It climbs walls, leaving pops of color and whimsy in its path. It breathes the hot breath of fiery furnaces and kilns. It speaks of politics and poetry. It’s multicultural and it matches your couch. The arts in Hot Springs is both classic and cutting edge with purveyors of all styles and tastes offering ample opportunities for visitors to appreciate – and, if they want to get their hands dirty, participate in – the arts. 

There are many sides to Hot Springs, many stories and attractions that make this town unique. Too many, in fact, for one mural. That’s why Italian artist Giuseppe Percivati keeps coming back. Known as Pepe Gaka to his friends and fans, Percivati has left a pretty large thumbprint on the arts community since he began working here in 2017, painting three murals and collaborating on two others.

I met up with the artist at a coffee shop downtown to discuss his work. We were seated adjacent to a black and white photographic series of folk rock icons captured by New York native Bob Shaw. Bob Dylan seemed to be peering over my shoulder as if checking my notes. It was the first Friday of the month and the walls were dressed for Gallery Walk, a monthly event where galleries (and a few other participating venues) keep their doors open late, serve refreshments, and present their newest collections to the public. The event is part of what helped earn Hot Springs its designation as a City of the Arts. It was named one of the Top Ten Small Arts Towns in America by author John Villani.

Much like the city, Hot Springs’ art community is multifaceted with an array of galleries, cooperatives, nonprofits, and studios, and tons of arts events. Then there are the artists – the painters, potters, photographers, woodworkers, sculptors, fiber artists and filmmakers – who’s influence has helped shape the city.

A once-flourishing health resort and gambling center, Hot Springs tourism took a dive in the 1960s due to a declining bathing industry and a crackdown on the city's illegal gambling. By the 1980s many of the buildings downtown were vacant. Attracted by the low cost real estate and surrounding natural beauty, several artists started moving in. They breathed new life into the historic downtown, opening art studios and galleries, and organizing many of the events that continue today, like the monthly Gallery Walk and Wednesday Night Poetry. The longest-running weekly poetry reading in the country, Wednesday Night Poetry has taken place every Wednesday since it was started in 1989. It has been held at various venues throughout downtown and is now hosted at Kollective Coffee + Tea. 

The renaissance continued through the 1990s with the formation of the Pocket Community Theatre, the Hot Springs JazzFest, the Hot Springs Blues Festival, the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival and the Hot Springs Music Festival. The art scene has continued to evolve throughout the 2000s with the opening of organizations, like Emergent Arts, which fosters creativity among emerging artists of all ages and abilities; and Low Key Arts which produces two music festival a year, a short film festival, and a filmmaking program. Its programming also includes solar-powered community radio station KUHS. 

Gallery Walk, meanwhile, has expanded to places like Cutwell 4 Kids, where Percivati and I would meet up again later that evening to view new works by artist Rayshaun McNary, who at 18 years old already has nine local art shows under his belt. 

“My mom and my dad, they encouraged me and now I’m here where I am now,” he said at the event which also featured a live poetry performance by Atlanta-based poet Chris James. 

A nonprofit organization that offers free summer art programs to children, Cutwell 4 Kids is well outside the downtown Arts District downtown, but founder Anthony Tidwell has been participating in the event none the less, bringing art into the community. 

Gallery Walk has also moved up Whittington Avenue to include Whittington Gallery, the Circle Gallery at Emergent Arts, and the oldest continuously operated art establishment in Hot Springs – Dryden Pottery Studio. Alan James “Jim” Dryden opened the business in Ellsworth, Kansas in 1946 and relocated it to Hot Springs in 1956. 

“There was no art here when my grandfather came,” said Zack Dryden who is carrying on the family tradition, expertly shaping bowls, vases, pitchers and mugs on the potters wheel while adding his own artistic spin to the designs. “He took a big risk coming to Hot Springs but he saw how many people were here. It was the number one resort at the time in the country.”

Today, Hot Springs is overflowing with art – even our storm drains are painted – and it continues to foster new talent and attract new artists.

“Hot Springs, I have to say, it's a great place to be,” said Percivati who calls Hot Springs his “second home.”

As part of Hot Springs ever-expanding public art collection, his murals are always on display. In fact, they’re pretty hard to miss. Drive through downtown and you’ll be greeted by two larger-than-life Native Americans of the Quapaw tribe, painted on the side of a multistoried building. 

A gift to the city from the Hot Springs National Park Rotary Club, the mural is based on a painting by the late Arkansas artist Charles Banks Wilson, who is renowned for his depictions of Native American life. Percivati has since painted two more murals downtown: The whimsical Garvan Woodland Gardens mural and a smaller mural celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Hot Springs Sister City Program with Hanamaki, Japan. He also worked with McNary, a high school senior at the time, to create a mural on the side of the Webb Community Center, located on Pleasant Street. Using one of McNary’s digital portraits, Percivati taught the young artist how to paint a mural with McNary completing nearly all of the work himself. Percivati is now collaborating with Tidwell to create a mural on the side of the Habitat for Humanity ReStore that will celebrate Hot Springs’ African American history. 

Hot Springs has a long history of creative people working together to enhance the arts and that spirit of solidarity is part of what makes Hot Springs attractive to Percivati. 

“I like the fact that it doesn’t seem competitive,” he said. “There’s quite a lot of respect within the artist community. It doesn’t matter if you’re more famous, make more money, if you have a different style. I have to say, I like it.”

Arts & The Park 

One of the biggest collaborative events is the annual Arts & The Park, a 10-day celebration of the arts that’s jam packed with activities. The event is presented by The Hot Springs Area Cultural Alliance (HSACA), a nonprofit organization with a mission “to celebrate, advocate and promote the arts of Hot Springs.”

“Arts & The Park is really a showcase of that mission,” said HSACA Executive Director Mary Zunick. “We hope it grows into something that people will plan their vacation around because they know they can stay busy all day, every day.” 

Sponsored by Arvest Bank, the 2019 event will be held April 26 through May 5. It will kick off at Hill Wheatley Plaza with a launch party followed by Art Springs, a free, two-day outdoor juried art festival and showcase. It will feature nearly 40 artists booths, a Chalk Walk Competition and Expo, live music, poetry readings, workshops, children’s arts and crafts activities, and a production by the Arkansas Arts Center Children’s    Theatre. 

Arts & The Park will feature several guest artists who will present workshops, demos and presentations at Art Springs and at partner locations like Emergent Arts, the Garland County Library and the Landmark Building. 

Cinnamon Cooney, aka The Art Sherpa, will be leading an acrylic painting class on the Art Springs Stage at 2:45 p.m. Saturday, April 27 and broadcasting it live online. Cooney regularly hosts live acrylic painting tutorials on her Youtube channel (where she has nearly half-a-million subscribers). She is inviting all of the people who paint with her online to come to Hot Springs and paint with her in person. 

“There are thousands of people who religiously follow her every week and paint along with her,” Zunick said. “They’ll be able to paint live with her here and that’s something they don’t have an opportunity to do very often.”

The 10-day celebration will also feature guest authors and tons of literary events; plus theatre and concert performances at locations all throughout town. The second and final weekend of Arts & The Park kicks off with Gallery Walk on Friday, May 3 and finishes with Studio Tours on Saturday and Sunday, May 4-5. With over 20 public and private studios participating, the studio tours offer an opportunity to see inside the creative spaces of some of Hot Springs’ most celebrated artists. 

In addition to presenting Arts & The Park, the HSACA sponsors quarterly networking meetings, open to everyone in the arts community, and helps promote other arts events from their website and Facebook page. HSACA also brings the Arkansas Shakespeare Theatre to Hot Springs. There will be a free, outdoor performance of Romeo & Juliet on Saturday, June 29. 

For more information about Arts & The Park and all things arts-related in Hot Springs, visit https://hotspringsarts.org. A complete schedule of events can also be found in the April issue of The Springs Magazine, a free publication found at businesses and newsstands throughout downtown. 

To experience the best of the arts in Hot Springs, plan your visit around Arts & The Park in April or one of the city’s other celebrated festivals like the Hot Springs Music Festival in June or the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival in October. If it doesn't mesh with your schedule or you opt for an impromptu visit instead, you can still experience the arts with a variety of activities happening daily, weekly and monthly – all year long.

Daily: 

Hot Springs is home to numerous art galleries that are open most days. They feature works by local, regional, national, and international artists. You’ll also find art in a few unexpected locations:

The Landmark Building, 201 Market St., is home to Henderson State University’s Hot Springs Campus but it also features rotating art exhibits and participates in the monthly Gallery Walk.  

The Hot Springs Convention Center and Bank OZK Arena, 134 Convention Blvd., boasts a huge collection of original artworks, regionally recognized as one the most extensive collections of public art in the South. The Center is open to the public 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday through Friday. Enter through the Church Street entrance. The collection can also be viewed online.  

An outdoor Sculpture Garden, located near the north entrance to the Hot Springs Creek Greenway Trail showcases several pieces from the city’s permanent, public art collection. The city’s collection also includes Mother Nature by internationally-acclaimed artist Longhua Xu, a 30-year resident of Hot Springs. Located in a median downtown on Central Avenue, it is listed in the Smithsonian Catalogue.

At a few studios in town, you can actually watch art being made. Dryden Pottery Studio, 341 Whittington Ave., offers free demos from 10-11 a.m. Monday through Saturday while Riley Art Glass Studio, 710 W. Grand Ave., offers free demos from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. 

Weekly:

Enjoy the art of the spoken word with Wednesday Night Poetry at Kollective Coffee+Tea, 110 Central Ave. Held continuously since 1989, the event kicks off at 6:30 p.m. with an open-mic session, followed by a 30-minute featured poet performance, and a second round of open mic. 

The Ozark Bathhouse is home to the Hot Springs National Park Cultural Center which displays the park’s expansive collection from its Artist-in-Residence Program. The collection features more than 200 pieces (most of which are on display) and includes oil and acrylic paintings, pottery, sculpture, basketry, and more. It is open to the public on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Admission is free.

Monthly:

Gallery Walk is held on the first Friday of every month. The galleries stay open late, serve refreshments, and showcase their latest works by local, national and international artists. The artists are often on hand for a meet-and-great.

The Art & Wine Dinner is held on the last Sunday of the month at The Avenue in The Waters Hotel. The event features a local or regional artist and a five-course meal paired with wine to complement each dish. The featured artist gives a brief talk about his or her work which remains on display for a month. Reservations are recommended.

There are many sides to the arts in Hot Springs, many stories and attractions… Too many, in fact, for one blog. I’ve covered the arts in Hot Springs for over a decade now, profiling dozens of artists, writing about the organizations and covering the events. Pouring over the yellowing newspaper clippings from my career, I realize I’ve barely even scratched the surface. As long as people keep making art, I’ll keep writing about it and hopefully people will keep reading.

Leslie Fisher is a media professional with a passion for travel and adventure. She has Covered Hot Springs and the surrounding areas for over a decade and enjoys being a tourist in her hometown.