Carthage, including “the Crapduster,” a whimsical biplane in front of the Flying W. Convenience Store at Highway 96 and County Route V; the piece called “Ain’t No Wonder His Wife Left Him,” at Jackson Tire, 614 E. Central, featuring an antique car and a steel image of a woman changing the tire while the man sits in the car; or the work called “Bad Hair Day,” in front of the Elite Hair Designs salon at 109 S. McGregor Ave.

Lowell Davis said he hoped his 3-D creations would be one more thing to put Carthage, Missouri on the map.

“They’re a lot of fun to make,” Davis said. “I was here when they put it up there. My son is really strong, so he can get the steel up there. When I was born, I had the choice of being good-looking or strong, and that day, I wish I had picked strong.”

In 2019, the community recognized Davis with two big honors: he was named Artist of the Year at the Carthage Chamber of Commerce Annual Banquet in January 2019, and he was named to the Hall of Carthage Heroes, and a plaque with his biography was placed on the wall at the Fair Acres Family Y in November 2019.

Carthage Chamber of Commerce 2019 Banquet
Dina Thomas, Andy Thomas, Lowell Davis and Rose Davis at the 2019 Carthage Chamber of Commerce Annual Banquet on Friday, Jan. 18, 2019. John Hacker

Another honor came his way when he became part of a huge new mural, created by one of his students, Andy Thomas, on the east wall of the McBride Building on the southeast corner of the Carthage Square.

Thomas said he got to show Davis his image that would be included in the mural before Davis died.

Carthage Art History

Hometown Art: Andy Thomas is Famous Nationwide for Paintings, but Art Displayed at Home is Special

By John Hacker

Andy Thomas has become famous across the country for his paintings of western scenes and noted historical events — some of his art brings in six-figure bids at national art auctions in Montana and other places. But the paintings he has on display here in Carthage, his hometown, are special, Thomas says. They mean more because the people admiring them are his friends, neighbors, and people he grew up with. National fame, like the notoriety he’s received on occasion for his series on American presidents grouping present-day presidents with their historical predecessors in scenes playing poker or relaxing at a bar, is fleeting, Thomas said. But local recognition is more satisfying and permanent. “It was cool a couple of years ago when I was in the national news, but that’s very short-lived and I’m just momentarily in people’s minds when that happens,” Thomas said. “In your hometown, it’s a little more permanent, and it means more. I was surprised how excited I was working on the big mural we just did and how enthusiastic I got about doing the artwork, the theme of it, and the notoriety, that’s pretty fun too.”


Cherry’s and the Civil War Museum

People don’t have to pay six figures to see Thomas’ art in Carthage. In one case, one doesn’t even have to get out of a car to see his art bright as day.

A shopper can purchase an Andy Thomas original painting at Cherry’s Custom Art Emporium on the Square, and he or she can browse the extensive collection of art there, including several Andy Thomas originals.

Some of Thomas’ first works are on display in very public places, including Carthage City Hall and the Battle of Carthage Civil War Museum on Grant Street just north of the Square. The big mural depicting his impression of the July 5, 1861 Battle of Carthage as the fight crossed the Carthage Square is on display over the desk as one enters the museum. Thomas said that was one of his first works right after he quit working at Leggett & Platt to focus on art full time. “Bob Tommy came to me and said he had said he would do it but he really didn’t want to and thought I would do good at it,” Thomas said. “It was a great opportunity for me.”

Thomas said working on that mural reinforced in his mind the importance of painstaking research. Retired Jasper County Records Center Director Steve Weldon and Carthage historian Steve Cottrell, who authored a book about the Battle of Carthage, helped him suss out the details of the battle from the limited accounts available in 1992. “Thank God I had those two because one of the big things on that painting is that it’s odd that the Union is wearing gray,” Thomas said. “They said history was history and make sure you show it the way it was or it’ll haunt you. They had other details, Steve Weldon gave me the dramatic understanding of what the soldiers were doing and Steve Cottrell was very technical, he let me know exactly what happened, so I had two great mentors to help me do it the right way.”

Thomas said there were limits to what the research could uncover, and he had to create some details based on best estimates. “Steve Cottrell would say most likely scenario would be this and this is why we believe that but there are a lot of things you really don’t know, you have to make an educated guess,” Thomas said. “At some point on the painting you have to show either a white shirt or a red shirt and you make your best guess, but before that, you do all the research you can.”

Carthage City Hall

About a year later, in 1993, Thomas was approached by then Carthage Mayor Herb Casteel about a series of paintings he wanted to see in Carthage’s then-new city hall on the east side of the Square. The project, funded by the Carthage Soroptimist Club, was a series of six works comparing Carthage’s early history to that of its overseas predecessor.“Herb had said isn’t it odd that there are several parallels and it is our sister city, the ancient city of Carthage in Tunisia,” Thomas said. “There really were some interesting parallels. One, both cities were founded on a hill which is just almost natural but in Tunisia, definitely for defense, and here just because it seemed natural. Also, both near bodies of water, Spring River was very important at the time for commerce and Tunisia was on the Mediterranean Sea. Two, both were destroyed, Carthage was utterly destroyed during the Civil War, and Carthage, Tunisia was eventually destroyed during the Third Punic War. Then three, they both rebuilt.”

These works, along with signs explaining each painting, are on display with artifacts sent to Carthage from its ancient sister city, in the lobby of City Hall, 326 Grant St. Thomas said he looks back fondly on those early works that helped keep his family fed and helped him hone his skills as a storyteller with a paintbrush. “It was a lot of fun, I still have pictures of me wearing a skirt, for the pleated Roman uniform,” Thomas said. “That was when I used more photographs when I could and I’ve got pictures of my wife Dina and daughter Tria as a little girl dressed for the painting of the destruction of Carthage. You think back, man, that was a long time ago, and yet it doesn’t seem that long ago.”


Fast forward almost 30 years and Thomas has built a successful business using his skills as an artist, but one of his biggest jobs was still to come. In 2020, Vision Carthage Director Abi Almandinger approached Thomas with the idea for a mural on the blank brick wall of the McBride Building on the southeast corner of the Square. At 27 feet tall and 44 feet wide, Thomas said this was by far his biggest work, although he didn’t have to actually paint the mural on the wall himself, and it’s easily viewable from a car.

He created the individual people and scenes depicted on the wall in his studio, then the final paintings were assembled digitally by Whitehill Enterprises, Joplin, then the finished image was sent to Spain where it was cast on 459 ceramic tiles, each 19 inches square and weighing 14 pounds. Ceramic tiles were used to ensure durability and make sure this mural lasts long after others painted directly on walls have faded in the sun. Thomas said he used different artistic techniques to create the scenes in the mural.

The mural includes seven Carthaginians who have gone on to do big things and depicts them in a sort of fantasy style as children playing in a way that hints at what would make them famous as adults. Then it includes pictures of them as adults. The seven residents honored are Hall of Fame baseball Pitcher Carl Hubble, Television Host and Zoologist Marlin Perkins, Former Jasper County Clerk Annie Baxter, Hollywood Leading Man David Newell, Ragtime Composer James Scott, Astronaut Janet Kavandi and NFL Football great Felix Wright.

Finally, along the left edge of the mural, he added a scaffold that makes it look like six of the artists, including himself, who made Carthage famous as an arts community are working to complete the top left corner of the mural. The artists are Bill Snow, Thomas, Jerry Ellis, Bob Tommey, Lowell Davis and Sam Butcher. Thomas completed the mural in early 2021, and it was installed in April and dedicated in May.

Thomas said as an artist, he watched closely as the mural took shape on the wall of the McBride building.

“By far, that was the biggest thing I’ve ever created,” Thomas said. “It was a little scary at first. I saw it going up and I thought, oh my gosh, the colors are so dull, but it turned out when they added the grout it left a film and they hadn’t removed that yet. The last time I went up there, I looked at it and I know the colors are different from the print on paper, but I was satisfied with the way it looks.”

Other works

Another work by Thomas that doesn’t have unfettered public access is the mural in the lobby of the Carthage R-9 Auditorium on Main Street. The public’s best chance to admire that work is during the activities surrounding the Maple Leaf Festival. The mural features scenes from Carthage High School history up to the 1990s. Additional works, secluded from public view, hang on the walls of the corporate headquarters of Leggett & Platt where Thomas once worked. The works line the halls and mirror the history of the company and industrial initiative in Carthage. 

People traveling to the historic battlefields that dot the four-state region can also see Thomas’ work.

  • The Pea Ridge National Battlefield in Northwest Arkansas features a series of a dozen paintings the park commissioned Thomas to do depicting the stages of that 1862 battle that secured Missouri for the Union side.
  • Thomas created a painting of the Civil War Battle at Wilson’s Creek, which happened in the late summer of 1861, that was on display at that battlefield’s visitors center just east of Springfield.
  • His work is also on display at the Prairie Grove Battlefield State Park in eastern Arkansas. This battle, in December 1862, was the last major action in Northwest Arkansas in the Civil War.