If you haven’t visited Fort Smith in the last couple of years, I recommend that you add it to your list of places to see. You will see some things you might not expect in Arkansas’ second-largest city.
Fort Smith has imagined its downtown as a blank canvas and turned the artists loose in an art festival that leaders have officially named Unexpected. As one newspaper headline expressed it last year, Fort Smith has created The Art of the Unexpected.
For the third year in a row, artists from all over the world traveled to Fort Smith to paint sky-scraping murals on the exterior walls of many of the city’s buildings.
On the website unexpectedFS.com, there is a guide to all the murals downtown. On the Facebook page UnexpectedFS, organizers have posted behind-the-scenes video about many of the projects.
I had the privilege of participating in a small way last Friday when I spoke at the unveiling of one of the most unexpected mural projects so far – the recreation yard at the Sebastian County Juvenile Detention Center. With the help of 10 young inmates, London artist Lakwena spent the week livening up the four walls with a mural.
The idea for the mural occurred to Lieutenant Leslie Asbury a couple of years ago. He suggested the idea to co-workers, including Captain Chris Landrum, who is the administrator of the detention center. Eventually, the Fort Smith Leadership 2016 class undertook the project.
Ten detainees – six young men and four young women – helped Lakwena paint her mural, which incorporated the title of Maya Angelou’s poem “Still I Rise.”
Lieutenant Josh Heidelberg was one of the people who helped paint. He called the project a “heaven-sent blessing” because so many in the community put time into the mural for children in trouble with the law.
The officers say the mural makes the rec yard feel bigger, and they appreciate Lakwena’s desire to give hope to the youthful inmates.
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.
In December, Fort Smith will kick off its celebration of the 200th anniversary of its founding. Thanks to the leaders and the artists, Fort Smith has a good start on the next couple of centuries.