In the waning days of the hippie movement, as baby boomers sought to escape the mass-produced mindset of post-World War II America, Arkansas offered a lot: cheap land, wide-open spaces, and an abundance of natural beauty. Today’s Arkansas creative scene continues in that spirit, providing inspiration and opportunities for artists. The opening of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in 2011 sparked national interest in the art and craft of the state, and the influx of tourists is bringing new attention to a diverse community of makers. As you make your way from the capital city to the Ozarks, five areas are especially rich in craft.
At Arkansas ArtsCenter in downtown Little Rock, a museum, theater, and art school share a large complex. The school is the heart of the organization, with classes focused on woodworking, jewelry, ceramics, glass, and metalworking, as well as painting, drawing, and photography. Professional artists and amateurs mingle, fostering a very hands-on appreciation for art. “Someone said to me, ‘You should come to the Arkansas Arts Center. You should take a clay class,’ ” pottery instructor Celia Storey explains. “So I signed up, and I took that class, and that first night, I realized what I had been looking for since I was a little kid.”
Nearby, master bladesmith Lin Rhea plays the part of a blacksmith in demonstrations at the Historic Arkansas Museum, forging horseshoes and nails, and charming audiences with his Arkansas twang and enthusiasm for the process.
He’s always worked with his hands, with a career in construction before coming to the museum. There, Rhea says, “I can meet potters, woodworkers, painters, sculptors” – people who share his affinity for making things. “It’s some kind of a common thread going on there.”
In North Little Rock, galleries, studios, and chef-driven eateries line Main Street. At Claytime Studios, owner Larry Pennington sells his work alongside that of other regional artists. It’s also a working studio, with classes in wheel throwing and handbuilding.
Sculptor Michael Warrick, whose works you can find in the sculpture parks that dot the city, moved to Arkansas in 1990 to teach at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Originally from Illinois, he was drawn to Arkansas’ scenery and outdoor activities. “That’s had a direct influence on the type of work that I do, in terms of the ideas, materials, and the subjects,” Warrick says. “It’s been the most dynamic influence of my life, being here in this place.”
Turn-of-the-20th-century bathhouses line downtown Hot Springs, perched on the edge of thousands of acres of national park land. It’s also the city where President Bill Clinton spent most of his childhood.
Fox Pass Pottery, founded by Jim and Barbara Larkin in 1973, is just outside the city, near Hot Springs National Park. Their showroom is full of functional high-fire stoneware pieces, and members of the community, as well as those passing through, buy their work. Their son, Fletcher, also is a studio potter; he sells most of his work through Fox Pass.
Fiber artist Barbara Cade calls the city home, too. Her flowing forms and scenic wall pieces are heavily influenced by nature, and she’s recently opened her residential studio to exhibit her work in the area. “We’ve been here now since 1976, and I’ve come to love this place,” she says. “There’s lots of variety here. We have flat rice fields here, and mountains in the north, and we have lots of woods.” The Dryden Pottery, on the north end of the city, features a large showroom attached to the original production factory. Founded in 1946 in Texas, the family business moved to Hot Springs 10 years later. Today James “Kimbo” Dryden and his son, Cheyenne, carry on the tradition, making and glazing distinctive pieces that have attracted many collectors.
Home to Walmart’s corporate offices, this unassuming town owes much to the giant discount retailer and the money it’s poured into the community. Case in point: Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.
Founded by Walmart heir Alice Walton, the gorgeous museum is set on 120 acres amid picturesque forests and gardens. Most of the collection consists of paintings and drawings from the American colonial era to today, though some sculptural works are on display and more decorative arts are being acquired.
In the gift shop you’ll find works from some of the region’s best artists, including sculptural baskets by Leon Niehues, who harvests all the materials from his land in the Arkansas countryside near Huntsville. Make time to walk around the museum grounds, which showcase work by nationally recognized artists such as Robyn Horn, an Arkansas Living Treasure, George Dombek, and Mark di Suvero.
The opening of Crystal Bridges has brought other art-centric businesses to the area, including 21c, a “museum hotel,” which is part boutique hotel and part contemporary art museum. Art mostly from the collection of founders Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson is displayed throughout the hotel property and in the guest rooms. Rotating exhibitions fill the lobby and hotel restaurant the Hive, which focuses on local ingredients. Just a short walk from 21c is the façade of the original Walton’s five-and-dime on the downtown square – a reminder of a bygone era that now functions as the Walmart Visitor Center.
This city is known for the fervor of its college football fans, but you’ll also find a wide variety of artists practicing in all mediums. For the architecturally inclined, Fayetteville is rich in buildings by renowned architect Fay Jones, who lived and worked in the city for much of his life. The Mildred B. Cooper Memorial Chapel in nearby Bella Vista is definitely worth the 45-minute drive.
Mim Wynne’s Handmade Market, on College Avenue, sells her woven pillows, rugs, and purses, along with other handmade gifts, home accessories, and gourmet food items from local and national sources. She and her husband, Greg Thomas, a skilled woodturner, both have studio spaces set up at their home in Elkins just outside the city. The Fayetteville Underground collective, located on the town square, houses gallery and studio space, exhibiting works from its 20-some members, such as sculptor Hank Kaminsky, who came to Arkansas from New York in the early 1970s and found a supportive environment. “It’s a very rich community, full of artists,” he says. “Everywhere we go, there are classes in art and people expressing themselves, and we try to be a part of that vision.”
John Sewell is also a member of the Underground, making sculpted wood vessels. “You just can’t live in this area without being inspired,” Sewell says. “The market is developing. We have Crystal Bridges. Consciousness is developing in this part of Arkansas.” Glass artist Ed Pennebaker is part of the collective, too, though his studio is about an hour away, in the foothills of the Ozarks.
Ed Pennebaker has turned his property into a glass artist’s wonderland. In addition to a hot shop, his complex includes a timber-frame home (which he built) outfitted with handmade glass-front kitchen cabinets, his signature light fixtures, and a back porch featuring one of the artist’s enormous chandeliers, reflecting the natural surroundings. “I do a lot of walking around the woods,” says Pennebaker, who is particularly taken by the geology of the area. Changing seasons always bring new
inspiration. “When it’s wet in the winter, the ice formations are really interesting, almost like glass.”
Eureka Springs, in the heart of the Ozarks, has a thriving art scene, with many galleries, and art and music festivals throughout the year. In the historic downtown district, Victorian buildings house boutiques and artist studios where enthusiasts can buy directly from makers. Potters Patrick Lujan and Lee Kroll moved to the city in 2007 and opened Out on Main, where they sell their work alongside work by friends. Just outside the city, Thorncrown Chapel, another Fay Jones-designed building, incorporates more than 6,000 square feet of glass, which blends into the surrounding bluffs and forest.
Higher up in the mountains, near Mulberry Creek, potter Steve Driver, recently retired from the University of Arkansas in Little Rock, and his wife, Louise Halsey, a weaver, are returning to the land. They’ve opened a showroom on the plot they bought with three of his brothers in 1976. After moving to other cities for graduate school and teaching jobs, raising children, and most recently living in Little Rock, the couple are going back to their roots.
“At 62, I still have a lot of art I want to make and a lot of things I want to do,” Driver says. “With the back-to-the-land movement, a lot of stuff is coming full circle, and this is what I want to do with my time and my energy.”
Andrew Zoellner is American Craft’s assistant editor. Watch videos interviews with several of the artists featured in this story.