STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Let's travel, next, to one of the most famous towns in American literary history. It is hard to imagine this country without Mark Twain. The creator of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn did a lot to define American fiction and this country's idea of itself. Sam Clemens grew up along the Mississippi River. School children learned he got his pen name when hearing steamboat crew members shouting, Mark Twain; slang for the water is two fathoms deep.
His hometown was Hannibal, Missouri. And today, 125 years after the first pressing of "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," we go there as part of our summer exploration of off-beat arts destinations.
St. Louis Public Radio's Tim Lloyd finds a new set of artistic characters in Twain's boyhood home.
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TIM LLOYD, BYLINE: Standing at Hannibal's town dock I can hear old calliope music from a steamboat lumbering into town. Looking uphill from the bank of the Mississippi River, it's hard to remember Hannibal was almost gutted by a massive flood in 1993. After the waters receded and life got back to normal, a steady influx of artists has slowly given the 177-year-old town a new feel.
On a Saturday afternoon you can find a few of them holding a bohemian roundtable, of sorts, at Java Jive's, the local coffee house.
Steve Ayers, a potter with a Mark Twain-like mustache, seems to know just about every artist in town. Stepping outside onto Main Street where a street musician is playing steel guitar, he talks about the effort 14-years ago to recruit other artists to live here.
STEVE AYERS: I started thinking about it. I came here in '85 and it's a great little town. So I always thought it would be a great place for artists to live and there weren't any here. So, more than anything else, we did it just because I'm lonesome. You know, you wanted somebody to share a beer with.
LLOYD: The sales pitch was something like: Come to Hannibal, it's cheap to live here and easy to get to art shows. The project to formally recruit artists has faded over the years, but Ayers says that's not really a bad thing.
AYERS: It works much better when it happens, kind of, naturally. Kind of, you know, when fiends invite friends in. When you're doing an active recruitment, you'd have all these people coming in who always wanted to be artists and they were never happy. When you had friends inviting friends, they invited the people they liked. And it just worked much better.
LLOYD: He has plenty of company now. There are nearly 50 active artists in this the little town of 18,000. Their presence here has changed the complexion of Main Street. A quarter of its storefronts are now occupied by artists. Many of the shops here specialize in the kind of accessible folk art that appeals to tourists, who come here to see Mark Twain's hometown. And the community has rallied around them; the art council's budget has tripled. Some banks and the hospital have ditched corporate art and now decorate their walls with local work.
The door to Nancy Kaufman's shop is propped open today and you can hear a train howling by in the distance.
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LLOYD: Kaufman is threading turquoise, magenta, deep blue yarn through a six food long loom.
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LLOYD: Kaufman was a fixture of the art scene in Santa Fe for 30 years and co-owned two galleries there. But in 2005, she decided to take some time away from the art show circuit and set up a little shop on Main Street, in downtown Hannibal.
NANCY KAUFMAN: And when I first moved here I said, you know, this place reminds me of Santa Fe when I moved there in 1976. Because Santa Fe, then, it was dead all winter long and we only had a couple months, you know, of tourism. But right now it just has the feeling of, you know, something that's right at the beginning of its growth.
LLOYD: As soon as she saw this old drug store on Main Street, she dreamed of turning it into a place where she could weave and talk to customers.
KAUFMAN: To bring something to life, you know, back to life and to give it new life, its creativity. You know, it's a birth. It's exciting to us. I think that's just the nature of the artist.
LLOYD: Most artists in Hannibal, though, don't own shops and make their money traveling to art shows. Being located near the center of the Midwest makes it more convenient to get to those shows.
Melissa Dominiak is a painter who moved here from Seattle.
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LLOYD: She's now in the process of rehabbing a massive former church.
MELISSA DOMINIAK: It's shaped almost like a clover leaf, I would say. I'm guessing the vaults are 35, 40 feet high. There's a house next door and there's an empty lot on the side of this house. And this church was $70,000. That's what we bought it for.
LLOYD: She says she'll put her studio here and try to rent out the rest of the space for special events. Like many of the artists here, Dominiak says Hannibal's central location, affordability, and a thriving arts community make being a struggling artist just a little less painful.
For NPR News, I'm Tim Lloyd.