Stihl Dealer Days

Rural Missouri Magazine
A rural rebirth
Artists Linda Spencer and Roberto Regalado moved to Missouri a decade ago to begin again

by Jeff Joiner

José Sepeda steps over building material stacked on the floor and around saw horses covered with tools in the storefront property he’s renovating. His restaurant on the courthouse square in Buffalo opens in a few weeks and Sepeda is busy talking to his carpenter, arranging for deliveries and taking job applications. In the midst of all this bluster he sits down to confer with his artists, Linda Spencer and Roberto Regalado.

Linda Spencer and her husband and partner Roberto Regalado have worked as professional muralists for 25 years. After beginning their careers in southern California, both moved to Missouri to begin again in a rural setting.

When customers walk into La Fiesta an explosion of color and a 60-foot mural of a Mexican coastal scene that runs the entire length of the dining area greets them. The restaurant creates the feel of an outdoor café overlooking an ocean and a small village. Wooden booths are painted intense shades of purple, blue, red and turquoise. The blue sky and white clouds of the mural continue into the ceiling giving the restaurant an open, breezy feel.

“We like to do whole environments,” says Linda who, along with her husband and partner Roberto, owns Laughingwell Studio in Long Lane, a small town near Buffalo. The artists specialize in murals, which they describe as architectural art, as well as business decors. Their work in Sepeda’s restaurant is an example of what they love to do — create colorful, unusual businesses environments that demand attention.

Another of their projects is the Tres Hombres restaurant in Osage Beach, which is painted a garish lime green.

“It’s quite offensive, isn’t it?” says Roberto, laughing.

“It’s deliberately over the top,” Linda says. “It gets them noticed.”

At La Fiesta not only did Linda and Roberto paint the mural, they also designed tables, chairs and other pieces of woodworking. They even designed the restaurant floor plan.

“It’s kind of a Disneyfied concept to transport you somewhere,” says Linda. “Americans eat out as entertainment. It’s not just a meal. It you have a theme restaurant then you have an opportunity to create a totally different environment for people.”

And as though on cue, a roofing contractor walks into the restaurant to meet with Sepeda and is stopped in his tracks when he sees the mural. “Wow!” he says.

Transplanted Californians, Roberto and Linda have worked as muralists for 25 years. Both apprenticed with large southern California mural studios in the late 1970s and then traveled the country doing commercial paintings in restaurants, hotels, casinos and other large public and private spaces.

A decade ago Linda, who was raising teenagers from a previous marriage, decided southern California was not the best place to bring up kids. It’s also an expensive place to live where buying even a small home is nearly beyond reach of most average-income Californians.

In 1991, after visiting family living in Springfield, Linda bought a small 100-year-old farmhouse on 90 acres in Dallas County near Long Lane and set up her studio in the garage. She was thrilled with her new home.

“It’s impossible to own this much land in California,” she says. “We appreciate nature. In southern California you can go to the beach, but 20,000 other people will have beat you there.”

But coming to Missouri had its hardships as well. Linda had to re-establish herself as an artist in an entirely new place and then tragedy struck the family when her 2-year-old grandson was killed in a car accident. Despite her devastation, she continued her work.

A couple of years after Linda moved to rural Missouri, Roberto, a long-time friend and co-worker, visited her while traveling from California to Florida for a mural job. A year earlier his wife, only 31, had died of coronary heart disease. Roberto fell in love not only with Missouri and the old farmhouse, but with Linda, too. The two were married soon after and together established their partnership and Laughingwell Studio, the name coming from the hardships they each had recently faced.

Roberto, who began painting as a youngster, became a professional mural artist while still in high school.

“We had been through so much that it just seemed like a good name. Sometimes when bad things happen you can still find some occasion for laughter,” says Roberto. “It makes things better.”

In the nearly 10 years Roberto and Linda have been in business together they have done work throughout the Midwest, especially in Springfield and the Lake of the Ozarks. They have done art and décor for restaurants in Springfield, Osage Beach and in the Kansas City area as well as restaurants throughout the Missouri Ozarks and in Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska.

As Roberto was joining the business, Linda landed one of the largest projects she had ever attempted and the one she calls the epitome of her career thus far. Springfield’s Cox Medical Center South hired the artists who, over the course of eight years, painted 35 murals, known as “The Children’s Village,” on the walls of its pediatric ward. The huge project raised $500,000 for the Children’s Miracle Network by selling wall space to businesses that Roberto and Linda featured in the murals.

The Children’s Village project meant a lot to Roberto and Linda not only for the exposure it gave them, but also because they got to know many of the children being treated at the hospital and their families. They often painted the names of the young patients into the murals.

Laughingwell Studio has done other mural projects closer to home. One is a 70-foot mural painted on a concrete retaining wall at Larry’s Cedar Resort at Bennett Spring State Park near Lebanon. The scene is of the spring and spring branch with fishermen casting for trout. Another outdoor mural is a farm scene painted on a barn belonging to Bill and Vera Harrill of rural Lebanon.

In fact the Harrill farm has now become home to the annual event Art on the Farm organized by members of the Lebanon Art Guild including Linda and Roberto. In its fourth year, the free outdoor event, scheduled this year for May 3-4, brings together professional and amateur artists, as well as children, to showcase their work. Art at the Farm also features workshops and an art auction`.

Featured at the Art at the Farm exhibit will be the personal work of both Roberto and Linda who, surprisingly enough, paint in their spare time. Both award-winning artists show their paintings in area exhibits and often are accepted into juried shows.

Standing on Cedar Street in Buffalo Linda admires the large, colorful sign for La Fiesta, which has just been installed on the building. Roberto painted the name of the restaurant in bright yellow letters that sit on a field of red bougainvillea flowers. It’s clearly the most noticeable sign on the courthouse square. Linda notices one more thing that her husband apparently missed.

“Roberto, do you know you misspelled the studio name?”

“Nooo,” he replies in disbelief. “I guess I’ll have to get up there and fix that.”

Despite the mistake, which can be fixed easily, the colorful sign invites customers into a festive spot to eat — just what the artists had in mind.

For information about Laughingwell Studios contact Linda Spencer and Roberto Regalado at 1466 State Highway 32, Long Lane, MO 65590; (417) 345-8688; or e-mail them at Laughing@todays-tech.com.

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