Hot Springs, Arkansas Southern Unconventionality


| Arts Extra Special

Walking under the magnolia trees along Bathhouse Row, I sometimes imagine Al Capone stepping out of a Packard for a little card game at the Southern Club. The notorious gangster was known to take his pleasure in this spa town in the green Ouachita Mountains. The Southern Club is now a wax museum with a faux Bill Clinton in the window, but all the bathhouses have been restored to their glory--though only one, the Buckstaff, is still in operation as a bathhouse. It attracts all sorts of people in need of loosening up.

Yes, Hot Springs has a long history of being a little more relaxed than the rest of Arkansas. Artists like that, and they like the natural scenery, and the affordable studio and housing rents, says author-artist Carole Katchen, who moved to the town of 36,000 from Los Angeles in 1995. 'We have a remarkable number of artists who support themselves through their art,' she says. 'And being in the South, it's a gracious lifestyle. People are friendlier.' Pat Scavo of the Blue Moon Gallery on Central Avenue counts some 20 artists who've arrived in Hot Springs from all over the country within the past two years.

The credit for spurring this renaissance goes to the Italian artist who goes by the single name Benini. Passing through Hot Springs in 1989, he noticed all the empty storefronts downtown and soon established a studio and gallery to display his colorful geometric paintings. He told his artist friends; they told theirs, and the rest is history.

Benini has moved away, but there are more than a dozen galleries within half a mile of Central Avenue, along with restaurants and performance venues. On the first Friday evening of each month, the Hot Springs Gallery Walk attracts a horde of art lovers, and the galleries hold receptions. At one of the more memorable ones this year, wildlife artist D. Arthur Wilson brought a Bengal tiger to Blue Moon Gallery. But even without tigers, Gallery Central, Taylor's Contemporanea, and the other art showcases are lively cultural refuges.

In 1992 the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival brought the old Malco Theater and its red neon marquee back to life. For three days they showed the 10 Academy Award-nominated documentaries for that year. Ten years later, the festival lasted 10 days and showed more than 90 films.

In June, some of the finest classical music students in the world come to town for the Hot Springs Music Festival. Four graduates of the National Youth Orchestra of Venezuela opened the 2002 festival with a riveting performance of Haydn's String Quartet in C, Opus 76. Tickets were splendidly cheap--$5 to $10--and the venues were handsome old churches around town.

The Poet's Loft comes alive every Wednesday night on the second floor of an old Victorian across from Bathhouse Row. The lights are low and the atmosphere is passionate, especially on slam nights on the first Saturday of the month, when poets from the Little Rock-to-Memphis poetry circuit show up. (Bud Kenny, who started the Loft in 1997, is away on a very slow world tour with his wife, Patricia, pulled by their mule, Della, in a wagon called Poetry in Motion. Last we heard, he was in Ohio. For updates check www.worldonfoot.com.)

Downsides to Hot Springs? Hellish traffic during the summer tourist months and the racing season, late January to mid April, and most restaurants don't stay open past 10 p.m. But then again, Hot Springs has always been a mix of the lively and the quiet. Scarface Al, and the artists, probably wouldn't want it any other way.

John Lovett is arts editor of the Hot Springs Sentinel-Record.