Fort Smith—the second-largest city in Arkansas—lies on the border of Oklahoma and boasts a modest 88,000 residents. The city, named for its 19th-century military outpost for the western frontier, is known for landmarks like its Riverfront Amphitheater and Belle Grove Historic District, a 22-block stretch of 25 restored, historic homes. Recently, a group of artists and curators gave the city a new landmark: a deserted, 1950s-era gas station, reimagined by French artist Camille Walala as a vibrant urban destination covered in op art-style graphics.
The piece was curated by Justkids, a creative think tank that has been curating public art projects in surprising locations, including Fort Smith, for the past four years. The overhaul is part of an ongoing project in the city called The Unexpected, which was born from a desire shared by local artists and entrepreneurs hoping to bring art to Fort Smith—as a way to spark excitement and cultivate community in Northwest Arkansas. The overall goal is to bring an element of surprise to the existing neighborhood: Justkids works with city officials, architects, developers, and arts organizations to contribute to revitalize and activate unused spaces with art. To date, roughly 40 collaborations have been completed in the downtown area, 30 of which are permanent, by artists from the U.S. and abroad alike.
When Charlotte Dutoit, curator at Justkids, first called Camille Walala to gauge her interest in tackling the abandoned gas station in the spring of this year, the artist was immediately intrigued. Though the gas station was relatively unremarkable, its retro gas pumps were an appealing, almost wistful detail that sparked inspiration in Walala.
“I absolutely loved the structure. As soon as I saw it, I felt so inspired,” she says via email. “The placement was so great as well—it was at a junction where it could be seen from many perspectives.”
The gas station, now known as Walala Pump & Go, sits at the intersection of three roads—a rich opportunity for Walala’s playful, bold style to flourish. Her zebra-like lines contrast with bright pops of polka dots jutting up against a cerulean floor. “I loved the architecture of the gas station. There were so many elements that could be customized,” the artist says. “Some long and skinny parts, some walls, the floor, the ceiling. When I started to design, it was really great to see all the elements come together and compliment each other to create quite an immersive space.”
Walala’s design is primarily influenced by her travels, optical art, and the Southern Ndebele Tribe Women—South African women known for their use of vibrant paint and pop art-like lines and shapes that they incorporate into their jewelry, garments, and homes. Her eclectic, geometric style is also inspired by the Memphis Movement, the 1980s Italian design and architecture group that created (predominantly plastic) postmodern furniture, fabrics, and asymmetrical design objects.
Walala and Justkids enlisted the help of community members and volunteers to help paint the old-school gas station (which was completed in only a week). According to curator Dutoit, “The design was simple in terms of execution but at the same time impactful visually,” aided by this collaborative process, to be sure. The bright new destination promises to be a place for people to explore at their leisure, especially since the community has already gotten involved throughout the creative development process.
When the curator first saw this abandoned gas station—a ghost of 1950s Americana’s past—she was struck by its potential as a destination hiding in plain sight. “By having a fresh regard to the city, we are able to pick up locations that the local community doesn’t really notice anymore, by a matter of routine, but are happy to rediscover through the artwork and that’s what’s happened with Camille’s work,” Dutoit says. “The artistic potential of Fort Smith and the region is one of the initial reasons I became interested in developing a public art festival program with them. I am always open to new places and new ways. I thought it was an interesting project to bring artists into the U.S. at large, not only to the usual cities [like] Miami, L.A., New York, but to create a discourse in new territories where people are eager for more culture.”
The semi-permanent Walala Pump & Go will be up in downtown Fort Smith indefinitely, so those looking for inspiration (rather than fuel) should be able to get their fix. Justkids’ other recent public projects in the area have come from the brain of Spanish painter Okuda San Miguel, who designed a permanent installation, and another by Robert Montgomery who created a permanent lighted sculpture called ‘light poem.’