Photographer's Note

This astonishing mural is one of the pieces found along Garrison Avenue in Fort Smith. It's a part of the Unexpected Project, a unique aspect of the concerted efforts over the last few years to revitalize the downtown area of the city. These measures have been HUGELY successful, to the degree that efforts are now underway to initiate similar measures along Towson Avenue as well (much needed!).

This is called the Cherokee Mural, by VHILS, a Portuguese street artist whose internationally renowned trademark is the creation of dramatic, oversized portraits made by carving into outdoor walls, sometimes painted and plastered. The Unexpected Project website states that VHILS "has torn, drilled and blasted his way around the globe to create uncommon and striking portraits of the common citizen. His groundbreaking carving technique has been hailed as one of the most compelling approaches to art created in the street in the last decade." One would think that his technique is more akin to destruction than creation, but, as is clear from this masterpiece, that's not the case, and the artist has created an enduring portrait which will hopefully be around for some time to come. The subject was inspired by one of the first photographs ever taken of a Native American Cherokee. The tribe has a rich history in the region, with the headquarters of the Cherokee Nation located in nearby Talequah, Oklahoma.

The mural is located on a brick building in the 900 block of Garrison Avenue in Historic Downtown Fort Smith. It graces the side of a building in a "pocket park" which replaced an empty lot, unfortunately rendered such by a fire which destroyed a couple of the city's historic brick buildings. This mural is one of my favorites, as my family also is of Cherokee descent, and I think that it's a great way to honor the people who were displaced and relocated to the region from the Eastern states, predominantly North Carolina.

Launched in 2015, The Unexpected Project entailed a downtown revitalization effort, created by 64/6 Downtown, a non-profit organization whose intent is to bring life to Downtown Fort Smith" through the creation of creative spaces and associated events and activities, as well as to foster sustainable growth in retail and residential spaces in the downtown area, as well as to increase pedestrian traffic flow via increased bikeability and walkability. The Unexpected Project invited world-class artists from all over the world to create art in the downtown area. In its fifth year, it has hosted more than 30 permanent and semi-permanent art installations by international artists including D*Face, Ana Maria, Askew, and many others. There is also a week-long festival associated with the project which offers an enhanced cultural experience for residents and visitors alike.

If you want to visit, you can check out the map of the current art installations in the downtown area.

About Fort Smith:

This moderately-sized town in America's heartland was founded as a western frontier military post in 1817, and, believe it or not, really WAS located on the frontier of the "wild west" for many years, as Indian Territory lay directly to the west just across the Arkansas River! The settlement was reportedly founded as a military installation to keep the peace between the Osage and emigrating Cherokee, who were being relocated to the neighboring Indian Territory (now comprised of the state of Oklahoma) from the east coast. Land speculator John Rogers later purchased the land and promoted the growth of a new civilian town, but the US government later re-established a military presence at Fort Smith during the Mexican War. Fort Smith is named for General Thomas Adams Smith (1781-1844) who commanded the US Army Rifle Regiment in 1817. It was headquartered near St. Louis, but General Smith had instructed topographical engineer Stephen H. Long to find a site where a fort could be founded on the banks of the Arkansas River. Interestingly, Smith himself never visited the town or the forts that bore his name. Sebastian County was formed in 1851 when it split from Crawford County. The army finally vacated the town in 1863, and federal troops followed shortly in 1871.

Some famous figures associated with it include Judge Isaac Parker and William Henry Harrison Clayton, who was appointed US Attorney for the Western District of Arkansas by Ulysses S. Grant. Due to a lamentable lack of law enforcement, the town had at one point become "a haven for runaway slaves, orphans, Southern Unionists" and later brothels, saloons and outlaws who ventured into town from an even more lawless area across the river. Isaac Parker served as US District Judge from 1875-1896 and was the strong arm that was needed to keep things running smoothly. He was nicknamed the Hanging Judge because he reportedly hanged 8 people for murder his first term. Over the course of his career, he sentenced 160 people to death and executed 79 of them on the nearby gallows, which can still be seen today. The courthouse is now a National Historic Site where reportedly "more men were put to death by the US Government... than in any other place in American history."

Despite its rather lawless past and colorful history, Fort Smith underwent something of an economic boom during World War I when the Fort Chaffee Military Reservation was established on the east side of the city. It's now Arkansas's second largest city with about 84,000 inhabitants. The population has increased over the past few years, partly because of the founding of the University of Arkansas, Fort Smith (previously WestArk community college), designated as such officially in 2002. The city has a total area of 53 square miles. The town has been struck by three major tornadoes (1898, 1927 and 1996), the last of which caused great damage to the old downtown area, but much of it has since been restored.

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Additional Photos by Terez Anon (terez93) Gold Star Critiquer/Gold Star Workshop Editor/Gold Note Writer [C: 92 W: 78 N: 1196] (2114)
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