Last month, AY Magazine showcased the convergence of the Unexpected Festival and the Peacemaker Music Festival; in 2017, for the first time, the two events came together to hold an art and culture extravaganza in Fort Smith during the weekend of July 28-29. Three murals on the OK Foods grain towers at 700 B Street watched over that festival.
On these structures, which are some of the tallest in town, artist Guido van Helten painted two men and a woman over the course of two weeks in September 2016. He named the piece “American Heroes.” One of the men, Gene Beckham, worked at the grain elevator that now portrays his larger-than-life likeness.
“Gene Beckham worked at this grain elevator for 70 years leaving only once to fight in the Second World War,” van Helten wrote about the mural in 2016. “10 years ago, Gene retired, only to return to work the following Monday and [he] continued to work up until last year.” Van Helten said that while he was painting the mural in the middle of the Arkansas summer, he reflected on Beckham and “his dedication and the importance of being passionate regardless of what you do.
“The other two people portrayed in the artwork, Kristina Jones and Edward Paradela, are also from the Fort Smith area, the Southwest Times Record reported.”
Guido van Helten set out to express Fort Smith’s diversity by painting murals on the sides of grain towers at the OK Foods Feed Mill,” Trent Goins, CEO of OK Foods says. “Each tower features a citizen of the area; a young African American woman, an Apache man, and a 70-year employee of OK Foods, Gene Beckham.”
Goins said that during Beckham’s tenure at OK Foods, he spent 40 years managing the company’s feed mill.
Jordan Johnson, a spokesman for OK Foods, told the Southwest Times Record in 2016 that the company’s CEO was “inspired” by the initial Unexpected Project and wanted to support the Unexpected in 2016, which is why he offered up the towers.
Goins linked the Unexpected Project to “cultural progress” in Fort Smith’s downtown when speaking to the Times Record.
Goins told the newspaper that the company’s mill had contributed economically to the area surrounding the city for about 50 years and that, with the addition of the murals, it would contribute culturally as well.
Van Helten spoke about his creative process in a 2016 interview with Instagrafite, a group that curates and promotes street art.
“Usually I spend some time seeking out an image which speaks some connection to place to the site in which I will paint, who have something to say, or simply are just representative of something I feel needs some kind of representation,” he said.
Van Helten said he thought about the history of Fort Smith when planning the murals for the Unexpected.
“Here the legends of the Old West resonate from its history as a border town with the former Indian Territory, now Oklahoma,” he wrote. “Suggesting the characters from traditional notions of the American Wild West mythology, I was interested with this work to explore the idea of the American hero and character.”
Van Helten’s second and third “American Heroes,” Paradela and Jones, as a Native American and “a young African American woman who runs her own business,” may not look like what most people think of as heroes from the Wild West. However, van Helten seems to say through his art that diversity in Fort Smith and the American west are not limited to modern times.
The artist has embarked on similar projects all over the world: he has painted structures in Mexico, the Ukraine, Chernobyl and his home country Australia. Elsewhere in the American South, he has created art in Nashville, Tennessee and Jacksonville, Florida.