Artist Kevin Arnold returns home to collaborate with Barling students on mural project

by Aric Mitchell ([email protected]) 1,706 views 

Kevin Arnold still remembers the name of the teacher, who set him onvthe path to becoming a professional artist. “Kay Holmes. She was a substitute teacher for years in Fort Smith.”

Holmes still lives in the area, Arnold told Talk Business & Politics at a mural installation from Barling Elementary School on Friday (Sept. 1).

“Occasionally I’ll run into her. We still have a good friendship. She’s just a very sweet woman.”

More than that, without Ms. Holmes reaching out to his parents and telling them to “encourage Kevin any way you can” towards art, Arnold may have never had the drive to pursue it as a career — a pursuit that has paid off with numerous installations across the U.S. and internationally; featured appearances in high-profile industry publications like New American Paintings; and a number of art-specific awards and recognitions.

Arnold and his girlfriend returned to his home in Rudy, Ark., after she had finished a traveling nurse contract in 2016. Expecting to stay in the area for “a couple of years,” Arnold pitched an idea to the school where his love of art was born and where he attended from kindergarten through third grade. The idea — a collaborative mural between Barling students and Arnold. The school would collect drawings from students in grades 3-6 that demonstrated “the imagination, the excitement, the spark that happens when you learn something new.”

“I just needed the students to show me what that looked like,” Arnold said, adding the themes were meant to “help students visualize what they enjoy about school, what they saw themselves doing and dreaming about — past, present, and future.”

Arnold had no set plan of what he would paint, but as Barling teachers collected the submissions and passed them along, something “interesting” happened to him.

Mural inside the Barling Elementary School by artist Kevin Arnold.

“Your ideas started to spark my imagination,” he told the school at an assembly prior to the unveiling. “And before long, I was picturing this Dr. Seuss/Neverland of learning.” Tying it all together was a book cover designed by a student named Lauren that said, “Love is key to life, and reading is, too.”

“When I saw that, I realized those two things could not be more relevant than they are today, and the two pieces of advice I took from this were to read a lot and to love a lot more,” Arnold said.

Arnold noted that many of the children’s submissions were similar to what he and his friends would draw as kids.

“We’re all inspired by pop culture at that age. The things I was drawing and my friends were drawing were popular cartoons of that time. And so now, going through their artwork, there was some filtering through Sponge Bobs,” Arnold joked, adding he was amazed by the tools many of the young artists now have access to that were used in the submissions.

“We didn’t have our own art classroom with the materials they have access to. You know, video editing equipment is in junior high now. The stuff these kids have is miles ahead of what we had growing up, but we also made the best out of what we did have, and that forced us to be creative and show some ingenuity. But some things never change, and kids are kids with the things they respond to.”

Artist Kevin Arnold talks to students at Barling Elementary School in Barling, Ark.

The only downside to the experience, Arnold noted, was the number of quality submissions he did receive from the 234 students who participated.

“It was a lot of work, and I really wanted to include as much as I could, but there was just no way possible given the space and the amount of time I had. But as I was working, I would stop and think, ‘Oh, I can squeeze this in here or put this in there.” One element “squeezed in” to the painting was an origami bird flying towards the reader at the mural’s center.

“The origami bird was really curious because the day that I came to propose this idea, this little kid walked up to me, stood in front of me, and just made this little blue origami bird and handed it to me. I said, ‘Well thank you,’ and just knew I had to throw that in because it was really cool.”

The final artwork was a gift to current and future students of Barling Elementary School and now resides on a wall by the library. But Arnold’s “bigger intention” was to make it a dedication to teachers — like Ms. Holmes — whose jobs “are not just important, but vital to the growth of our society as a whole.” To teachers directly, Arnold said, “Keep on inspiring us. Keep on teaching us to be compassionate dreamers and thinkers. And most importantly, keep sparking our imagination.”