Drive-by Art (during the Pandemic and after): ‘The Unexpected’ in Fort Smith

Whimsical anthropomorphic creatures dominate murals by Ana Maria of Puerto Rico (UnexpectedFS.org)
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During the COVID-19 pandemic, I am highlighting places that can be safely experienced from the road in your RV or in an outdoor public space such as a park or college campus. If you know of cities with outstanding public art collections, or unique places, please let me know so I can feature them. 

In the mid-1990s, I lived for two years in Fort Smith, Arkansas, helping the local Habitat for Humanity affiliate organize its first Women Build house.  During those years, there was not much of an art scene to lure visitors Downtown.

Today, things have really changed.
‘Opossum’ by Bordalo II in Downtown Fort Smith (UnexpectedFS)

Back in 2014, as part of urban revitalization, a few eager local entrepreneurs “saw art as a way to reignite interest” in the city’s historic downtown.

By the following year, they launched 64.6 Downtown, a local non-profit that produces events as a way to jump start the area. In turn, 64.6 Downtown created The Unexpected which has helped transformed an aging downtown into a “top-tier art destination” for urban and contemporary public art. Each year between 2015 and 2019, an amazing group of internationally-renowned urban artists were enticed to Fort Smith as part of The Unexpected art and music festival. Downtown is now home to 35 murals and art works created by some of the world’s premier street artists, along side local college and high schools students.

A few of the international street artists

As part of the first year’s festival, Ana Maria Ortiz from Puerto Rico, created whimsical creatures (top) on the downtown streets of Fort Smith. “Recognized internationally for her anthropomorphic creatures, Ana paints and draws animals with exaggerated human features, creating sympathy for her iconoclastic subjects,” according to FortSmith.org.

Bordalo II’s (Artur Bordalo of Lisbon) created his ‘Opossum’ from discarded materials natural to Fort Smith. He incorporates waste such as old tires, appliances, aluminum cans, and imperishable objects into his street art installations. His figurative relief  ‘Opossum’ overlooks Garrison Avenue.  “Although each piece is comprised of trash, the final product can’t be further away from it,” states The Unexpected website.

‘Portrait of Cherokee Man’ by street artist Vhils (2015), overlooks Fort Smiths Garrison Commons Park. (Facebook)

Inspired by the region’s Indian Territory history, Vhils a Portuguese graffiti/street artist, created ‘Portrait of Cherokee Man’ a large mural etched into an exterior wall of a downtown building.

Vhils is the tag name of Alexandre Manuel Dias Farto who currently lives in London.  He is recognized for dramatic, oversized portraits carved directly into outdoor walls. In Fort Smith, he used “jackhammers and chisels to create a portrait that is based on the first known photographs of a Native American Cherokee.”

Today, the mural is the prominent feature in Garrison Commons, a small pocket park which has been transformed from a burnt out empty lot.

Traditionally, there is an annual, week-long autumn festival that adds to The Unexpected collection of creative works.  However, as of August 2020, the coronavirus pandemic has put this year’s festival plans on hold.

For more information and images about Fort Smith’s rich display of public art, click on The Unexpected Urban Art for an article I wrote for RVTravel.com.

If you go, start at:

“Miss Laura’s Social Club” Visitors Center
2 North B St., Fort Smith, AR 72901
9 a.m. and 4 p.m. (Monday-Saturday) and 1-4:30 p.m. (Sundays)
Phone: (800) 637-1477

Free parking is available in public use lots throughout downtown. Metered parking is also available along Garrison Avenue and in metered parking lots.

For directions to Fort Smith, click here.

Julianne G. Crane

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1 Comment

  • I love spotting these murals as we travel — and your post featuring these is a wonderful reminder to us all to keep looking! There’s an art alley we came across while walking through town one day — I think it was in Rapid City, SD. The entire alley was covered in murals! The city also has sculptures of the presidents on downtown corners; it’s always fun to put an arm around a favorite former leader of the free world or have a seat next to one. Thanks for sharing this, Julianne!

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