Fort Smith has become an art destination, generating interest in the art world from such noted international art publications as Arrested Motion, Complex, Hypebeast, Colossal, and Highsnobiety. With art exhibits ranging from trash sculptures to a 100-foot-long multi-dimensional façade to portraits adorning towering grain silos, and with over 20 exterior buildings hosting paintings by world renowned artists, this is not the quiet border town that ‘Hanging Judge Isaac Parker’ once ruled over.
The city’s transformation began in the fall of 2014. Steve Clark, founder and CEO of Propak, Inc. and Founder, The Unexpected; John McIntosh, 64.6 Executive Director; and Claire Kolberg, Director, The Unexpected began brainstorming methods to revitalize the city’s downtown district and bring a renewed vibrancy to the riverfront town. Following much deliberation the group believed this could be accomplished through just the right arts medium—street art.
Realizing they would need experienced leadership for successful execution of the project, Clark engaged with French art curator Charlotte Dutoit. With Dutoit on board, what had become known as “The Unexpected” gained instant credibility and was jump started on its way to becoming an acclaimed festival of international arts.
Art admirers from around the world have viewed The Unexpected’s exhibits online, in magazines and in photographs taken by friends who have visited Fort Smith. However, to truly experience the depth and scale of street art one has to experience it live, in person.
That’s why, at the completion of this year’s festival, the 3rd year for The Unexpected, several friends and I decided there would be no better way to view the exhibits than from the seats of our bicycles. So early one Sunday morning, when we had the streets of downtown Fort Smith to ourselves, we began our Tour de Murals.
Having been a volunteer and worked with the artists during the festivals, I am intimately familiar with the exhibits. However, for those who are viewing the murals and other art displays for the first time, you can visit The Unexpected website, unexpectedfs.com, for a map of the locations of the exhibits and interesting tidbits related to the art, artists and the festival itself.
Our Tour began at the free parking lot, on the corner of Garrison Avenue and North 2nd Street. From there it was a very short ride across 2nd Street to see ‘War Paint’ by D*Face (pg. 34).
Like others he created, this mural was inspired by the city’s early western history. The artist met with leaders of the Choctaw Nation in an attempt to use authentic colors and designs that adorned the female warrior which were true to their culture. This mural is connected to a second piece of art D*Face completed while on site in 2016, which we plan to visit later in our tour.
From there it was a short ride along Garrison to visit another mural painted by D*Face during his 2016 visit. Enroute we cycled past two other art pieces.
The first is a unique structure created by Crystal Wagner during 2017’s The Unexpected (pg. 36). Known for her interesting use of materials to create 2 and 3 dimensional works, she was once commissioned to create a large-scale installation for the band Flaming Lips.
The project at 300 Garrison Avenue is an extremely complex piece which the artist told me she modeled after ocean coral reef. By hand fastening over 100,000 zipties, Crystal, her two assistance artists and an army of local volunteers grafted some 800 yards of brightly colored hot air balloon fabric to a skeleton of intertwined chicken wire stretching 100’ long by 20’ tall.
A block to the east, we paused to view another The Unexpected project, Opossum by Bordalo II. This artist’s trademark is to create art from unwanted trash. I personally was among the volunteers who visited the Fort Smith landfill to collect the busted plastic garbage cans used to make this piece.
The ‘Bad Lands’ mural is a great example of D*Face’s trademark pop-art style (pg. 35). Inspired by the outlaws and US Marshalls of the area’s history, the mural captures the fast-paced, thrilling excitement of the chase scene of the western era.
Crossing Garrison we pedaled past ‘Cherokee Women’ by Askew One (pg. 36). Seeking honesty and authenticity in the piece, the artist featured four family members of Cherokee Chief Joe Byrd.
Although these murals are not the common depiction of historical events seen in most rural cities, many of these artists’ work were heavily influenced by the history of the area. They are expressed emblematically and using brighter colors.
On our ride to what is my favorite piece, we passed ‘Mole’ by Roa (pg. 32). I am amazed how he brought the creature to life using only a mixture of black, white, and gray color scales.
The next stop was out of our way in relation to the other murals. However, it was a nice ride through the National Cemetery, where both my father and mother are buried. We exited the side gate to view ‘American Heroes’ by Guido van Helten; three 100-foot-tall grain silos, each with a portrait that is so life-like and real you feel it could step away from the silo and walk away.
I was Guido’s wingman during the three-week project. Many a night Guido would be high in the lift, painting by the light of his cell phone. I have followed some of his work after his leaving the area, and he is without a doubt in a class of his own.
It would require more space than I have here to continue to provide a running commentary of the tour, but visit the website I mentioned above to download a map. There is an app you can download to help you enjoy your tour; it’s called UnexpectedFS.
Before I go, I want to tell you about part two of D*Face’s ‘War Paint’ mural. The artist wanted to connect the wall to a sculpture. Located at North 10th Street and B Street are the arrows from the female warrior’s bow (pg. 34. Beautiful works of art, authentic down to the colors and design of the bands decorating the arrows.