Joplin, Missouri, lost an Art Wonder Woman on April 18, 2021, with the passing of Mary Jo Mueller. Jo was born at the old Freeman Hospital at 20th and Jackson, June 21, 1950. She graduated from Joplin High as co-valedictorian in June 1968. Her parents were the late Byron Mueller (Empire District Electric) and Elizabeth Jane Evans Mueller (librarian, Missouri Southern State College).
A life-long artist in everything she accomplished, Jo started her post-secondary experience at Antioch College in Ohio in the fall of 1968; completing her degree in Business Administration in May 1994 at Colorado Christian University in Denver. During that ”brief” 25-year college career, Jo was a hippie in the Huerfano Valley of Colorado, attended Woodstock in 1969 with good friend Jane Pickett (there’s proof), worked as a seamstress, a Jane Fonda aerobics instructor, “wrangler” of staff at the Phipps La Garita Ranch in Creede, Colorado, worked with the Creede Repertory Theater, artistic director of Colorado Contemporary Dance, stage manager at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, prepared for and was accepted to Dental School at the University of Washington (before obtaining a bachelor’s degree) and enjoyed the role of innkeeper, with husband Don, at two Bed & Breakfasts on the Long Beach Peninsula, Washington.
Prior to her 12-year position as Executive Director at Spiva, Jo worked as a reference librarian at the Joplin Public Library.
Mary Jo had many nicknames: Mick, JoFred, MJ, Murray, Posey, Poez, JoMomma and many more. Most in Joplin knew her simply as Jo. Each nickname has a special meaning and is connected to a specific group of friends; connections and communities so vibrant that the people involved still refer to her by that moniker.
Jo married Don Ayers twice; secretly on February 29, 1988 and publicly on July 23, 1988. They joyfully renewed their vows at Lavern’s Marriage Parlor, Miami, Okla., February 29, 2016.
As an artist, Mary Jo was adventurous. She worked in wire, ceramics, found pieces, photography, pen and ink, watercolor. Her artistic career began at Spiva at the Edward Zelleken House when she was a third grader. She had worked as a potter’s apprentice at Silver Dollar City in Branson.
Jo joined Spiva Center for the Arts as executive director in 2003 and retired in 2015. Under her direction, the center expanded into a cultural anchor for the Four-State Area, expanding to include three galleries, a gift shop, an art library and public meeting room, and an archived permanent collection. She also expanded programming to include an annual project that brought more than 1,000 area third grade school children into Spiva and outreach programming that served Lafayette House, the Boys and Girls Club of Southwest Missouri, the Joplin Family Y, and the Southwest Missouri Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association.
She considered her proudest accomplishments to be development of special exhibits and programming to promote healing through art after Joplin’s 2011 EF5 tornado.
Among her many accolades were the 2016 Missouri Arts Council Leadership in the Arts Award; the 2014 Arty Award presented by the Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce for lifetime achievement in the arts; the 2011 Missouri Department of Tourism Spotlight Award for contributions to tourism; and the 2006 Artist Award from the Carthage Chamber of Commerce. In 2010, she was recognized as one of the Joplin Tri-State Business Journal’s Most Influential Women.
Mary Jo was a founding member of the board of Connect2Culture and the former Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce Cultural Affairs Committee and served several years as a trustee for the Joplin Public Library and on the board of Main Street Joplin. She had also served on the North Middle School Interior Design Committee for the R-8 School District and on the Mural Review Committee for the Missouri Department of Transportation. Jo was an active member of the Joplin Rotary Club until her retirement. She was instrumental in the initiative to bring the Harry Cornell Arts and Entertainment Center to downtown Joplin.
Along with local artist Rebecca Perry, Mary Jo was commissioned by former Joplin School Superintendent CJ Huff to create an artistic work for the UAE’s Washington DC Consulate in thanks for the UAE’s post-tornado donations to area schools and organizations.
Although Mary Jo had no children of her own, she acquired several ”instant relatives” in her life: Don’s sons Matt and wife Karrie (Seattle), Josh and wife Lindsey (Denver); G-Jo’s beloved grandchildren Cooper and Hudson (Seattle) and Ethan and Amelia (Denver); special daughter Ursa Laszlo (Colorado), Ursa’s parents: mother Patricia Byrd (California) and her father Larry Laszlo (Denver). Also surviving are older brother Tom and wife Jill (New Jersey), their children: Tori (Virginia) and Brett (Massachusetts); sisters-in-law Suzanne Wilson (Colorado) and Sirpa Lawson (Louisiana), and, niece Kaisa and husband Chad Young (Louisiana) and their children Micah and Ada. Older brother Jim preceded her in death in 2002.
Special thanks to Sandy Hughes, founder, Bonita Bond, director, and the wonderful volunteers at Joplin’s only residential hospice, Solace House of the Ozarks. Mary Jo donated her body to the KCU Medical School, Joplin.
A celebration of her life will be in June, with details announced later.
Contributions in Jo’s name can be made to Solace House of the Ozarks, Spiva Center for the Arts and the Joplin Public Library.