By Savanah Mandeville
Mike Conway will be the first to tell you he’s the Bob Ross of Nevada, Missouri.
In fact, he’s even been known to sport a Bob Ross wig during his painting classes.
“I love putting on the wig and sneaking up behind my students and tapping them on the shoulder,” he laughed. “I’ll tell them they need to paint a ‘happy little tree.’ They lose it every time.”
For Conway, that’s what creating art is all about: having fun.
“Bob Ross called mistakes ‘happy mistakes,’ and I think his philosophy was great,” he said. “I tell my students if they make a mistake, it’s okay. We can always fix it or work it into the painting.”
Conway teaches all-ages painting classes and hosts a week-long summer art camp for kids out of his studio. His “Paint and Pour” BYOB classes for adults usually fill up with folks looking for a way to unwind and “get in the zone” with their paintings.
“It’s really therapeutic for many people,” Conway said. “Last night, for instance, I had a cancer patient in class, and he said, ‘That’s the most relaxing thing. I completely forgot about being sick.’”
The Paint and Pour classes are certainly popular, but it’s the kids’ classes where Conway — a kid at heart — really shines.
“I just can’t get over the kids. They’re always so proud of what they do. We really encourage that and let them have fun, and they literally cannot wait to come back and paint more,” he said. “I even overheard one little guy say to his mom, ‘He’s one of us, he’s just bigger.’”
Even when Conway isn’t teaching, he can usually be found in his studio in a paint-splattered t-shirt and jeans. He said he paints every day, usually completing a new work in one sitting, and he’s often selling his paintings as fast as he can make them.
“I work in all acrylics. I used to do oil a long time ago, but everyone is too impatient because the oil takes too long to dry,” he said.
Conway specializes in a wide variety of subject matter, including landscapes, pop culture icons, animals, cartoons, abstract art, and holiday and seasonal art. He also takes a lot of requests for custom pieces and has painted “a whole lot of dogs.”
A nearly lifelong resident of Nevada, Conway joked he’s “Vernon County Famous.” He gets a lot of waves and honks each day driving around in his “happy van,” his art van which he’s covered in big, candy-colored paint splatters.
You could argue he’s “Joplin Famous,” too, at least around Christmastime. For the last five years during the holiday season, Conway has hung his unique light-box paintings, which are painted on old windows, at Club 609. Even though he has produced upwards of 60 in a season, he never lets the workload stress him out. At the end of the day, all mistakes are happy mistakes.
“Painting is a lot simpler than you think,” he said. “Don’t overthink it. It makes it less intimidating. It’s kind of like life — if you want to do something, don’t hold yourself back. Just do it.”