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A touch of the Unexpected in Fort Smith

Unexpected. Far more than just a catchy name, the word “unexpected” truly captures the spirit of the yearly art celebration in Fort Smith, the Unexpected Mural Festival.

Curated by art network JustKids, the Unexpected is an initiative to bring international artists and creative artwork to downtown Fort Smith, Ark., perhaps not the first venue that would come to mind as the focal point for world-class art. Yet that is part of what makes it the perfect backdrop. Walking through a downtown that has been a lynchpin in Arkansas history and industry and seeing walls and alleyways adorned with bright colors and stunning tableaus serves as a bridge to the present. The murals and installed artworks are also enhanced by the history surrounding them. There is a symbiosis between old and new that helps one appreciate them both through the contrast.

Mural by DFace

That is not to say, however, that the murals and other art don’t have a Fort Smith flavor. Much of the art ties into Fort Smith’s frontier past and its proximity to Oklahoma featuring Western and Native American themes. New Zealand artist ASKEW, for instance, met with a modern Cherokee chief in Oklahoma while conceptualizing his mural. Inspired by the meeting, ASKEW created a mural incorporating the faces of four Cherokee women close to the chief: his mother, wife, daughter and sister.

Mural by ASKEW

The nod to the history and culture of Fort Smith in so many murals was itself unexpected. Artists are given free range to create the murals, without the need for approval or input from the organizers or the business owners on whose walls they are working. This leap of faith has been rewarded year after year with thoughtful and stunning works of art. This running success is a testament to careful selection of world-class artists whose chosen medium happens to be mural work.

Mural by UAFS students

Something else one might not expect as part of a mural festival are the variety of installed elements accompanying the art. From standalone sculptures of local fauna made from metal scraps, to incorporated neon lights, several pieces of art go beyond flat walls and bring the viewer inside of the work. At the Unexpected headquarters in the historic New Theater, artist Doze Green has installed his work “The Divine Sparks Project.” The work pulls visitors into a darkened space, through an entryway lit by dime blue lights that make the stark white figures painted on the walls jump out. Past the entrance, the space opens up into the theater proper with custom neon figures lighting up the walls and a pair of blue giants towering on either side of the proscenium. Standing on the darkened stage, flanked by colossal abstract figures and looking out a ring of glowing outlines on the far wall, you lose yourself for a moment.

Divine Sparks Project 1

Divine Sparks Project 2

Divine Sparks Project 3

Another piece that invites interaction is by Amsterdam artists Circus Family. “TRIPH” is an installed work that features glowing geometric shapes and ambient sounds that react to viewer interaction. In the absence of spectators, the lights are dull and the sounds nearly non-existent. When approached, however, the shapes light up and pulse with different colors, and sounds fill the space. The work is a fantastic blend of art and technology that takes the viewer out of passive role.

Mural by UAFS student

Carved mural by Vhils

There are so many great artworks to discus, from work that was chiseled into plaster, a mural on a print shop storage building appropriately featuring Guttenberg, to abstract pieces that speak for themselves, but words do them only so much justice. You really can’t know what it’s like until you’ve seen it for yourself. Even though the festival is over, the art remains an integral part of Fort Smith. I encourage you to make the trip and take a stroll downtown. Soak in the history, shop the shops and expect the Unexpected.

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97-year-old Royal Theatre remains a gem

If only the brick walls of the Royal Theatre in downtown Benton could talk, I imagine the conversation would be full of amusing, awe-inspiring tales of the different types of people who have graced the interior of the two-story historic structure. From early movie days in the 1920s to the ’50s when concessions were sold to passersby on the street, and later in the ’90s when actor Jerry Van Dyke owned the theater and adjacent Soda Shoppe, the Royal Theatre has touched many lives throughout the past century.

In 2004 when I joined the staff at the Benton Courier (now the Saline Courier), I quickly learned from seasoned reporter and editor Lynda Hollenbeck – a Royal Players board member and veteran cast and crew participant – the important role the theater plays in the community. During my newspaper tenure I would go on to know other key players of the Royal, such as theatre manager Shannon Moss and founding members the late Gayla McCoy, Louann Cameron and Selena Ellis.

The Royal Players (formerly the Central Arkansas Community Players) has called the Royal Theatre home since 2000 when Van Dyke deeded the building to the performance group. Established in 1994, for the first few years the theatre group put on plays at Benton High School’s Butler Auditorium. The Royal Players and the Young Players for youth have produced more than 100 plays.

The original section of the Royal Theatre was built in 1920 when it was known as the IMP, an acronym for Independent Motion Pictures, according to the history section of the theater’s website. The theater was remodeled and the name changed to the Royal in 1949. In 1974, Wallace Kauffman relinquished control of the Royal to his son Warren Lee and his wife, Mildred. In 1986, Warren Lee passed ownership to his son Randy Kauffman, who continued to manage it until 1996 when he sold it to Van Dyke.

Because the Royal Theatre is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Royal Players is able to apply for preservation grants and low-interest loans to help maintain the structure for all to enjoy for years to come.

Susan Dill, president of the Royal Players Board of Directors, gives Van Dyke credit for cleaning up downtown. The area has been on the upswing ever since.

“The area continues to improve, and we attract people from all of central Arkansas,” Dill says, adding that the theater “improves the quality of life for all who experience it, from the actors to the people who come to watch.”

The Winthrop Rockefeller Institute’s very own Jeff LeMaster, director of communications and marketing, grew up in Benton, calling the Royal “our movie theater.” Until Tinseltown theater was built in 1997, LeMaster says the Royal was the only option for seeing movies locally.

“One of my most vivid memories of the Royal was when we went to see The Rescuers Down Under with my family. About halfway through the movie, they stopped the projector and the manager came in and told the audience that it was snowing pretty hard outside and that he would give us a rain check ticket if we wanted to leave. My parents opted to stay and finish the movie even though most people left, and by the time we got out of the theater, there was about six inches of snow on the ground. It took us a while to get home, but I remember thinking how cool it was to have the theater almost all to ourselves.”

LeMaster echoes Dill’s sentiments about downtown’s improvement during the Van Dyke days.

“Back in the ’90s, Benton’s downtown was struggling. Businesses were having a hard time staying open, and there were lots of vacant buildings. The one little glimmer of life was the Royal. That became especially true when Jerry Van Dyke installed the soda shop next door and the Royal installed a stage and began producing live local theater. The soda shop venture didn’t last, but I remember being amazed at how many more people I saw on Market Street during that time.”

With the increased foot traffic came a renewed interest from investors to revive vacant buildings near the Royal that remain occupied.  

Since the Royal Players took control of the building, the Royal Theatre is not only a stellar downtown asset, but also a safe haven for youth and adults to come together to be themselves, establish bonds and gain valuable life lessons.

Payton Christenberry, a program officer at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute in charge of arts and humanities programs, also grew up in Benton and recalls fondly his time as part of the Royal Players.

The Royal was a big part of my teenage and early adult years, performing on stage and working behind the scenes,” Christenberry says. “I didn’t appreciate its history at the time, but there was no way to miss the presence the building has. From the classic theater marquee to the towering ceiling inside to the creak of the chairs, everything pulls you into another world.

“What sticks out most, though, is how many people the Royal brings together. I got to meet and work with people from my community on something we all shared a passion for. On top of that, we got to perform for our friends and neighbors. I can’t think of a time I felt more connected to my hometown than standing on stage to take a final bow beside my fellow cast and crew in front of a packed house. I wouldn’t have those memories without the Royal.”

That intrinsic link to the artistic and commercial health of a community will be a key theme at the Rockefeller Institute’s upcoming Historic Theaters Conference, which will be held at the Institute on Petit Jean Mountain Thursday, Aug. 10, through Friday, Aug. 11.

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Morrilton’s Rialto Theatre undergoes epic transformation through the years

The Hollywood stars who once graced its screen may be gone with the wind (if you’ll forgive the play on words), but the Rialto Theatre still remains a gem in downtown Morrilton today. Actually, the story of the theater — with its myriad stops and starts, and especially its survival in the face of long odds — would arguably be worthy of the sweeping epics that used to screen there.

Not so long ago it appeared the more-than-100-year-old landmark had outlived its relevance: doomed to the same finale as countless aging buildings before it. In the 1990s, the Rialto was slated for demolition – to make room for a parking lot. Progress, it seemed, had caught up with the Rialto and left it behind. Movie-goers had long ago moved onto bigger multiplexes, larger screens and state-of-the-art surround sound.

Rialto-old

The first film showed at the Rialto in 1911. In the 1950s, the building was gutted and seating increased. It reopened to great acclaim with a showing of Lovely to Look At, starring Kathryn Grayson and Red Skelton. In the 1970s, it was again modified to keep up with the times and was converted to three screens. It didn’t last, however, and the following decade, the once-grand theater was shut down.

For years, the Rialto sat there boarded up and empty — a deteriorating relic whose golden age had played out its run. Enter our hero in this script.

Lindell Roberts wasn’t the only person who helped save the Rialto, but if this were one of those “based-on-a-true-story” movies, this gregarious Morriltonian would undoubtedly play a leading role.

“When I would drive through downtown, I would look at it (the Rialto) and think, ‘We need to turn that into a performance theater.’ This was around 1995,” Roberts recounted one morning from the sidewalk outside the Rialto. Occasionally people would honk and wave as they drove past.

“Then one day, our new mayor at the time, Stewart Nelson, called me up and asked, ‘What would you think about making the old Rialto into a performance theater?,’” Roberts recalled between waves. “I said, ‘When do you want to start?’”

And like those feel-good celluloid stories that never get old, hard-working members of the community came together to bring the regal lady back to life. Most of the early labor was made up entirely of volunteers, Roberts said. Improved lighting was installed, a new stage was built and a proscenium added. A capital improvement grant helped renovate the building next door, which became a connected art gallery. A donor, Afton King, paid for the installation of the necessary dressing rooms for performers. A local artist even came in to restore the murals along the walls of the main seating hall that were added in 1952 when the theater was beginning its second life.

“When The Rep (in Little Rock) did their renovation, they gave us the seats that came out of the theater,” Roberts said, recalling just how broad the backing for this success story has been. “We have great community support for this theater. A lot of towns our size don’t have something like this (a downtown theater).”

Current Morrilton Mayor Allen Lipsmeyer agrees. “I’ve been to cities all over Arkansas that deeply regret tearing down their downtown theater,” he said. “In fact, cities are now building replicas of historic theaters. We did a good thing preserving this piece of history. No one regrets saving history.”

Roberts helped create the Rialto Community Arts Center Board, under the auspices of the Arts Council of Conway County, to manage the renovation and operation of the theater, which is now called the Rialto Community Arts Center. He was the first president and currently serves as chairman. The reopened 400-seat venue hosted its first performance in 2000 and has been used frequently ever since for a variety of plays, concerts, murder-mystery dinners and, of course, films, such as the classic Gone with the Wind, which was screened a few years ago. Next door — formerly a hardware store — houses a meeting center (complete with a full kitchen) and an art gallery, which varies its exhibits every few months.

This type of success story is part of what will be highlighted at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute’s Historic Theaters Conference on Aug. 10-11. The conference, which only costs $75 to attend (includes lodging and meals), will feature experts in historic preservation, fundraising and art as a method of community and economic development. It will also include time for networking among people who are all passionate about ensuring their community’s historic theater has its own success story.

Most seem to agree that Morrilton isn’t ready for the credits to roll on the Rialto, a true historic Arkansas landmark.

“Art is a part of what makes communities unique, and artists bring with them passion,” Lipsmeyer said. “I like knowing we have a space for our citizens to enjoy art, perform, celebrate, demonstrate and show their talent. I believe art will be a vital part of our downtown revitalization.

“We are a better city because of the Rialto.”

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Art in its Natural State

To know why Arkansas is the Natural State, all one needs to do is take a short trip to Petit Jean Mountain. From impressive views of the Arkansas River Valley, to lakes and rivers, and wide fields and towering pines, Petit Jean offers a wonderful snapshot of Arkansas’ natural beauty. It’s no wonder that Petit Jean has also called to artists throughout the years, from Native American cave art all the way to modern day painters, sculptors and writers.

To celebrate that rich history and add to the artistic legacy of Petit Jean, we here at the Institute are partnering with Petit Jean State Park to host the first Art in its Natural State competition. We have worked with the Park to identify serval sites on our respective campuses that not only exemplify Petit Jean’s varied landscapes, but would also be a great spot for public art. Our contest challenges artists to design temporary, site-specific outdoor works for those areas. The best fit for the competition will likely be structural, sculptural or landscape art, but all designed public art will be considered. You can see all of the sites up for design here.

The artwork will be displayed in its outdoor site for up to one year, then taken down by the artist. The focus for the competition is a balance between the visual appeal of the created artwork and the natural beauty of the space it is designed for. The works must also have neutral impact to the site in which they are installed, meaning that after the works are removed and the area is allowed time to recover, it will be as if there was never any art installed at all.

The temporary nature of the installations is both respectful to Petit Jean’s environment and allows for artists to use creative materials that they might not otherwise work with. A bronze statue will withstand many decades of display, but our more ephemeral artworks needn’t be quite that durable. Though the works that are designed need to stand up to a year of seasonal weather, we hope that artists will incorporate recycled or recyclable materials for their work.  

We will take applications until September of this year, after which point all of the submitted designs will be considered by our judging and advisory panel. Made up of representatives from the Arkansas Arts Council; Arkansas Arts Center; Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism; Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art; University of Arkansas, Fayetteville; University of Arkansas at Fort Smith; University of Arkansas at Little Rock; the Park; and the Institute, our panel will select 10 winning designs. Those designs will be funded by a $5,000-per-artist stipend to cover the creation of the artwork and its transportation and installation on Petit Jean in March of 2018.

Although focused on the natural beauty of Petit Jean Mountain, the Art in its Natural State competition is open to all Southern and Arkansas regional artists. That includes artists from Arkansas, Alabama, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, West Virginia and Virginia. If you or someone you know is interested in entering the competition, the official rules and application guidelines for the competition can be found here

As we select winners and install the art, we’ll have plenty of updates here and on the Art in its Natural State page. Look for profiles of the winning artists, sneak peeks of the artwork and plenty of photos of the opening event on Saturday, March 10, 2018. Even better than seeing the art online, of course, will be to visit the art in person. We’ll have eight installed pieces at the Institute through March 2019, and the Park will host two installed works through July of 2018. We hope you’ll join us as we celebrate Arkansas’ beauty and the talents of Southern artists with the first Art in its Natural State competition.

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Arts on the Mountain: a look back

This May we were honored to host a watercolor course from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Eleven art students lived and learned here at the Institute arriving on May 22 and leaving a week later, having spent every day learning new techniques and putting them to practice at several locations at the Institute and Petit Jean State Park.

I caught up with Sarah Spencer, one of the students, and got her impressions about the experience. Spencer explained, “This was not your typical university class experience. The week-long course at one of Arkansas’ most beautiful mountain retreats blended outstanding instruction and resources, serious study, and free time for walks, fishing, reading and reflecting.”

A participant in the watercolor workshop paints underneath a large rock face on Petit Jean Mountain.

Leading them through their week-long course was UALR visiting professor and artist in residence, Heidi Hogden. Hogden, whose work is currently in the Annual Delta Exhibition at the Arkansas Arts Center, taught classroom lessons out of the Institute’s Petit Jean I classroom, which was set up as the class’s studio for the week. More hands-on learning, however, took place outside of the class’s studio.

Students spent time painting beside the fields along the Institute’s drive, at the Studio, in Petit Jean State Park at locations like Davies Bridge and at the Arkansas Archeological Survey Station here at the Institute. Spencer explained, “For art students, the location on Petit Jean Mountain provided access to some of the state’s most stunning scenery, easily available by foot or by the staff-driven van that efficiently transported the group to unique locations for plein air painting.”

The visits made for a memorable week, Spencer said, noting that one of her favorite memories was the afternoon spent at the Arkansas Archeological Survey. Larry Porter, the archeological assistant for the survey station here, gave the students a tour of the station and selected several artifacts to be used as models for the class.

Students were inspired by the natural beauty of Petit Jean Mountain

“Following his tour of the facility, our class was invited to set up at the survey’s site for an afternoon of painting images of several rare objects from the collection,” Spencer said. “One of the artifacts was estimated to be over 1,000 years old – not your typical still life model!”

Reflecting on the mood of the class, Spencer said, “It was as much fun as going to camp – but a camp with a few more amenities. Spacious private cottages and meals provided three times a day by one of the state’s finest culinary programs.” 

Spencer’s overall recommendation? “I would say to any student (in any discipline) that an experience such as this is one you owe yourself. The ability to be removed from the ‘busyness’ of daily life and to learn new things in such a remarkable setting along with fellow students with shared interests is truly a gift. Note this as one priceless opportunity and take it.”

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The trees that stick in our memories

Growing up in Arkansas, it is easy to take trees for granted. No matter where you are in the state, chances are you aren’t too far from a towering pine, a sprawling magnolia or shady oak. And yet, few of us stop to see the trees for the forest. That’s a trait Linda Palmer invites you to change with a series of detailed colored pencil renderings of the Champion Trees of Arkansas.

Each of the Champion Trees are the largest of their species in Arkansas, cataloged by the Arkansas Forestry Commission. Of the 123 currently identified Champions, Palmer captured 18 for her first exhibit, traveling to each tree personally to take countless reference photos and get a feel for each tree’s unique traits and personality.

Palmer then takes her reference photos and experience back to her studio, where she begins the process of drawing each tree with colored pencils. Colored pencils were chosen as the medium for the work as they allow her to impart very precise details into each drawing. Palmer also tries to frame each tree in a way that conveys what stuck with her most about each tree she visited, such as the looming height and bark pattern of the former Champion shortleaf pine (which has unfortunately fallen in a storm since) or the many knees of the Champion cypress. The end results are masterfully detailed works that represent living pieces of history.

Each tree in the exhibit also tells a story, from a tree that has been part of a graveyard for decades to a tree that has grown with one family through the generations. Palmer traveled more than 7,000 miles across Arkansas to visit the trees and hear the stories surrounding them. Some trees are located in a family’s front yard or in the center of a town, while others are tucked away in the middle of some of Arkansas’ biggest forests, but all of the trees have a special meaning to someone.

Palmer’s journey even inspired an Arkansas Educational Television Network documentary titled Champion Trees.  The documentary tells about the exhibition, explores the landowner history for the champion trees and includes the perspective of the Arkansas Forestry Department. There’s even an accompanying educator’s guide full of classroom activities that encourage engagement with and study of the trees in the students’ lives.

At its heart, the Champion Trees Exhibit is an invitation to lose yourself in contemplation, both of the trees featured in the exhibit and the trees from your past. Just as the Champion Trees have countless decades of memories invested in them, I know I have personal memories of trees that I grew up with. And even if you don’t have memorable trees in your own life, there’s no better time to visit us on the mountain to see the exhibit in person. And if you can, come for the exhibit’s opening reception at 2 p.m. Friday, June 3. Palmer herself will be here to talk about the exhibit, as will State Forester Joe Fox of the Arkansas Forestry Commission. The reception is free to attend, but we ask that you register in advance.

After your visit you can spend some time on our grounds and in Petit Jean State Park and make all new tree memories.

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Local theater is the way to go, Shakespeare actor says

Standing in front of a crowd and being the focus of hundreds of eyes and ears isn’t something most people are willing to do. Add singing and playing an instrument to the mix and you have the stuff of some people’s nightmares. Others, like Matt Duncan, can’t get enough.

AST1

A native Arkansan, Duncan, 25, will take center stage this summer as Feste in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, one of the four plays that are part of the 2016 Arkansas Shakespeare Theatre (AST) season.

AST is enjoying its 10th season this year, and Duncan has been with them for half that time, performing in various productions for the past five years.

“It’s a family,” Duncan said, “and it’s where I grew up professionally.”

Duncan explained that part of the joy of working with AST for so long is the chance to see it expand and grow.

“The audiences have grown every year and the community is more involved. AST belongs to central Arkansas now,” he said.  

AST2

Though he might have grown up professionally with AST, Duncan’s been on stage all of his life. His first experience with theater was when he was 4 years old, performing children’s theater in Dardanelle, Ark.

Given his lifetime involvement with theater, it’s no wonder that Duncan also co-founded Paradise Explored Theatre Co., a theater company centered in Bentonville, Ark.

“We view it as a semi-pro halfway house for guerilla theatre,” he said. “We work in found spaces to bring texts to new light.”

Paradise Explored has performed at many unique venues in northwest Arkansas, including Fossil Cove Brewing Co., Backspace, and Two25 Gallery & Wine Bar. Duncan even recalls performing a radio play in a crowded condo for an enthusiastic audience in conjunction with Artinfusion at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

As Duncan explained, northwest Arkansas has several venues for community theater, children’s theater (like Trike Theatre), and even experimental theatre with the Artist Laboratory Theatre, but none that felt exactly right for him.

“We wanted to make an opportunity for people to learn and explore,” he said.  

AST3

Duncan is not alone in his desire to create new opportunities for theatre.

“It is a very exciting time to be a part of theatre in Arkansas,” Duncan explained. “New opportunities are popping up everywhere, and everyone is committed to building.”

Even Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art is planning to create a space that could be used for live theatre.

With all of the positive energy for theatre building in the northwest corner of the state, stepping out of that scene will be difficult. Duncan will spend three years taking part in Purdue University’s Professional Actor Training Program. But that doesn’t mean that he plans to leave his home state behind.

When speaking about last year’s AST performance of As You Like It here at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute, Duncan remarked, “The most rewarding work is work featured where there isn’t much like this going on, especially when you’ve grown up there. Performing is the most exciting when you get to provide that service to the community.” 

AST4

Duncan hopes for a similar experience on June 25 when AST brings Twelfth Night to the Institute for a one-hour, family-friendly performance on the Institute’s front lawn.

“Performing these plays outdoors is always the best. They are planned to be outside.”

Duncan said the crowd is equally important.

“Last year there was a huge crowd that was extremely engaged. I remember a Shakespeare scholar in the audience mouthing along with the lines to Jacques’s ‘All the world’s a stage’ speech as I was giving it. … It’s a definite plus to have an involved audience.”

This year’s performance of Twelfth Night will feature actors singing original songs and playing instruments during the performance, something that is both entertaining and functional.

“Songs develop the story in Shakespeare plays, the same as in modern musical theater. They work magic on a character,” Duncan explained. 

We can’t wait to see it when we have Duncan and AST back on the mountain for another great performance this year. And if you want to follow in his footsteps and experience theatre firsthand, Duncan has some final words of advice: “Do it. Please. Take a class, audition for plays, get involved. Do it and stay local.”

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Arkansas Artist Spotlight: Dawn Holder

This month’s Arkansas Artist Spotlight focuses on Dawn Holder. Holder is an instructor at the University of the Ozarks in Clarksville and is an accomplished ceramics artist. Just last year she was featured alongside a select group of artists from around the globe for the National Museum of Women in the Arts Women to Watch exhibition series.

We caught up with Holder at an exhibition of her work at the Arts and Science Center for Southeast Arkansas and were able to find out a little more about her.

A Flower's Shade Exhibit

A Flower’s Shade exhibit at the Arts and Science Center for Southeast Arkansas

How did you first become involved in the arts? Have you always been drawn to work with ceramics and porcelain?

My interest in art started in childhood. My siblings and I were not allowed to watch very much TV. Instead, we were encouraged to read, play, explore and be creative. At one point, I noticed some red clay in our yard and decided to dig it up and make pottery with it. I painted the pots with tempera paint and left them in the sun to dry. Finding a direct connection with the material was exciting, even if the pieces were pretty wonky. In high school, my interest started to become more serious. I took different art classes every year, and I began to take ceramics classes in the evening at a community art center. In both undergraduate and graduate school, I focused on ceramics and sculpture.

As a material, clay is very tactile and responsive. I have always been drawn to its humble origins, its rich history and its ability to morph into almost any form. Porcelain is more temperamental to work with than other types of clay, but I love its translucency, bright white color and highly responsive nature.

 Once Upon a Time in the Forest of I'm Not Sweet Enough

Once Upon a Time in the Forest of I'm Not Sweet Enough, 2008-2009, 14' x 16' x 6 ‘, porcelain, plaster, poly-fil, sugar, chocolate and butterscotch almond bark, homemade hard candy, homemade cotton candy. Photo courtesy of Dawn Holder.

What are some of the biggest influences and inspirations for your work?

I am always looking, noticing, reading and collecting. My interests and inspiration are all over the place:  formal garden design; minimalist sculpture; highly detailed craftwork, especially traditional women’s work, like embroidery; postapocalyptic narratives; the landscape around wherever I happen to be; aerial photography; the Necropastoral; ruins; fairytales; social and cultural practice that affect the environment; landscaping; multimedia installation art (Sarah Sze, Petah Coyne, Kim Dickey, Gregor Schneider, Claire Twomey); houses and other domestic structures; geology; art history; botanical drawings; ecofeminism; ecology; natural history collections and wunderkammer; etc.

 Median

Median, 2014, porcelain, concrete, 127" x 31" x 2.5". Photo courtesy of Dawn Holder.

It seems like a lot of your work (A Flower’s Shade, Monoculture, Once Upon a Time in the Forest of I’m Not Sweet Enough) draws the viewer’s eye to elements that are ground level. Is that significant to the themes of your work?

Yes, working on the ground is a very deliberate choice. Partly, it comes out of an influence and response to minimalist sculptors, like Carl Andre, who placed materials and sculptural objects directly on the gallery floor. I am drawn to the way this type of work displaces all of the empty space above it. In a sense, the entire gallery becomes a pedestal for the work. Since I work primarily with landscape-based imagery, it makes visual sense for the work to be directly on the ground, as this is the way we experience the landscape around us—directly springing from the same ground our feet rest on. I am interested in the viewer feeling as though they share the space with the work, rather than being artificially separated from it by a pedestal.

There is an element of danger of working directly on the floor, however, because my work is very fragile and vulnerable to breakage. I have had multiple experiences with people purposefully stepping on and breaking the porcelain grass (sadly, both children and adults have done this). Occasionally, people just aren’t paying attention and accidentally bump into and break pieces. I have to work closely with galleries and museums to create visual cues, like tape lines or signage, to help protect the work. When I participate in group exhibitions where I show smaller installations or sculptural groupings, I sometimes use low pedestals to give the work a buffer zone.

 Monoculture

Monoculture, 2013, porcelain, 8’ x 15’ x 2.5 ». Photo courtesy of Dawn Holder.

When talking about Monoculture and other works featuring ceramic grass, you mention the deliberately tedious creation process. Has that influenced or crossed over to some of your latest pieces?

Labor and tedium seem to be part of my creative process, no matter what the work is. Part of what I find visually attractive and exciting is the massing together and repetition of forms, so that means I have to make many, many little pieces for my installations. For Monoculture, I created over 75,000 blades of porcelain grass. Repetition, labor, time and process all add value and meaning to the finished work. My most recent installation, A Flower’s Shade, has a good deal of variety in the forms, but the process of collecting, sorting and dipping each piece of plant matter in liquid clay was the same. Repetition has a deep history in ceramics, from the potter who makes hundreds of bowls, to the factory that makes thousands of sinks. My installation work harnesses this tradition of multiplicity to create visual impact and metaphor.

 Once Upon a Time in the Forest of I'm Not Sweet Enough

Once Upon a Time in the Forest of I'm Not Sweet Enough, 2008-2009, 14' x 16' x 6 ‘, porcelain, plaster, poly-fil, sugar, chocolate and butterscotch almond bark, homemade hard candy, homemade cotton candy. Photo courtesy of Dawn Holder.

Speaking of A Flower’s Shade, many of the sculptures take on an active, flowing form. Is that a byproduct working with organic material, or were they deliberately shaped before firing?

A little of both. The organic materials that I used in the piece include things like hedge clippings, fallen leaves, weeds, seed pods, berries and dead flowers, so that many of them naturally have active, flowering forms. Depending on the particular item, some were trimmed or bundled together before being dipped in slip. Others were just taken in their natural, organic state. After being dipped in slip, the forms all have to drip-dry on a clothesline, which also affects the ultimate shape, as everything tends to be pulled downward by gravity. Also, many of the forms fall apart or break in the firing and glazing process, so I have to make many extra and cross fingers to get a few that have beautiful, complex shapes. I now have piles and piles of interesting shards and shrapnel that did not make the cut for these pieces, but that I imagine will also be “harvested” and transformed into some smaller works.

 A Flower's Shade

A Flower’s Shade exhibit at the Arts and Science Center for Southeast Arkansas

How did you decide on the color palette and differing levels of slip and glaze for the “porcelain fossils” that make up A Flower’s Shade?

The color palette is inspired by the Necropastoral (a poetic theory described by Joyelle McSweeney that intertwines the idealized natural world and mankind’s degradation of the environment) and my love of postapocalyptic landscape as depicted in books and movies—the rubble and the grey, black, bleak quality of the landscape. I use several shades of gray and black to evoke a dead, charred or aberrant quality. The white is reminiscent of death, bones and lifeless things drained of color. The bright yellow was chosen for contrast and to create a sense of unease. It has a radioactive or poisonous quality, like bodily fluid or an infection. Overall, I wanted the colors to evoke a sense of loss, disruption and mystery.

Porcelain fossil

A Flower’s Shade exhibit at the Arts and Science Center for Southeast Arkansas

Having grown up in the South, what makes this region unique for an artist? Has it had a specific influence on your work?

I would not say that living here has had a strong influence on what I make, although my work has always been, either directly or indirectly, a response to the culture and landscape around me. Living in several different areas of the country has given me perspective on various modes of being and interacting with the environment. There is, however, a little more space and freedom to develop and define your creative practice here. I don’t feel any pressure to adhere to a certain kind of making or thinking, as might happen in other more commercially driven places. Also, I have been surprised by the amount of opportunities and resources for artists here, as well as the supportive environment. Even the good old boys at the hardware store get interested in what I am making and regularly ask me about it.

On the other hand, the challenge of living in rural Arkansas is that life here can be personally and culturally isolating. I have had to search all over the state to find other creative people to connect to. I am part of a fairly recently formed female art collective called Culture Shock. We meet regularly to critique each other’s work, we support each other’s creative practice, and we organize group exhibitions and panel discussions. Having a critical discourse with this diverse and talented group of people has invigorated my creative practice.

 

 A Flower's Shade

A Flower’s Shade exhibit at the Arts and Science Center for Southeast Arkansas

What brought you to Arkansas?

I moved to Arkansas for a job. I am an assistant professor of art, and I teach ceramics, sculpture and art history at the University of the Ozarks. I had never been to Arkansas before my job interview, but full-time teaching jobs are pretty rare, so thought I would give it a try.

 

 A Flower's Shade

A Flower’s Shade exhibit at the Arts and Science Center for Southeast Arkansas

What do you hope to see in the future for arts in Arkansas and the South?

I hope to see more funding and support for art, not only for mature artists, but also in the schools. I think teaching children how to think creatively is just as important as learning to how to read and write.

Another thing I hope to see continued emphasis on is more diversity in programming within art institutions, which serves to reflect the diverse experience and background of our population. The Arkansas Arts Center has had some fantastic shows lately of African-American and Latino art. I would love to see this trend continue and expand, not just through specific exhibitions, but also through regular programming, inclusion in permanent collections, etc. I think there is still a lot of entrenched racism and prejudice in the South, and art can serve to challenge the dominant paradigm by communicating empathetic perspectives that are diverse, divergent and other.

 

We appreciate Dawn sharing her thoughts with us and encourage you to check out her work in person. You can see A Flower’s Shade at the Arts and Science Center for Southeast Arkansas through April 21, 2016. You can see Once Upon a Time in the Forest of I'm Not Sweet Enough as it travels the state as part of the 2016 Arkansas Women to Watch exhibit.

 

This post is part of a monthly series highlighting artists that call Arkansas home and make the arts community here one of the best in the South. Read on for a closer look at the people creating great art all across the Natural State.

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Calling all archeology enthusiasts: Institute research station sets open house for March 19

On top of beautiful Petit Jean Mountain, the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute is home to one of the 10 research stations of the Arkansas Archeological Survey. The mission of the Arkansas Archeological Survey is to research and protect Arkansas’ archeological sites, preserve and manage information and collections from those sites, and share what we have learned with the citizens of Arkansas.

The Arkansas Archeological Survey, along with the Arkansas Archeological Society, participates in an annual outreach event called Arkansas Archeology Month. In celebration of Archeology Month, the WRI research station is holding an open house from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, March 19. Although the research station welcomes visitors any time of the year, we are planning many fun and educational activities for our open house day.

 University of Central Arkansas Students trying out our atlatl.

University of Central Arkansas Students trying out our atlatl. (2015)

The research station at the Institute is located in what is called The Teaching Barn. This barn and the surrounding buildings in the “Heritage Farmstead,” as it is termed, are modeled after a real farmstead owned by the Westphal family on Petit Jean Mountain from about 1900 to 1953. The location of the orchard, vineyard, smokehouse and cellar house are all based on the real Westphal farmstead, which was located on the north edge of the mountain. In addition to the station “barn,” the smokehouse and cellar house will be open for touring.

We will have both prehistoric (before Europeans arrived in Arkansas) and historic artifacts on display. You are welcome to bring artifacts to be identified, but we do not do appraisals or allow buying or selling of artifacts at our events. You will have a chance to try your hand at spear throwing using an atlatl or play toli, a traditional Native American stickball game. There will be crafts including make-your-own petroglyph, a pictograph wall, making cordage and decorating pottery using prehistoric techniques.

University of Central Arkansas Students painting on our pictograph wall.

University of Central Arkansas Students painting on our pictograph wall. (2015)

We are going to have a couple of demonstrations as well. Ben Swadley, superintendent at the Parkin Archeological State Park, will demonstrate how Native Americans made their stone tools and arrow points by doing some flintknapping. For a historic perspective, Paul Glidewell is going to demonstrate some historic woodworking techniques.

The WRI station is developing a Native American garden at the station. Similar to the Plum Bayou garden designed by Dr. Elizabeth Horton at the Toltec Mounds research station, we will plant species that were used by Native Americans before the widespread use of corn around A.D. 1000. These ancient crops include sunflower, goosefoot, maygrass, little barley and a particular line of squash. At our open house you will be able to try out gardening in our garden with replica Native American gardening tools made out of stone, wood and antlers.

Ben Swadley flintknapping.

Ben Swadley flintknapping. (2015)

From noon to 2 p.m. ROOST (Revitalizing Ozark and Ouachita Seed Traditions) will host a seed swap at the open house. You can participate in the seed swap and help preserve Arkansas’ agricultural heritage by bringing your open pollinated seeds, their stories and other associated information to share with others.

I hope you will come join us for a day of history, exploration and hands-on learning for all ages!

For more information on the open house, contact Dr. Emily Beahm at (501) 727-6250 or ebeahm@uawri.org.

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You do a little research, you end up in Budapest

The list of things I know about Ludwig van Beethoven is a short one. I know that he was a great composer, that he was German, that he was deaf for much of his life and that he penned "Für Elise" and several other pieces that I would recognize by ear but couldn’t name.

But I’m always interested in a good story. So when I saw an article from the University of Arkansas – Fort Smith (UAFS) about an upcoming lecture on one of Beethoven’s works, "Opus 111," I was intrigued. I wasn’t intrigued by "Opus 111" (at least not at first). I had never heard the piece before. I was intrigued by the fact that Dr. Stephen Husarik, professor of humanities and music history at UAFS, had traveled to Budapest, Hungary, to play a piano that belonged to Beethoven himself.

Dr. Husarik will give a lecture about this experience and his research regarding "Opus 111" at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 23, in the Breedlove Auditorium on the UAFS campus.

To understand the context of this story, you first have to understand a bit about Dr. Husarik. First off, he’s brilliant. He has literally written the book on humanities. Or a book, anyway. He showed me the humanities textbook he authored during my recent visit to his office in the UAFS Breedlove building.

Second, his thirst for learning and knowledge is furious. It’s evident within two minutes of conversation with him. His office, humbly tucked into a corner of Breedlove, is stuffed to the gills with books, papers, playback systems old and new … and a piano. I’m quite certain they must have built Breedlove around the piano, because I saw no other way of installing it.

His office layout and contents speak to his personality. As we talked, he glided back and forth from his desk to his piano to his collection of books and papers. If I asked a question about "Opus 111," his eyes would light up, and before the entirety of the question was out of my mouth, he had whisked past me to get to the piano to show me the answer to my question.

So how does this story wind its way to Budapest?

Husarik is a lifelong student of the works of Ludwig van Beethoven. He’s studied all of Beethoven’s works and has a ferocious enthusiasm for the composer.

As a young music student, Husarik was exposed to "Opus 111," the last of 32 piano sonatas written by Beethoven. Husarik learned to play the piece (which is no small feat) early in his academic career and has maintained an interest in it throughout his life.

It’s a complicated piece, full of nuance and mystery. Particularly curious are the piece’s variations, which take place in the sonata’s latter half. In the nearly 200 years since Beethoven’s death, scholars have debated about the nature of these variations. Husarik, through his years of studying the piece, had his own theory about Beethoven’s intentions for this section of "Opus 111," but he couldn’t prove it without going straight to the source.

“These small notes,” he said as he played a soft melody, “they just didn’t sound quite right to me when played on a modern piano.”

The story of how Beethoven acquired his original John Broadwood and Sons piano is interesting in and of itself, but to keep a long post from being extremely long, suffice it to say that it was special to him and was the first piano on which "Opus 111" was ever played.

Husarik met some resistance when he called the Hungarian National Museum in Budapest, where the piano now resides. He simply wanted to play a few notes on the piano and record them for later analysis.

“I thought that if I could just hear a few notes, I’d be be able to get a better sense of how the piece is supposed to be played,” he said.

Negotiations for Husarik’s visit took eight months, and what finally swayed the museum’s curator was Husarik’s tale of being stranded by a Budapest tour bus during a previous visit to the city; Husarik made sure to communicate his pointed displeasure with this experience when speaking to the curator.

Once the curator finally relented, Husarik arrived at the museum and was surprised when they shut down an entire wing just for his visit. And instead of playing just a handful of notes, they allowed him to play a short section of "Opus 111."

At the end of the visit, which included lunch and coffee, the curator asked Husarik, “So now what do you think of Hungarian hospitality?”

Husarik said he had assumed they had granted him access because of the importance of his research.

“So I had to swallow my pride a little bit on that, but at least I got what I had come for,” he said.

And the discovery he made while examining the piano was critical to his theory. On the side of the piano was a switch that when activated would soften the sound of the piano, much like a una corda pedal. Husarik played me the recording of the notes he was allowed to play on Beethoven’s piano, which were notes from the variation portion of "Opus 111." Though it was subtle, there was certainly a difference in the sound from the recording and the sounds coming from Husarik’s own piano.

While that might not mean much to a musical Philistine like myself, to music historians it’s a significant piece of information. Modern performances of "Opus 111," while still conveying much of the majesty and mystery of the piece, fail to completely capture the notes as Beethoven first imagined them.

The entirety of "Opus 111" is fascinating, even for the untrained ear. The first movement is bombastic in the way that much of Beethoven’s music was. The second movement is much more muted and represents “a resurrection,” as Husarik put it. And somewhere in there is a segment that almost resembles jazz, though Husarik assured me “this is no boogie.” Apparently, Beethoven subdivided the notes in one section of the piece to point that it resembles a freestyle improvisation.

Husarik told me about some of his other research. He was able to examine some of Beethoven’s original sketchbooks in Paris, something he did with great reverence.

“I realized at one point that every time I turned a page, I was turning about $200,000,” he said. “No wonder the security guards were keeping a close eye on me.”

My meeting with Dr. Husarik has changed the way I listen to classical music, and it’s made me want to dig more into the history and genius of Beethoven. My guess is those who are able to attend Husarik’s lecture next week will come away with a similar excitement and curiosity.

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