Fort Smith’s Unexpected Art

Day 96, Staying at Home

Saturday, June 28, 2020; Fort Smith, Arkansas

Once you get off the interstates to cross this country, you drive through hundreds of small downtowns. Sadly, many of them feel neglected. Big box stores have drawn shoppers out of downtowns to strip malls and larger towns miles away.

Fort Smith faced a similar future. Interstates 40 and 540 now bypass the old downtown, once the crossroad of busy U.S. Highways 22 and 71.

Today when you walk along Garrison Avenue (U.S. 22), you see some empty storefronts, mingled among the professional offices and restaurants that seem to come and go.

But wait – what is that? Suddenly a large mural, tucked around a corner, grabs your eye.

It’s not the work of some kid with a can of spray paint; it was obviously drawn by a profession. And … is it a mole?

Mole, Belgium artist Roa. 2015.

Yes, it is a two-story rodent, the work of Belgium artist Roa. His mole was one of several painted during Unexpected Fort Smith’s inaugural year as a downtown revitalization project. Now with the fifth year of the project completed, there are more than 30 giant works of contemporary and urban art along Garrison Avenue and its side streets.

Some of the murals incorporate Fort Smith’s frontier history.

War Paint by UK-based artist D*Face. 2016
Badlands, by UK-based artist D*Face. 2015

Others honor Native Americans.

Cherokee Women, by Askew One, New Zealand multi-media artist. Three generations of local native women. 2015.
Cherokee Man, Portuguese artist Vhils, made by drilling into the plaster. 2015.

Three of the most stunning are real local people, painted on the silos of a local mill. The one on the left is a man who has worked at the mill for decades, and continued every day as the murals were painted.

American Heroes, Australian artist Guido Van Helten. Three real local people: Elderly American, African American, Native American. 2016

Other works may leave viewers struggling to find a theme or message, but that is the purpose of art, isn’t it? Many of the muralists come from around the world, exposing themselves and Fort Smith residents to different ideas and points of view.

Crossover. Ukranian master AEC Interesni Kazki and Mexican muralist Saner collaborate to depict the crossover of civilizations, cultures and times. 2017

The annual festival now includes music, shows by local artists and projects involving local high school and college art students. Local residents are known to watch the artists at work from lawn chairs planted in parking lots.

Metamorphisis, collaboration by local high school students. 2018

Unfortunately, the pandemic apparently has put 2020 plans on hold. But given Fort Smith’s pride – sitting in the middle of the country and boasting works by major international artists – I’m sure it will be back. As will the continuing growth of townhouses, lofts, coffee shops, restaurants and bars in downtown Fort Smith.

War Birds, Puerto Rican artist Ana Maria. 2016

My sister Eloise and I spent a beautiful morning walking the streets and driving the area to capture as many murals as possible. She knew just where many were, and I downloaded the UnexpectedFS app on my smartphone so we could dive deeper into the background on each mural and artist. It was the perfect way to spend a day during this pandemic. We didn’t always need our face masks as the streets weren’t crowded. Social distancing was the norm.

Untitled, Mexican artist Hilda Palafox, in just-opened Bakery District public gathering space. 2019
Catira, Brazilian duo Bicicleta Sem Freio, celebrating American and Brazilian cowboys. 2015.

The art also can be in unexpected places — on the back of buildings by loading docks or tucked away in a corner. Sometimes it isn’t officially part of UnexpectedFS, but no one seems to mind.

Otter, Belgium artist Roa. 2015
Untitled, Ana Maria. 2018
The murals have inspired even the city departments.

There is a lot more to see in northwest Arkansas. The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville is a pilgrimage for art lovers. Eureka Springs is a shopper’s paradise of Victorian buildings clinging to cliff sides. We spent many childhood summers camping and rafting at the foot of the famous bluffs of the Buffalo River.

So the next time you’re speeding through the middle of the country on the interstate, take some time to get off and explore. You might just find something — unexpected.

The Fort Smith Collection, French artist Mantra mini artist in residency. 2019