Riff Raff: Color me impressed

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 1,106 views 

Not sure if he created The Unexpected to change how we look at downtown Fort Smith or how we look at ourselves; that maybe it was less about murals on old buildings and more about a message of new beginnings. Or maybe all of that.

That’s the extent to which I’ll make the fools-errand attempt to understand the mental machinations of one Steve Clark. Steve is the founder of Fort Smith-based Propak. He visioned up this Unexpected thing and created a 64.6 Downtown group to make it and many other things happen.

Clark’s Unexpected adventure first brought these large, impressive, fun and conversation-inducing murals and pieces of art and art exhibits to downtown Fort Smith in September 2015. International artists of widely varied talents and backgrounds made their way to Fort Smith to leave their mark on an almost 200-year-old city.

Of that first year event, I previously noted: “It coalesced the city around what remains an emerging concept that a city once wrapped tightly in the history of how-it-used-to-be can be cool again with events and amenities that speak to a future of how-we-want-it-to-be.” It was also noted in this Riff Raff space that the Unexpected artists are “people who see and apply amazing visions where entirely too many of us see only brick and block and plaster and nothing and yesterday,” and that our “yesterday (is) getting a colorful touch of tomorrow.”

But don’t take my word for it. Read any number of art reviews that put a once conservative western-heritage themed city on the same great-public-art-you-gotta-see lists with London and Sydney and Chicago. A mural project in the Sebastian County Juvenile Detention Center caught the governor’s attention.

“Unexpected is brightening up Fort Smith. The artists are creating colorful reasons for people to visit. But the mural in the detention center takes the project to a higher level. Maybe the flash of beauty inside this grim place will be the inspiration for a young person to turn from the life that landed him in custody. This concern for troubled youth is one way we will truly change our cities,” Gov. Asa Hutchinson noted in August 2017.

Kane Webb, former director of Arkansas Parks & Tourism Department Director had this to say in 2017 about The Unexpected: “I think it’s another great thing that Fort Smith is doing. And they continue to, you know, mine the arts and culture and quality of life, and they get it. They really get it, and I love the direction the city is going.”

In awarding Clark a 2018 Governor’s Arts Award, the Arkansas Arts Council noted: “The event brings in renowned artists to create public art – typically large-scale murals on buildings, sculptures and art installations in Fort Smith. The event has led to a resurgence in development in downtown Fort Smith, as well as an increase in music and performing arts events throughout the year.”

Clark had help, as does anyone who achieves far-reaching success. Claire Kolberg has been a constant face of the enterprise. She was toting a two-year-old daughter on her hip in those early days of this off-the-wall on-the-walls plan. She’s a ball of energy with some magical skill set that allows her to keep happy and focused a bunch of artists and volunteers. John McIntosh, long an advocate for downtown Fort Smith, was yanked out of a somewhat comfortable semi-retirement to bring his collaboration-building skills to the effort. McIntosh has the rolodex to find folks who can make the impossible happen in a week or two. Talicia Richardson joined Claire and John in mid 2018 as director of 64.6 Downtown. Richardson has become the day-to-day bush shaker and game changer for the Clark vision.

And that brings us to something else about Clark and his co-conspirators.

About the time the rest of us were beginning to understand that those big-ass murals at the OK Foods feed mill and other areas were more than just pretty paintings, Clark was several moves ahead, figuring out how to build on the buzz. What good is warm thoughts and bespoke momentum if you don’t use it reach new levels? In other words, how do you convert images into investment and infrastructure and ideas?

64.6 Downtown has held two Invest Fort Smith Summits to identify and encourage investments and infrastructure ideas. The organization has pushed a “Propelling Downtown Forward” Initiative responsible for a wide ranging master plan to create sustainable development in downtown Fort Smith. While much of what 64.6 accomplishes are policy changes that make a difference with little fanfare, a visible example of the work is Gateway Park – a $750,000 private/public partnership that resulted in a new eastern entrance to downtown Fort Smith. 64.6 also has become the de facto staff support for the Central Business Improvement District, an autonomous body that has the power and ability to decide and act in a more timely and efficient manner than city government.

Sincere thanks and kudos to Clark, Claire, John, Talicia and the more than 250 Unexpected volunteers. We hope for at least another five years. The giant butterflies, skeleton cowboys, large rodents, and big bunnies mix well with Judge Parker, Bass Reeves, Miss Laura, and Gen. Darby. Which is to say such colorful characters from our rich history are well served with a future character rich with color.