An unexpected cavalry

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 115 views 

Downtown Fort Smith was alive. Alive with “special energy.” A new element of culture was brought to the city. The “cool switch” was turned on for Fort Smith. Those are just a few of the things that have been said about the “Unexpected Project” that recently saw several popular and accomplished international urban artists create large murals in downtown Fort Smith.

It was a solid group of folks – captained by John McIntosh and with art direction by Charlotte Dutoit – who helped produce and deliver the amazing event. (Link here for a recap of the murals project.) However, it was the original idea of Steve Clark. He is a serial and successful entrepreneur who can afford to base his business operations anywhere. But he is connected to Fort Smith and is determined to see the city grow and prosper despite the city’s track record of political leadership.

One more than one occasion, when I would ask him why he keeps investing real dollars in the Fort Smith metro, Clark has said “there is no cavalry coming” to save the city. He follows that by noting it will require unique leadership within the city to transform not only the region’s infrastructure and workforce, but to engage such a comprehensive rebrand of the city that it becomes attractive to a broader socio-economic demographic.

More importantly, Clark has said, is that the rebrand causes Fort Smith citizens to believe in what is possible for the city; to believe that we shouldn’t wait for a large outside corporation to restore the metro economy; to believe that we’ll have to consider unique public investments and ideas to create change; to believe in themselves.

It is uncertain if Clark alone can accomplish such metro transformation, but what I do know is that downtown Fort Smith will never be the same again. We have unexpected large art on the side buildings that is no less a pleasant experience the 50th time you see it than it was the first. The city can now boast the beginnings of eclectic art collection from creative, non-comformist folks who aren’t from around here. It’s big art with barely a hint of gallows and hanging judges and traditional western heritage stuff. It’s outside the boxed-in history art.

The murals and Clark’s idea to bring international art to a less than dynamic city in a rural state in flyover country is crazy wonderful brilliant. To be sure, the murals project had a bigger positive impact on the psyche of Fort Smithians than I – and likely you, Kind Reader – would have predicted. It is one of the most exciting private-sector actions I’ve seen in downtown Fort Smith since I began keeping tabs on the place in 1992. Indeed, it was unexpected. Indeed, it brought special energy and turned on a cool switch.

But I’m just one person – a farm boy from Johnson County who has no real business opining on art. Following are a few comments we received when asking for input from the larger community.

• “Even my Austin daughter wanted to be here to watch the artists create! The various styles are phenomenal! The colors extraordinary! And the detailed work on such large 'canvases' is worth preservation. Thank you, John McIntosh and all the sponsors for your support. You went beyond anything I could have imagined and did it with finesse! Lovely touch to our town!”

• “I especially loved that 90% of the feedback I saw online was positive. Even most people who thought that certain murals were ugly would follow up their bitching with a ‘but it's good to see something happening downtown to bring people out,’ and seemed to view the event overall in a positive light. Most of all I loved that we as private citizens have finally stopped sitting on our collective hands waiting for ‘them’ to do ‘something’ about quality of place in this town and have started doing things to make Fort Smith a better place to live for ourselves.”

• “We had cyclists from Little Rock, Tulsa, OKC, Missouri and NWA for our crit race the Sunday after the murals were finished. They couldn't stop commenting about how unique and awe inspiring the murals were. Everyone's comments that day were extremely positive.”

• “I absolutely can't wait for the 2016 event. I hope every wall in downtown is eventually covered. Heck, I hope they expand to the entire city.”

• “Love the variety. It would have been easy to put parameters on the artists and tell them to do old west or old Fort Smith scenes. The mix of different styles and colors is perfect.”

• “I think the murals – and especially the presence of the artists – created a special energy that has been lacking, not just in downtown, but lacking in the CULTURE of the city. It's like a light went on. Wow! This is Fort Smith? I can't tell you how many people I spoke with that just got a buzz off of the whole experience. I hope the city builds on that energy and doesn't let it fade away. The murals create not only an interesting new cultural reference point but a liveliness and a pulse. I hope that pulse keeps beating and that the energy it has created fuels further innovation and creativity in the town.”

A person from Fayetteville noted: “Fort Smith was given a gift as was the State of Arkansas and every person who takes the time to go stroll the streets and not only see the artwork but to feel it from their eyes to their heart.”

Let me note again that downtown Fort Smith will never be the same again. We have the beginning of a new chapter of a new story. The murals impact was indeed unexpected, and it was accomplished without expensive studies and without months and months of committee meetings. Each mural represents the leading elements of a new cavalry.

Maybe the biggest lesson here is that a citizen had a transformative vision and worked within his resources to make it happen. Very few of us have the resources of a Steve Clark, but we now have a wonderful example of what is possible when a person connects their desire with their ability.

Thanks, Mr. Clark, for the unexpected way in which you raised the bar on what we may expect from ourselves and each other.