George Kieffer, the artist who preserved the Ozarks with paint

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George Kieffer poses next to “The History of Medicine,” a mural he painted at Burge-Protestant Hospital. Today, that hospital is known as Cox North. (Courtesy of the Kieffer family)


Artist George Kieffer saw life in shades of color few could see. Brush in hand, his eyes and heart transformed puddles of paint into expressions of a beautiful world. While many of those manifestations featured bright Ozarks scenes — of local farms, fields and folk — his talent was lent to many subjects and locations, including homes, businesses and public buildings.

“Art was absolutely his life. I mean, he thought about it 24/7,” says George A. Kieffer, the artist’s son. “He would paint until at least 2 a.m., and sometimes all night long.”

The obsessive passion yielded years of little sleep — but never exhaustion of his calling.

“When he died in February 1981 at age 75, Kieffer left behind hundreds of pieces of his work in Springfield and beyond,” recorded the Springfield Leader & Press in December 1982. “His murals were in demand across the country; he created them for theaters, banks, restaurants and hospitals.”

Today, those numbers are dwindling. A number of his public murals have been lost to time, and while there’s no way to keep track, it seems few residential ones survive. However, there are still several left to offer locals the benefit of Kieffer’s passion, which began before his memory.

“I don’t remember when I first became interested in painting,” Kieffer told a Sunday News and Leader reporter in 1952. “I guess I was born with the urge.”


Kieffer was born in 1905 on a farm near Pierce City. It was there he began to draw, although he initially was discouraged by his parents because they thought art was a “slightly immoral” way to make a living. “I don’t think my parents considered an artist a very useful citizen in the community,” he told that newspaper reporter in 1952.

However, he eventually won over his parents. His first works were done with watercolors and wax crayons, he noted in the article, and he recounted some major artistic milestones:

“When I was 10 years old, my parents ordered my first oil painting set through a hardware store in Pierce City,” he said. “I remember one day when I was chosen to decorate the blackboard at school — I guess you would call that the highest point of my artistic career up to that time.”

Although his children don’t quite know why, the family moved to Springfield when Kieffer was around 10 years old. He enrolled at Campbell Elementary, and later moved on to Central (then Senior High) School. According to some, it was around that time when his artistic technique really began to develop.

“During the ’20s, … Kieffer seems to have ‘discovered’ the French Impressionists whose works frequently were reproduced in popular magazines during that era,” wrote Edgar Albin, retired chair of the art department at then-Southwest Missouri State University, who wrote a weekly arts column for the Sunday News and Leader. “His palette became lighter and brighter, and his broken brush strokes put down with verve and directness,” Albin noted in a 1982 column.

That time segued into a busy season for Kieffer. He married Mildred, his sweetheart, and the couple eventually had four children: Marilyn, George, Leigh, and Carole.


All the while, Kieffer was turning his passion into a profession. He spent time painting scenery and backdrops for local stage productions, as well as billboards and advertising displays (at the same time advertising his own skill). Eventually, he became connected with a local interior designer, which opened a pathway for more residential work.

That collaboration brought Kieffer into many local homes, decorating walls with paintings of food, flowers and other scenes. And his skill was developed and perfected through practice.

“Daddy was completely self-taught,” said daughter Marilyn Burns in a 2006 CoxHealth Connection article. “He started young, and painted all his life, right up to the end. It was a joy and a passion that filled his life, and he raised a family of four children comfortably on what he earned from it. He was no starving artist, by any means.”

It’s unclear of just how it came about, but Kieffer’s talent eventually became known on the West Coast. Leigh Bryson, another of the artist’s daughters, recalls that her father was recruited to come work for Walt Disney Studios.

“I remember that very clearly, and I know mother did not want to leave Springfield,” says Bryson, who mentions her father exchanging letters with someone in California about the proposition.

Although his children mention their father’s love of the Ozarks, Bryson believes he was interested in the California opportunity. “If Mother had been willing to go, Daddy would’ve gone,” she says.

In light of the opposition, the family stayed put in the Ozarks. It’s where Kieffer lived the rest of his life.


Even though Kieffer didn’t have his work known through Disney, he found many eyes on his talent by painting public murals. He was firmly in that business by the early 1950s, proven by a newspaper profile about him that mentioned several he’d done.

One example was at Union National Bank, where his 40-foot-long piece — entitled “The Bountiful Ozarks” — drew visitors but no business. Back then, one bank official said that “people come in the bank, stand a long time studying the mural, and then leave without doing a lick of business with us.”

“The Bountiful Ozarks” as it appeared on a promotional card for Union National Bank. (Courtesy of the Springfield-Greene County Library District)


Others were at Heer’s department store, which had several different Kieffer pieces — but some of the most well-known were flowered panels that decorated the Dogwood Room. Visitors to the old Greene County Courthouse enjoyed a depiction of early commerce around today’s Park Central Square. The Landers Theatre featured his art.

St. Paul’s Methodist Church (today, The Downtown Church) commissioned a mural entitled “Suffer the Little Children to Come Unto Me” for its sanctuary. “They were in such a hurry to get it hung that I didn’t have time to put my name on it,” said Kieffer years ago.

Three separate murals, depicting Drury University’s Stone Chapel, the Battle of Wilson’s Creek and Missouri State University’s Carrington Hall, were painted in the Fox Theater. That connection was one larger than Springfield: At one time, Kieffer had a contract to paint murals in the lobbies of Fox Theaters throughout the area and completed projects in Kansas, Oklahoma, Illinois and New Mexico.

Eventually, Drury University ‘s Pearson Hall was home to “The Story of Science.” Even a Heritage Cafeteria contained a wall of his work.

Then there was Kieffer’s one and only tile mural, which came to be at Burge-Protestant Hospital — today’s Cox North — in 1956.

The CoxHealth connection

Kieffer works on “The Story of Medicine” in an undated newspaper clipping. (Courtesy of Springfield Newspapers)


That cheerful, pastel-hued work, however, wasn’t the first one he did for the hospital. Several years earlier, Kieffer was commissioned to paint “The Story of Medicine” on a wall of Burge’s first floor.

The mural, featuring a detailed history of the medical profession, was quite a project. Kieffer spent a great deal of time researching the medical field’s progression so he knew exactly what to paint.

“He did the whole history (of medicine), and he got books from a medical hospital in Boston, so everything would be authentic,” recalls Bryson, efforts echoed by her father in 1952.

“It’s the sort of thing you have to live constantly,” he said of his research. “An artist can be a hard-working individual, but the public knows very little of that side.”

A 1960s video shows Kieffer’s mural, “The Story of Medicine,” at Burge. (Courtesy of CoxHealth)


The painting proved impressive — so impressive, in fact, that it grabbed the attention of a reporter for Modern Hospital magazine who wrote a profile about it.

“There is a warmth and assurance which Mr. Kieffer has beautifully captured that is apparent to the many people who pause and look at the murals,” said Elmer Paul, the hospital’s administrator, in the article.

That mural’s success ultimately spurred the even bigger tile mural project at the hospital in 1956.

Helping Hands mural

In terms of success, that was a huge year for the community hospital. It was celebrating 50 years in operation, a nice round milestone — especially since it had nearly closed the decade before due to financial strain.

Thanks to some key direction — provided by local businessman Lester E. Cox — the hospital rebounded by 1956. Deep in the polio epidemic, the hospital was set to unveil a new crippled children’s wing and student nurse dormitory, and launch a capital campaign to raise $500,000 drive for a new treatment center.

In honor of the occasion, Cox decided a birthday gift was in order. Fountains and tulips were already cheering the campus, so he opted to do something different: He chose to install a mural representing the “helping hands” who made a difference at the hospital — and wanted Kieffer to design it.

The artist was commissioned to sketch hospital employees and volunteers from photographs, and then create a composite. That illustration would be enlarged, and used to create tiles for the mural.

In the early days, all went according to plan. Kieffer created the image and sent it to California, where artist and inventor George DeBeeson was to take care of the tile work. It’s not clear how DeBeeson became involved with the project. However, perhaps it tied to Kieffer’s connections with the West Coast, since DeBeeson reportedly worked for Disney.

Regardless of how the partnership came to be, DeBeeson created the tiles and brought them to Springfield where they were meticulously installed at the hospital. On April 29, 1956, the mural was officially unveiled, along with the nurses’ dormitory and the crippled children’s wing.

Kieffer used models from photographs to design the Helping Hands mural, proven by the nurses at right and below. Two of the models included Charles Edwards, future administrator (and whose son, Steve Edwards, is president and CEO of CoxHealth today) and Claudine Cox, daughter-in-law of Lester E. Cox. (Photo courtesy of Springfield Leader & Press)


(Courtesy of CoxHealth)

However, the sweet success was short-lived. Just a few months later, the tiles began popping off and breaking, especially as temperatures turned chilly. Repairs were attempted, but they weren’t enough to please Cox. Instead, in 1957, he demanded that Kieffer fix the situation.

And even though he had absolutely no tile experience, Kieffer tackled the challenge.

“He had to learn, of course,” recalls his son. “(With tile) the colors you start out with are not going to be the colors they are going to be after they fire (in a kiln).”

Kieffer worked with Springfield ceramist Doreen Cherry to make Helping Hands 2.0 a reality. Cherry got involved because her husband worked for Ozark Manufacturing, Cox’s furniture company, and was asked to fire “a few” tiles for the mural.

“She said okay, thinking a few tiles would be a dozen or so,” wrote John K. Hulston in his book, Lester E. Cox. “The few tiles turned out to be 1,800.”

“Kieffer painted one at a time, then the tiles were brought to Cherry a few at a time for firing,” the book continued. “It was very exacting and time-consuming work, which took Kieffer and Cherry about a year and a half to complete.”

After firing was finished, Kieffer numbered each tile so that a professional tile installer would know where all should go. Once complete, it became and remains an enduring landmark on campus — one that was gotten nearly for free.

Invoice records show that Cox paid $731 for materials during the recostruction, but there’s no mention of labor. However, Kieffer was compensated in at least one way: The second time, pride in his work prompted him to include his name in the tiles.

Kieffer poses with the recreated Helping Hands mural, for which he had to learn about tilework. Note his name, which was added the second time around and is near the top left corner. (Courtesy of the Kieffer Family)


Silver Dollar City

Even though most of Kieffer’s work was in Springfield, even Branson’s Silver Dollar City was touched by his brush.

In the late 1960s and early ’70s, the artist was recruited to do paint murals around the blossoming theme park, which then was just a few years old.

One of Kieffer’s works has long adorned the entrance to Fire in the Hole, a themed ride at Silver Dollar City.


“Dad loved the city,” says his son. “At that time, it was like a big family. It was his family, and he just loved it.”

While most of those relationships were figurative, one was literal.

“George Kieffer is related by marriage to JoDee, my wife,” says Peter Herschend, co-founder of Silver Dollar City.

Herschend notes, however, that while the cousins-in-law knew of the connection, the request to have Kieffer come paint the city wasn’t based on it.

“It was very much George the artist,” says Herschend. “We liked the work he did. The fact that he was a good guy that you wanted to be around, that certainly was a big plus.”

Over a period of time, Kieffer did several pieces at the park. One of his murals was — and is — at the entrance to Fire in the Hole, the park’s first themed ride. It depicts an Ozarks village, which according to the story was torched by Baldknobbers in 1873.

Looking back, however, Herschend fundamentally ties Kieffer to another particular piece at the park.

“If I have to pull up a memory of George Kieffer, it is the work that he did in the Hospitality House on the murals depicting everything that there was about Silver Dollar City,” says Herschend. “I tie both my memory of him the man, the artist, and him, the mural-painter of Silver Dollar City, all back to the Hospitality House.”

Kieffer painted a history of the Marvel Cave area in Silver D0llar City’s Hospitality House soon after the park opened.


The mural, which greets all visitors to the park, is quite extensive. Extended from the ceiling, the mural is two-sided: Entitled Marvel Cave Park, one side features a variety of Ozarks scenes and pastimes, such as sorghum-making and nut-gathering.

The other tells the story of Marvel Cave, and includes its time with the mining town of Marmaros, early expeditions in the cave, and a nod to Herschend’s mother, Mary Herschend, who helped start Silver Dollar City.

“Of course, remember, he didn’t have any vision of what Silver Dollar City is today,” reminds Herschend. “And for that reason, it doesn’t show up. You don’t get any sense of who SDC is today in that mural, and you shouldn’t.”

The painting was so loved by Silver Dollar City that when a mechanical fire destroyed a section of it in the 1990s, the damaged portion was restored.

Memories of Kieffer

But Herschend recalls aspects of Kieffer that didn’t have anything to do with paint.

“George was an unassuming guy,” recalls Herschend. “He didn’t require fanfare and spotlights and brass bands. That was not his nature.”

Such statements are similar to ones voiced by his children, who describe their father as a quiet man. “I never heard my dad say a bad thing about one person, ever,” recalls Bryson. “He just accepted everybody.”

Kieffers’ children look back at their father fondly, their affection obvious. Other memories they share are of his studio — technically the world — but also his basement, where he would often paint the night away. And while he’d paint, he’d smoke.

“Oh, he’d light one right after another,” recalls Bryson, who notes the doctor finally told her father he simply had to quit cold turkey. “What he did was start chewing gum. He was as bad about chewing gum as he was about smoking cigarettes.”

When out and about, he never knew where art might strike, so he often carried a sketchpad, they say. Sometimes, he’d take photos with a 35 mm camera so he could recall the colors of scenes later. But while art was his forte, technology was not.

“Now, those little cameras were extremely simple, but Dad always had to use the instruction manual,” jokes his son. “He never remembered how to use that thing.”

Besides those on-the-fly art sessions, there were other intentional treks to places like Rockbridge, Swan Creek and Old Silver Lake Mill.

“Old Silver Lake Mill” (Courtesy of the Kieffer Family)


“I went with him to this location,” the younger Kieffer recalls of Old Silver Lake. “I remember when we went — it was a foggy, fall day, and light drizzle. This building had been tin-sided. Dad was furious. That farmer had ruined a good mill.”

Then there were pieces such as “Hunter in Cornfield,” and farm scenes featuring fiery fall foliage. Through such simple sights, Kieffer taught in-depth lessons.

“We learned, through him, to see beauty in things that maybe the average eye doesn’t see,” says Bryson.

Kieffer at work in the last few weeks of his life, photographed by his son. (Courtesy of George A. Kieffer)


Kieffer passed away in 1981 after a battle with cancer. He kept creating until the very end, with cigarette in hand once again.

“He didn’t smoke anything until he was about to die, and decided it didn’t matter,” says the younger Kieffer.

His last project was a series of wooden shingles — obtained from Silver Dollar City — that he painted for his wife and children.

“He wanted to have something to give to each one of his kids,” says Bryson. While he worked on those final pieces, he was immortalized at work by his son, who is a hobby photographer. That photo proves, along with his children’s memories, that while disease may have killed his body, it did not dim his creative spirit.

“When he was no longer cognizant, he was sitting in a chair, painting,” recalls his son. “It was his total life.”

Kieffer today

Today, there are a variety of places in Springfield to see Kieffer’s work — but unfortunately, time has taken a variety of others.

Long gone are the murals at Heer’s, although some were purchased by the family before the building was renovated. The one from the former Union National Bank is no longer there, although a 2006 newspaper article says it was moved to the Ozark Empire Fairgrounds. It’s unclear, however, where it is at this point.

The ones at the Landers Theatre and Drury were reportedly lost during renovation work, as was the original mural at Burge. The ones at a local Heritage Cafeteria were painted over.

However, the historic Greene County Courthouse still shows off its mural, as does The Downtown Church. The History Museum on the Square also has its three in the former Fox Theater. Silver Dollar City’s history is told through Kieffer’s work. And the Helping Hands mural still proudly greets guests to Cox North. In fact, the health system loves the mural so much that it was updated to reflect current employees and technology in 2016. Today, the revised version appears in a garden at Cox South.

Some appreciate such sights because of beauty. But for Kieffer’s children, they do much more.

“He isn’t gone, really,” said Burns, Kieffer’s daughter, in 2006. “Daddy’s art anywhere makes him alive. And that’s just wonderful to me.”

The Downtown Church

The historic Greene County Courthouse

The Fox Theater, today’s History Museum on the Square (Courtesy of History Museum on the Square)

Cox North


Resources

“Carole Jones,” obituary, Springfield News-Leader, April 9, 2003

“A colorful piece of North’s history,” Chris Whitley, CoxHealth Connection, July 2006

“George Kieffer,” obituary, Springfield Daily News, Feb. 2, 1981

“George Kieffer: Another ‘Forgotten’ Artist,” Paul Johns, Christian County Headliner News, Dec. 25, 2016

“Hopes high to return artist’s work to public view,” Mike O’Brien, Springfield News-Leader, April 30, 2006

“Jordan Creek’s Kieffer retrospective displays local art history,” Edgar Albin, Sunday News and Leader, Dec. 19, 1982

“Kieffer’s work slowly disappearing,” Chris Whitley, CoxHealth Connection, July 2006

“The mark of Kieffer,” Springfield Leader & Press, Dec. 9, 1982

“Lester E. Cox,” John K. Hulston, 1992

“Murals depict history of medicine,” Modern Hospital, March 1961

“The story behind Kieffer’s murals,” Jim Morrissey, Sunday News and Leader, Jan. 13, 1952

“Theater’s long history,” B.B. Lightfoot, Springfield Leader & Press, May 5, 1978

2 thoughts on “George Kieffer, the artist who preserved the Ozarks with paint

  1. I remember seeing the mural in Burge hospital the first time I was ever in the hospital about 1960. The summer after I graduated from high school. I had no idea who the artist was. Thanks for the enlightening article.

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