The state's second largest city has become an 'Unexpected' art destination.
The $15.5 million, 58,000-square-foot Windgate Art & Design Building is a gem on the campus of the University of Arkansas Fort Smith (5210 Grand Ave.). It includes gallery spaces, letterpress and printmaking operations and a 150-seat theater, along with multiple classroom and studio spaces for UAFS students. The Fort Smith Regional Art Museum (1601 Rogers Ave.) is a cornerstone of art in Fort Smith. The RAM features traveling exhibits as well as free drop-in art activities, including its “make and take” program that explores various media from noon-4 p.m. every Saturday.
There’s perhaps nothing more exciting happening in the Arkansas art world than The Unexpected, an initiative that brings world-class artists and muralists to historic buildings and other sites in downtown Fort Smith to create lasting public art. The project, curated by the global creative house Justkids and launched in 2015, was named for “bringing unexpected art to an unexpected place.” The annual Unexpected festival, which typically happens in the fall, dedicates new public mural projects, done in collaboration with international artists and locals. The project now includes more than 30 murals around town. You can get a guide for an Unexpected walking tour at Miss Laura’s Visitor Center (2 N. B St.), a former bordello that’s on the National Register of Historic Places and serves as the city’s welcome center. Bastion Gallery (914 Garrison Ave.) began life as a pop-up, but has become a fixture in Fort Smith’s art scene. The community gallery gives 100 percent of art sale proceeds to artists. It’s part of a new Downtown Fort Smith Arts Walk that also includes The Bakery (70 S. Seventh), an event space poised to become a brewery and art space.
Buy locally made goods at the Rivervalley Artisan Market in Ross Pendergraft Park (200 Garrison Ave.) every first Tuesday of the month from May until October.
Carrot Dirt (4300 Rogers Ave.) is the place to go for organic juices, smoothies and treats, while great coffee can be had at Fort Smith Coffee Co. (1101 Rogers Ave.). Check out the rotating artworks on display at The Artistic Bean (615 Garrison Ave.) while enjoying your cup of Joe. For lunch, check out the funky food trucks parked at Garrison Commons pocket park (913 Garrison Ave.). For libations, Fort Smith Brewing Co. (7500 Fort Chaffee Blvd.), the first commercial brewery in town in two decades, is a must.
Fayetteville artist Kat Wilson calls painter Don Lee “an art shaman” and says he’s insufficiently heralded outside of Fort Smith (though he has exhibited throughout the state, and in Tennessee, Texas, Oklahoma, New Jersey, New York, California and Germany). There’s no question that Lee, 75, is well known and admired at UA Fort Smith, where he was a professor of art for more than 45 years until his retirement in May. The second floor of the Windgate Art & Design Building houses the Don Lee Gallery, which showcases students’ art. For a time, Lee oversaw the main Windgate Gallery, too. He was also an influential force in the launch of The Unexpected, Fort Smith’s massively successful mural project. “Who would’ve thought the rap artists would be the ones making the most money 20 years ago? I think art is sort of following that in some way — what was once graffiti is now street art and has a standing,” he said. “It’s also taking art out of the galleries and museums a little bit, though a lot of [the street muralists] have become well known enough that they exhibit.”
In retirement, Lee is working in his home studio, drawing and painting and using wax, pigment, shellac and mixed media materials. He describes his latest project as a kind of dimensional drawing with cardboard container sculptures. “I like to begin something not knowing where it’s going,” Lee said. — Lindsey Millar