Date: September 1, 2023 | Story: Stephanie Maxwell Newton | Photography: Bailey Dougan |
Creative organizations, city support, and community buy-in help the heart of Faulkner County distinguish itself as a destination for the arts
If you’re a creative person seeking a career in the arts, you don’t have to leave Arkansas to find it. That’s the mantra of Nick Stevens and his team at the Creative Institute of Central Arkansas, which offers apprentice-style training for students through its Emerging Talent Program. Nick co-founded the Institute in 2020 as a means of providing those interested in the arts with the tools necessary to find work in their field. “There’s a story of Arkansas not being a place for creative people,” Nick explains, “where your options are to become a starving artist or move somewhere like L.A., New York, Dallas, or Nashville. We started the Institute to show students they can turn their talents into lucrative, stable careers that allow them to do things they love.” The two-semester program includes courses such as graphic design, video production, and copywriting along with internship-style work at local businesses. “We’re equipping creatives to stay and flourish in Arkansas,” he adds.
For years, the idea that a future in art would be limited kept muralist Jessica Jones from pursuing her painting as anything more than a hobby. “I was told for a long period of time it wasn’t a viable career option,” she says. After she completed her first mural at Blue Sail Coffee in 2016, commissions started to roll in; now, painting is her full-time gig. “Once I fully committed to it, it took off,” she says, noting that all of her murals in downtown Conway were funded by local business owners. “The community really invested in me.”
Jessica and the Creative Institute of Central Arkansas both office out of The Studio Downtown, a coworking space at the corner of Oak and Chestnut streets. Here, the spirit is collaborative, entrepreneurial, and forward-thinking, filled with not only other artists, but real estate agents, small business owners, and remote workers, too. Centrally located downtown, it’s also a natural hub for another of the Institute’s initiatives, the Conway Art Walk. This event takes place the first Friday of each month from March through October. “It’s a platform for artists to sell their work, be celebrated, connect with people, and show how thriving of a creative community we already have here,” Nick says. A typical Conway Art Walk features live music, demonstrations, a Maker’s Market, and artist talks, all taking place within steps of local shops and restaurants. “There’s the economic side of what we do, which is that when people come out and visit downtown storefronts, they’re spending money here and it directly benefits the city,” Nick says. “But the mission side of it is getting people connected to the creative community in our town and the region as a whole.”
Though she lives in nearby Greenbrier, Jessica sees the network of support in Conway as a sign of even more good things to come for the area. “As artists, we don’t really function well if we work in competition,” she says. “Something I talk about frequently is that the arts are a huge indicator of a thriving community. Not just visual arts, but all kinds of arts across the board—theater, music, literary. It’s indicative of a community that’s not just surviving, but really thriving and working together.” Read on for a few more of our favorite ways to discover Conway.
Head to the new location of Bell & Sward (bellandsward.com) at 1011 Oak St. to check out The Lodge, a section of the store showcasing Martin Dingman leather goods in a curated setting. Mark your calendar for a grand re-opening October 13 with a visit from Martin himself. Foodies will want to stop by Squizito Tasting Room (squizitotastingroom.com), a gourmet boutique specializing in olive oils, balsamics, and other kitchen goods and gifts. Located at the Village at Pickles Gap, Hazel Green (501.932.0884) is a family-owned shop with women’s clothing, on-trend accessories, and vintage finds.
The Rogue Roundabout (therogueroundabout.com) is Conway’s first microbrewery, featuring small-batch beers named after popular spots in the city, like Dave Ward Delirium and Rip Van Ronkle. A menu of sandwiches, salads, flatbreads, and more will keep you satiated while sipping your way through different suds. Grab a dose of caffeine (and maybe something sweet!) at Doc’s Coffee + Creamery (501.932.0884) on your next trip to the Village at Pickles Gap.
The next Conway Art Walk is September 1 from 5-8 p.m. Follow along on Instagram (@conwayartwalk) for a full line-up of artists who will be present and schedule of events. On September 22, the Conway Symphony Orchestra (conwaysymphony.org) presents a free concert in Laurel Park. Music starts when the sun goes down, or around 7:15 p.m.