Unexpected. Far more than just a catchy name, the word “unexpected” truly captures the spirit of the yearly art celebration in Fort Smith, the Unexpected Mural Festival.
Curated by art network JustKids, the Unexpected is an initiative to bring international artists and creative artwork to downtown Fort Smith, Ark., perhaps not the first venue that would come to mind as the focal point for world-class art. Yet that is part of what makes it the perfect backdrop. Walking through a downtown that has been a lynchpin in Arkansas history and industry and seeing walls and alleyways adorned with bright colors and stunning tableaus serves as a bridge to the present. The murals and installed artworks are also enhanced by the history surrounding them. There is a symbiosis between old and new that helps one appreciate them both through the contrast.
That is not to say, however, that the murals and other art don’t have a Fort Smith flavor. Much of the art ties into Fort Smith’s frontier past and its proximity to Oklahoma featuring Western and Native American themes. New Zealand artist ASKEW, for instance, met with a modern Cherokee chief in Oklahoma while conceptualizing his mural. Inspired by the meeting, ASKEW created a mural incorporating the faces of four Cherokee women close to the chief: his mother, wife, daughter and sister.
The nod to the history and culture of Fort Smith in so many murals was itself unexpected. Artists are given free range to create the murals, without the need for approval or input from the organizers or the business owners on whose walls they are working. This leap of faith has been rewarded year after year with thoughtful and stunning works of art. This running success is a testament to careful selection of world-class artists whose chosen medium happens to be mural work.
Something else one might not expect as part of a mural festival are the variety of installed elements accompanying the art. From standalone sculptures of local fauna made from metal scraps, to incorporated neon lights, several pieces of art go beyond flat walls and bring the viewer inside of the work. At the Unexpected headquarters in the historic New Theater, artist Doze Green has installed his work “The Divine Sparks Project.” The work pulls visitors into a darkened space, through an entryway lit by dime blue lights that make the stark white figures painted on the walls jump out. Past the entrance, the space opens up into the theater proper with custom neon figures lighting up the walls and a pair of blue giants towering on either side of the proscenium. Standing on the darkened stage, flanked by colossal abstract figures and looking out a ring of glowing outlines on the far wall, you lose yourself for a moment.
Another piece that invites interaction is by Amsterdam artists Circus Family. “TRIPH” is an installed work that features glowing geometric shapes and ambient sounds that react to viewer interaction. In the absence of spectators, the lights are dull and the sounds nearly non-existent. When approached, however, the shapes light up and pulse with different colors, and sounds fill the space. The work is a fantastic blend of art and technology that takes the viewer out of passive role.
There are so many great artworks to discus, from work that was chiseled into plaster, a mural on a print shop storage building appropriately featuring Guttenberg, to abstract pieces that speak for themselves, but words do them only so much justice. You really can’t know what it’s like until you’ve seen it for yourself. Even though the festival is over, the art remains an integral part of Fort Smith. I encourage you to make the trip and take a stroll downtown. Soak in the history, shop the shops and expect the Unexpected.