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Friday night, my husband and I went on the Gallery Walk in downtown Hot Springs, Arkansas. I’m an art-historical novelist, so I am a sucker for any good gallery walk. On the first Friday of every month, art galleries along Central Avenue open their doors to locals and tourists to show off their wares.

I expected to find wine, cheese, art and a buzzing southern social scene at the gallery walk, and I did; but I also found something I did not expect:

A refreshing earnestness and approachability in the art.

I have lived in Los Angeles for 15 years. I’ve traveled to New York and London, Paris and San Francisco. I’m accustomed to seeing sophisticated contemporary art that stretches the boundaries of what is art. This art never settles for simple beauty — it is always pushing to be better, more clever, more innovative. Artists in such cities are desperate to attract attention. That leads to a combativeness in big city art — you can feel the competitiveness in the paint; see the desperation to stand out in the melted metals.

But art in the galleries of Hot Springs (population 35,680) was very different. This art didn’t seem designed to intimidate or push boundaries; it was meant to relate to the people in the community. There was no combativeness in the art; no cut throat competition in the paint. There were no defensive walls up either; this art was pure defenseLESSness.

At Justus Fine Art Gallery, there were cyanotype photographs of dilapidated buildings along the Mississippi Delta.


Photographer Beverly Buys was there in person to explain her process and vision. This artist — smart, creative, shy — wasn’t trying to change the way art was made. She wasn’t trying to impress anyone with her intellectual cleverness or avant-guarde eccentricities. She was earnest in her desire to make art for a reasonable cost, partner with nature (she uses summertime sunlight to develop her pictures), and capture the world of the Mississippi Delta.

And you know what? She and her work were more honest, touching, and  engaging than anything I’ve seen in any snarky art gallery in Beverly Hills.

Down the street, at Alison Parsons Fine Art, artists displayed sculptures of coy fish (Hot Springs is known for its lakes) and paintings of race horses (the town is home to Oaklawn Park, a world-class race track; horses are woven into the fabric of the community).

Next door at Gallery Central Fine Arts, we found paintings of nature (Arkansas is “The Natural State”), religious imagery, and handmade Santas and Christmas tree ornaments.

Is the art in LA, New York and Paris better than what I found here? Many would say, yes; I’m not so sure. The art in those big cities is certainly more groundbreaking and more “taste-making,” too.

But the art in those cities is also less earnest, more distant, more aware of itself. And sometimes I fear that self-awareness gets in the way of an honest, open relationship with people.

The art in those Arkansas galleries was beautiful; the use of color, line, space, and shape was skillfully done. The art was also moving and pulled me into the story of a city, a state, a people. It drew me into the hearts of the artists. It showed me a side of humanity — of earnest community — that I often lose touch with while living in LA.

If something moves me, makes me stop, look, and feel — that is art… more so than something that makes me cock my head and think. When looking at art, I would much rather FEEL than THINK. That’s what art is supposed to do.

So if you’re looking for art — the kind that makes you feel something and sink your toes deep into a community — sidestep New York next time and make your way to the nearest small town.

And if you happen to be in Hot Springs, Arkansas on the first Friday of the month, this gallery walk is a great place to start.