By Lori Malcolm for Viva Cuba
Cuba brings its history to life with art. The town's murals attract visitors from around the world. It all started with an idea and a local artist. Somewhat of a hometown celebrity, Shelly Smith Steiger has been painting around town for over two decades. In fact, she is not only an artist and painter, but also a welder, mother, wife, friend, teacher, student, athlete, and lover of animals and nature.
This summer, Steiger and her team spent countless hours on ladders and scaffolding to perform routine maintenance on the town’s murals. For the residents of Cuba, Steiger is a familiar face. For those passing through, she is that lady on the ladder. Either way, her work leaves one with a strong emotional connection to Cuba.
In 2001, Peoples Bank commissioned the first mural and asked Steiger to paint what would become part of the town’s signature attraction. The project required extensive research. At the time, the internet was a skeleton of what it is today. With determination, a dial up modem, and a conceptual idea, Steiger went to work online. In her search, she found Michelle Loughery, a muralist from Canada who agreed to help make the project a reality.
Fast forward 20 years and several murals later, Steiger continues to share her talents with Crawford County and the local area. More recently, she completed an outdoor mural in Sullivan celebrating Route 66. The design was inspired by a Sullivan high school student that won a design challenge. Steiger was thrilled to have her daughter Kate, and sometimes Grace, lend a hand on this one.
“The murals have been a labor of love. I am grateful for the opportunity to make Cuba a beautiful place for everyone to enjoy,” Steiger said. “It really is satisfying to be a part of a public art program that everyone in the community can enjoy and appreciate. So many kind people stop and comment and you can see in their faces that they are proud of our little mural city, and that is a wonderful feeling.”
Her first art project was a wall mural in her daughters nursery in Little Rock, Ark., which initiated “word of mouth” to other nurseries, children’s rooms, and murals in businesses. Since then, Steiger’s mural projects in Cuba include AJ Barnett, Apples and Barrels, the Gold Star Boys, Amelia Earhart, Millworks, The River, and A Day in the Cooperage, and The AlleyWay door. Steiger's painting partners included longtime friend Julie Brand of Julie Brand Pottery, and freelance artist Julie Nixon Krovicka. These murals can be seen from Route 66 in Cuba’s Historic District.
As a 1986 graduate of Cuba High School, Steiger earned a basketball scholarship to attend Mineral Area College where she studied commercial art. From there, she went on to the University of the Ozarks in Arkansas also on a basketball scholarship and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in art and a minor in K-12 education. She returned to Cuba to raise a family and share her art skills locally. Among the countless public art projects, she also taught art at the Cuba High School where many students fondly remember her kindness, creativity, and sense of humor.
Currently, Steiger has a home studio where she creates one-of-a-kind art pieces. Her home gallery is filled with originals that can often be seen on Steiger’s Fine Arts Studio Facebook page when she finds time to post them.
“Every piece is unique,” said Steiger. “I am bored easily which pushes me to try new things on a pretty regular basis. Many of my creations are sold locally and I’m very grateful for that.” Steiger also hinted that another art endeavor is in the works.
Steiger has been a Viva Cuba member for over 20 years. Her contributions continue to keep Cuba beautiful with her special touch of color, history, and love. Steiger lives in Cuba with husband, Alex, and is the proud parent of two daughters. Their oldest daughter, Kate, recently graduated with her master’s degree and now lives in Kansas City. Their youngest daughter, Grace, is completing her senior year in college at College of the Ozarks and is on a basketball scholarship like her mother.