Updated: May 25, 2022
New art has been popping up across downtown Hot Springs, and it all started with the vibrant mural world-renowned artist Danaé Brissonnet created over the past month on the building sitting at 110 Central Ave.* But Brissonnet brought more to Hot Springs than a single mural. She brought somewhat of an art boon.
Upon her April arrival to begin working on the mural that now lives on the side of the building holding Kollective Coffee & Tea, Brissonnet's presence attracted another traveling artist to Hot Springs: Jason Botkin.
Having been friends via social media for years, Brissonnet invited Botkin, who was finishing up a project in Dallas, to help her with the mural.
"My intentions in being here were primarily just to chill out from Dallas," Botkin said. "It was intense and I was physically exhausted after a really large project. It was also to meet and get to know Danaé a little bit and support her in the process of creating that mural, which is really important for an artist.
"... It always helps to have another person there, especially another person who knows that territory of painting and the value of interacting with public during the process of creating public art."
Botkin, who moved on to create a mural on the front of the Central Theater, located at 1008 Central Ave., and facilitate a community-created mural on the side of the theater, explores the idea of viewing public art through an objective lens and the cultural development it brings to communities.
"Through the act of just talking about the mural and what's happening, and why it's happening, it unlocks so many doors of possibility for people," Botkin said. "That's the function of art, right? It's value is to model for us imagination. ... Imagination allows us to envision a tomorrow that's better than what we have today.
"Part of the joy of art, and the passion for me, is seeing the choices that other artists make, and simply asking myself, 'What are those choices? What am I being asked to look at?' And I think that's really a process of learning to actively listen to not only self, but self and relationship to others and to the environment.
"Art is something to really help us see the world differently. But as such, there's really no right or wrong answer. It's just simply a matter of opinion, and it becomes richer as more opinions are contributed to the pot, and as people begin to share discussion about the same work, and what impact it's having on their own lives.
"That's the value of art. Not the art itself. It's not the mural itself. It's how the mural touches the lives of other people to encourage them to see differently. To see the world differently."
Hot Springs Area Cultural Alliance Director Mary Zunick said murals are a "wonderful way to celebrate your culture, to bring the community together."
"Public art is such an important part of the community," Zunick said. "I mean, it's artwork that's accessible to everyone. People that would never go into a gallery or a museum have the opportunity to appreciate public art because it's right there on the street."
Zunick added gratitude to Dee and Bobby Graham — the owners of the building at 110 Central Ave. who commissioned the majority of the mural Brissonet created — for investing in the mural that started it all.
"Danaé and I have influenced each other enormously in our practice, we're kindred spirits," Botkin said. "The approach that we take, it's a process-based approach. It's deeply informed by the context and creative process.
"So, for both she and I we'll start with a sketch, but as the process proceeds we quickly abandon the sketch in place of the organic emergence of that image through all of the conversations in that place and time. The conversations, the food, the air, the sounds. ...
"So in that sense, while there is content to the work that Danaé and I do, it's also I think from kind of an oblique direction these are also portraits. Not only of self, but almost like a portrait of Hot Springs."
On the front of the Central Theatre, Botkin has created a portrait inspired by the plant species Echinacea.
"It's a really pretty flower," he said. "It's also been prized for many centuries as an herbal medicine; one of the most powerful and supportive of immunological function. It's very popular for treating colds and things like that. People got really into it during COVID, of course, for the right reasons.
"There's something powerful in the symbol of these flowers. Not only because they appeal broadly, to people it's not weird content even though the presentation might be spacey or somewhat psychedelic, it's a mural that's approachable material."
Botkin said the mural extends "the idea of our traditional and proper use of ... how we engender a sense of more robust immunological function as a community."
"So it kind of resonates on that point of looking at this space, this theater, ... as a place for the development and exploration of real culture in Hot Springs," he said. "A culture unique in thumbprint to this space and time active and alive and outside of the box."
Botkin has done the work on the Central Theatre based only on donation from the building owner, Chris Rix. When asked how the community could donate to the work done, Botkin said, "they can come here (to the Central Theater) and they can entertain themselves at nightly shows and they can buy awesome food and drinks."
Botkin describes the Central Theater as a space that "invites artists and emerging talent and established people to come and create without the constraints of bureaucracies or anything of the sort."
"It's just simply a free, open space where people can gather together, and that's, for me, a very profound possibility of collective affiliation," he said. "Public art does that; public art has many faces and names."
As he got to work on the front of the theatre, he facilitated an "exploration of shared creativity," inviting local artists out to create a large mural on the side of the building.
Botkin describes the work in progress on the side of the building as the "cultural landscape of Hot Springs" that is a "collaboration thematically exploring the collaboration itself, along the spectrum of a rainbow, of course, and its palette; celebrating differences, essentially, as a point of strength and not weakness."
Before Brissonnet left Hot Springs, she left two more pieces of her work behind.
At David F. Watkins Memorial Park, she led a mural workshop with 11 local high school students and one college student.
"The way that she did it is all the kids got there, she had no plan at all for it and she had them sketch at the very beginning," Emergent Arts Executive Director Erin Holliday said. "So everyone's drawing and she's going around and speaking with each kid or each group of kids about what they're drawing, and she said if you don't know what to draw, take your two favorite things and smash them together, which is where some of the really fun, funky imagery came from.
"And then, together they all went up to the panel and decided where they were going to put each of their individual drawings, and then she worked with them on how you connect these seemingly disparate images, and so you'll see there's like clouds rolling in or there's colors or sun rays, and so they all work together to decide as a group how each individual images were going to tie into the next images and then together they painted for two days, and it was all done in two days."
Holliday said the increased art popping up over the past month is not just cultural development, but also documentation of the current community.
"You know, a lot of times with imagery you'll see kind of the sentiment or even the history of a community come out and get documented," she said. "But what's really great (is) ... it's an opportunity for people in the community to leave a positive mark in the community."
And while sometimes viewers have no idea everything that is behind the concept of a mural, Holliday said they encourage a sense of curiosity and playfulness in people.
"What's happening now with all of the color and all of the playfulness in these murals is it's really playing up the culture of Hot Springs as being a fun place to live, a vibrant place to live, a place that is colorful and creative in our people, but now definitely on our walls as well."
The other work Brissonet left behind was a privately-commissioned mural on the patio of SQZBX Pizza.
"Ours is a little different because we haven't used any public money, and it's not accessible on a street-facing wall; you literally have to go to the back and look at it," SQZBX co-owner Zac Smith said. "So in our case, it's a little bit more personal to our restaurant and our customer base."
As performing artists, Smith said the mural is something he and his wife, SQZBX co-owner Cheryl Roorda, love.
"We feel that art elevates soul in a way that everyone can relate to, and that ... anyone can come and look at a piece of art and take something personal away from it," Smith said. "And the beauty, though it might change from person to person, we all have this universal experience of seeing something beautiful and feeling better because of it."
As for the recent art boon, Roorda said it's a great way to "take blighted areas and add some colors."
"And I don't think we need to take that so seriously," she said. "I love to see the murals coming in, and I think it just cheers up town tremendously."
Smith said it's been a "slow roll" to getting more art around town since world-renowned artist Pepe Gaka started creating murals downtown in 2017.
"I know that some towns in Arkansas have made a more concerted effort to become a mural destination, but I feel in Hot Springs it's been rather organic," Smith said. "... I think it's great to have that sort of natural progression of different styles and ideas coming in."
"And I think it will change the landscape of who this town attracts, when artists realize they can come here," Roorda added. "I mean, if Danaé would stay three more months, she would have so much work, but she's got jobs elsewhere.
"But I think other people will see that, and they'll be like well I'll come to Hot Springs and see what will happen. I mean it certainly worked for us when we showed up to Hot Springs."
Smith and Roorda came to Hot Springs from Seattle, Washington, as traveling musicians in 2003.
"We got a gig ... and stayed," Roorda said. "And it's been, obviously, a huge life-changing experience for us, but I think a lot of fun and we've enjoyed being here and I hope people have enjoyed us being here."
To continue the trend of attracting artists to Hot Springs, Smith said "we have to continue to advocate for the arts."
And these arts Smith mentions come in all forms.
"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder," Botkin said, "and if there was an artwork that was right for everybody, it would not be art. And to sit around complaining about it is of interest only if it takes interest to you. If that feels good to talk about those things and to express an unmet need, so be it. So be it.
"I think it's a beautiful opportunity to have that conversation. And if it took a piece of art to draw that out, great. But, you know, it's public art. It doesn't have to live there forever."
Botkin said the appetite for quality arts is in Hot Springs, "it just needs a little push."
*There will be a mural celebration open to the public at 5:45 p.m. May 25 at 110 Central Ave.
Correction: Brissonet was still in Hot Springs at the time of publication.