An hour outside of Fayetteville, Arkansas, two hours off Route 66, sits Fort Smith, a quiet, industrial city with deep Wild West roots. It’s also home to more than 30 murals by some of the world’s top street artists.
Each year, a slew of internationally-renowned artists descend upon this unassuming southern city to take part in The Unexpected, an annual art festival that’s quietly but dramatically turning Fort Smith’s once-neglected downtown into a top-tier art destination.
An abandoned gas station has been transformed into a polka-dotted wonderland; the silos of a historic bakery have become a three-dimensional canvas for renowned artists such as Mexican muralist Hilda Palafox; and buildings that have sat empty for years suddenly blossom into roadside rainbows.
The idea of an art festival initially came to Fort Smith-based entrepreneur Steve Clark in 2014. Clark saw art as a way to reignite interest in the city’s historic downtown. The following year, he and co-founder Claire Kolberg launched both The Unexpected and 64.6 Downtown, a local non-profit that produces the festival as well as a handful of other initiatives working to revitalize the area.
Clark wanted The Unexpected to be something that would capture international attention and for that, he needed international talent. Enter Charlotte Dutoit, the festival’s curator and the founder of JustKids, a creative house that specializes in producing large-scale art installations across the globe.
It was going to be a massive undertaking in an entirely unexpected destination, but that was precisely the point. “Why Fort Smith?” Kolberg asks. “Well, why not?”
Fort Smith’s Western roots
Fort Smith rests heavily on its Western heritage. The town’s most famous landmark is its namesake military fort, which was built in the early 1800s on the riverfront directly across from Indian Territory (which later became Oklahoma). During the Indian Removal Act, the fort became a pivotal last stop for tribes on the Trail of Tears.
“The town was initially built around this very sad event,” Kolberg says. “But somehow it prospered. The river became a fantastic port of trade and with the Wild West just across the way, it became a haven for outlaws. The town had a really interesting cast of characters that helped shape this Wild West frontier.”
Much later, toward the end of the 20th century, a growing trend of outsourced labor dramatically impacted the working class town. As the city fell into a decline, Fort Smith’s historic downtown was hit particularly hard. Over the past 30 years, businesses have left Garrison Avenue, the area’s main drag, in favor of locations further east.
“We realized, the cavalry isn’t coming,” Kolberg says. “So we started thinking, what is something that we can do to bring excitement and vibrancy and life back to this downtown?”
Despite business generally moving away from the area, Kolberg says the 64.6 Downtown team still faced some resistance from locals once they announced their plan to make over the city with murals. The main criticism was that contemporary art wouldn’t be reflective of Fort Smith’s history.
To that, Kolberg responds, “Whose history are you talking about? The artists are really thoughtful about doing research on the history of the place. What they pick up on is their choice.”
Painting the town
Despite some initial pushback, Kolberg says it didn’t take long for the community to warm up to the festival. In 2015, the first seven artists arrived from places like New Zealand, Brazil, and Ireland. Throughout the week, some residents became so invested in the progress of the murals that they set up lawn chairs in nearby parking lots to watch the pieces take shape.
Every year, the international talent Dutoit’s team manages to bring to Fort Smith only continues to get more impressive—but a heavily outsourced roster also comes with a risk of bypassing local talent. Kolberg says this is something the team is actively trying to prevent.
During the first three years of the festival, organizers partnered with the University of Arkansas–Fort Smith to produce an annual mural. It also partners with local high schools on both murals and other exhibition projects tied to the festival.
“We hope the caliber of artwork that we bring can show local artists what’s possible. They can go out into the world with real-world experience from their own hometown,” Kolberg says. “We’re able to import talent, but we’re also exporting it.”
There is perhaps no better example of this type of success than the Fort Smith-based artist Buffalo. When we connect, he’s calling in from Granada, Spain, where he’s just finished a mural.
Buffalo has been involved in The Unexpected since the very beginning. For three years, he was part of the team that worked the university’s murals. He has also been one of the festival’s solo muralists and designed a pop-up skatepark that was later painted by artist Felipe Pantone. This year, Buffalo worked as a project manager on Camille Walala’s gas station takeover, perhaps the festival’s biggest undertaking to date.
“I’m the best example I can give for this event providing economic opportunity,” he says. “I never thought that street art was a way to make a living, but it turns out it is.”
A budding art scene
When Buffalo first moved to Fort Smith about a decade ago, he says the art community was basically nonexistent. “The closest thing we had was a couple of punk venues, but that was mostly just people getting drunk and listening to music,” he says.
Since The Unexpected first launched, things have changed dramatically. The same year the festival kicked off, the University of Arkansas–Fort Smith opened the Windgate Art and Design building, a state-of-the-art facility that brings an evolving class of young, new talent to town. Just last year, Buffalo and a couple of friends opened Bastion, a contemporary gallery and gathering space on Garrison Avenue. A new recording studio, Sol Studio, is also set to open downtown.
In one instance, the town’s buzzing creative energy even convinced a visiting muralist to relocate to Fort Smith. Ana Maria, an artist on the 2015 Unexpected roster, fell in love with a small, old building transformed by muralist Okuda San Miguel the following year. The rainbow-colored building, which San Miguel named “Universal Chapel,” is situated at a primary entry point to downtown, where the district’s two main avenues merge.
For a few years, Ana Maria ran art classes inside the building. It later became a classroom and event space for a local high school. Eventually, the building was demolished due to irreparable structural issues, but because it had become a beloved gathering space, locals fundraised to transform the lot into a community park.
Now, in a space that was overlooked for decades, sits the newly-opened Gateway Park, a symbolic welcome sign inviting both visitors and locals to the new Fort Smith.
If you go
The Unexpected takes place annually in Fort Smith, Arkansas. The festival team offers guided and self-guided tours of the murals by appointment throughout the year. To arrange a guided tour, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Locations of the murals can also be found here.