Hot Springs, Arkansas Southern Unconventionality

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.

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