Over the past few years, street art festivals have become more popular in major cities around the world where there is already some evidence and acknowledgement of the culture. Occasionally, organizers in smaller communities are able to convince others of the benefits (both economic and communal) of adding public art to their walls, and great events like The Unexpected Street Art Project in Fort Smith, Arkansas are born.
Organized by 64.6 Downtown and curated by Charlotte Dutoit of JUSTKIDS, The Unexpected Street Art Project kicked off on September 3 with a gallery exhibition titled Printology at the University of Arkansas Fort Smith’s Windgate Art and Design Building. Over the course of the next week, residents watched as historic buildings in downtown Fort Smith were transformed by a class of students from the University and a squad of artists from around the world: D*Face (London), Ana Maria (Puerto Rico), Bicicleta Sem Freio (Brazil), VHILS (Portugal), Maser (Ireland), ASKEW ONE (New Zealand), and ROA (Belgium).
I was invited to visit Fort Smith to witness the Unexpected festival firsthand, and they could not have picked a more suitable name for the experience. Fort Smith is a small place with a very big and rich history. Established as a military outpost in the early 1800s, the town is often called the place where the “Old West” meets the “New South,” and it feels like it as soon as you land at their small regional airport.
Everyone there is nice and gives a smile and a nod when they pass you on the street, even the leatherclad bikers with Confederate flag bandanas. At first the vibe was very confusing for a current New Yorker born and bred in South Carolina, but as the days went on and the murals progressed, the smiles began to feel more genuine and the excitement surrounding the festival was palpable. The murals were all situated within 10 blocks of downtown Fort Smith, so it was easy to walk (or ride in a golf cart) between them to see the progress and to people watch.
Even during the warmer hours, crowds were a given. Kids showed up with their parents to see the art as a part of a school project, countless cars slowed and stopped at intersections to take pictures, and pedestrians stood with their chins toward the sky, waiting for the artists to take a break so they could ask them or one of the hardworking volunteers what the halfpainted walls “meant” or to thank them for what they were doing for the town.
“To me, it’s about education,” said Steve Clark, commissioner of Fort Smith’s Central Business Improvement District and supporter of the festival. “Some people may never go to a museum or a gallery, but a little girl or boy can see the artists paint and think ‘I can do that.’ You’re introducing something to people where the people are.”
Events like The Unexpected Street Art Festival just make sense. It makes sense for the sponsors and building owners, it makes sense for the artists who paint for the love and not the notoriety, and it makes sense for the culture. Street art existing in big cities is great, but there are millions of murals that get painted, are shared on social media for a week, and are then either forgotten or painted over in a matter of months. The people of Fort Smith will remember these pieces forever, and their daily lives will be better for it.