Funny Faces of Public Art in Eureka Springs, Arkansas

Eureka Springs is a small city in Arkansas with a truly incredible number of artists. Located at the heart of the Arkansas Art Trail, it is home to more than 200 working artists: nearly 20% of the city’s entire population. Painters and sculptors, jewelers and weavers, photographers and illustrators, woodworkers, writers, and poets all call this beautiful city home.

In 2013, while the city was preparing for the May Festival of the Arts, Creative Director, Jeremy Mason McGraw kept hearing these figures: “200 working artists; 20 percent of the population”. As an artist living in Eureka Springs himself, Jeremy was used to hearing these numbers and feeling proud that he belonged to such a vibrant community. One day, however, he was struck by a surprising thought. “Hang on,” he wondered, “Where are they all?”

MUGS - The Funny Faces of Public Art in Eureka Springs Arkansas

Making The Artists Public With Public Art

There was evidence of these artists everywhere he turned, in galleries and market stalls and boutiques. As a member of the artistic community he knew a lot of other artists, of course, but nowhere near 200. Many of their faces were less known than their work, not just to Jeremy but to each other, to the town, and to the tourists that travelled to Eureka Springs for its art.

The idea struck Jeremy to create a project that showed off the people behind the art, rather than the art itself. To display the faces that were so often speckled with paint, furrowed in concentration over pen and paper, or stained with coal from a forge.

The inspiration for the concept for MUGS came from two places. The first was Face 2 Face, “the biggest illegal exhibition ever”, which was created by French photographer JR. For the project, JR had wheat pasted giant black and white portraits of Palestinians and Israelis pulling funny faces in eight cities across the two countries. The intention behind JR’s exhibition was to blur the lines between Palestinians and Israelis, and to make people laugh in the process.

The second source of inspiration came from within Eureka Springs itself. A few years earlier John Rankine, a local artist, had created a multimedia installation titled Community at Peace. The exhibition featured portraits of 550 members of the local community praying for, visualizing, meditating on, or simply thinking about peace.

The Funny Faces of Community

Jeremy’s concept for MUGS blended concepts from both of these projects with his own desire to make members of the artistic community visible. His final idea was to wheat paste giant black and white portraits of local artists pulling their funniest faces on buildings around Eureka Springs throughout the May Festival of the Arts.

Jeremy approached Rankine with his concept for MUGS. He suggested that Rankine capture the portraits while Jeremy would produce the exhibition as one of a series of projects under the brand “Creative Energy”. Jeremy had launched his first Creative Energy project the year before. Each of the projects under the Creative Energy brand sought to leverage the vibrant, and interesting, but often invisible behind the scenes processes involved in a large creative project in order to market a destination.

The idea struck Jeremy to create a project that showed off the people behind the art, rather than the art itself. To display the faces that were so often speckled with paint, furrowed in concentration over pen and paper, or stained with coal from a forge.

Rankine loved the idea, and immediately began capturing portraits of the Eureka Springs art community pulling their funniest faces. Jeremy began to put into action all the other steps required to make the exhibition a success. He sourced sponsorships, managed volunteers, sought permission to paste the posters on privately owned buildings around town, spoke to the media, and even made the wheat paste. Once the Festival of the Arts was over, Jeremy also hosted a party for everyone that was involved.

The exhibition was a huge success. The silliest faces of 130 of the city’s creatives were plastered on buildings all around town throughout May, lovingly poking their tongues at their own town and the tourists visiting it. Throughout the project the local media ran a number of stories, and volunteers were lining up to get involved. Especially when, three weeks in to the Festival, Rankine and Jeremy hosted a graffiti event and invited the public to “enhance” the portraits with magic markers.

While he was being interviewed about the project for the above video, John Rankine said, “You’re never going to be short of characters in Eureka Springs.” That’s something this project certainly proved.

John Rankine
A Group Portrait of the Creative Community of Eureka Springs Arkansas
A Group Portrait of Eureka Springs' Creative Community
Eureka Spring Arkansas Art Project - MUGS - Teaser Trailer from 2013

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