A 125-foot-long painting of a weeping woman who’s drawn back her bowstring to release, not an arrow, but a paintbrush: That’s the mural that welcomes people driving east into downtown Fort Smith on U.S. Hwy. 64. English muralist D*Face painted the beautifully realized work to reflect the town’s history as the gateway to the American West — where the country’s East Coast indigenous population was unhappily relocated — and its future as a place of art and culture.
The African child who created a wind turbine for his village out of a bicycle parts, scrap metal and blue gum trees is at the center of a whirlwind in “Harvesting the Winds of Change,” Fayetteville artist Octavio Logo’s expression of hope on the side of the Grubs Bar & Grille in downtown Fayetteville. Logo’s painting of George Floyd on the exterior of his studio is a reminder of the American blight of racism and, recently, the backdrop for a group of dancers.
And then there’s Jason Jones’ blue Bentonville octopus, a car in one of its tentacles.
This bent to put vast fine art on urban Arkansas walls is a new move toward placemaking, offering lively messages, some contemplative, some whimsical, about a town’s culture. That was the idea during the Great Depression when the U.S. Department of the Treasury hired talented WPA artists to paint murals on the interiors of post offices across the country, including Arkansas. In 2015, progressive minds in Fort Smith saw murals as a way to “challenge perceptions we have of ourselves in Fort Smith and Arkansas,” said Claire Kolberg, director of the art initiative, named The Unexpected. “We want to position Fort Smith as a kind of destination for the arts.”
Kolberg and Steve Clark, the founder of Propak logistics company in Fort Smith, came up with the idea to reverse Fort Smith’s declining fortunes. The Unexpected is what Kolberg calls the “sexy part” of development efforts spearheaded by the nonprofit 64.6 Downtown (the number refers to the square miles that the town encompasses). The Unexpected has brought international artists to town to offer contemporary art in all its forms — musical and dance performances, installations, sculpture, lectures, painted houses and a “universal chapel” in addition to the murals — and is complemented by mural painting class at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith.
“A lot of people think that with The Unexpected the whole mission was just ‘let’s throw up some art and see what happens,’ ” Talicia Richardson of 64.6 said on a recent tour of the murals. “It was so much bigger than that. [It was] ‘what can we do to draw positive attention to a community in need that has been somewhat left behind?’ ”
A real attention grabber is Australian artist Guido van Helten’s 100-by-30-foot paintings creating a triptych on the feed mill at OK Foods. This monumental work features three people: Gene Beckham, a 70-year employee of OK Foods; Kristina Jones, a young Black entrepreneur who recently moved to Fort Smith from Atlanta; and Edward Paradela of Van Buren, a Navajo member of the Lawbreakers and Peacemakers reenactment group.
Two Matisse-like paintings by Mexico City artist Hilda Palafox adorn the silos in front of the Fort Smith Coffee Co. restaurant that has transformed the old Shipley’s Bakery. This new development in what Fort Smith is calling the The Bakery District includes event space, a food truck, an independent bookstore and the super hip coffee shop and roastery, which features outdoor and indoor dining spaces, including an area where folks can hang, bat-like, in suspended hammocks.
The Unexpected’s 2020 events were canceled out of coronavirus safety concerns; organizers hope to be able to plan the 2021 festival soon.
The most recent manifestation of the renaissance of muraling in Fayetteville came during the Sprayetteville Street Art Festival in July, when 11 artists, among them graffiti artists X3MEX and EATS of the Seventh Street mural fame, made their mark from Free Geek eRecycling on Ash Street on the north to the Washarama on West 15th Street on the south. Some of the works, like the aforementioned works by Octavio Logo, are referential to important events; others, like Tommy Tropical’s jungle scene, are colorful fun. In June, artists Sharon Killian, Logo, Jody Travis Thompson, Hannah Newsome Doyle, Morgan Bame and Joelle Storet worked together on the brilliantly executed 50-by-18-foot mural “No Justice, No Peace,” which was completed at the Fayetteville in Living Color event. The figures, painted in a social realism style in a palette of blue and orange, hold signs expressing such sentiments as “Black Trans Lives Matter” and “The Children are Watching” and quoting Dr. Martin Luther King’s “until justice rolls down” speech.
One of the first of the artist-made murals in Arkansas was Morton Brown’s “Aurora Rising,” painted in 2007 on the back wall of Conway City Hall, facing Simon Park. Brown was an artist-in-residence at the University of Central Arkansas, and his “Aurora Rising” is a piece that features a jubilant child running, her blanket-cape flying, in the foreground and Conway landmarks in the background. It remains a vibrant work. Conway artist Jessica Jones has contributed new works in the college town, including a painting of stylized peacocks at 1156 Front St. and a butterfly garden on the side of the Fretmonkey recording studio at Van Ronkle and North streets. Jones was also among the Sprayetteville team and is painting “The Heart of Cabot” on the Melikian building on state Hwy. 89.
The Downtown Little Rock Partnership, seeing what Fort Smith had achieved, got in on the act in 2017, sponsoring such works as “Robot” and “Playtime,” both by Fayetteville artist Jason Jones, and Guy Bell’s “Migration” image of buffalos marching up the parking deck ramp at Sixth and Scott streets. X3MEX, signing his work by his official name, Jose Hernandez, created a tribute to workers with “Men of Iron” on East Sixth Street in the East Village. They are among many works downtown; the Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau has assembled a guide at littlerock.com. On the north side of the Arkansas River, Little Rock artist Robin Tucker has sent birds winging down the Mississippi flyway — Canada and snow geese; shoveler, mallard, wood and pintail ducks; and an errant garganey — on the south exterior wall of Flyway Brewing and has giant bees buzzing at the Innovation Hub on Fourth and Poplar streets. A few blocks north, Little Rock artist Kevin Kresse has paid tribute to Central Arkansas’s Big Dam Bridge with his painting at Seventh and Main streets of larger-than-life cyclists.
Murals, exposed to sun and rain, are somewhat ephemeral: Alex Diaz’s stunning and towering mural of an owl, for example, has begun to spall from a wall on College Avenue in Fayetteville. There is man-made violence as well: In Fayetteville in mid-September, a white supremacist painted the racist slogan “14 words” and defaced a sign next to it that read “Love Unites Us,” changing it to “Love Weakens Us.” Sign painter and town booster Olivia Trimble went to work repairing the vandalism, as she always does with words of hate painted in public places in Fayetteville. In Little Rock, the fantastic grass-roots-evolved Seventh Street Mural Project has been the repeated target of people who apparently oppose its messages of social justice. Adaja Cooper’s work, “Ain’t I A Woman,” was obliterated with black paint just days after she completed it in September. Cooper restored it; it was painted over again. She repainted a third time but left a section of the damage visible as an example of hate-driven vandalism. Armed with brushes and spray cans, artists will fight back to deliver their messages of love.