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Hot Springs: A Day of History and Art

April 26, 2012

In 1874, five miles outside of Hot Springs, Arkansas, a stagecoach was held up by the legendary outlaws Frank and Jesse James.

I thought you’d like to know that.

Tuesday, Hot Springs, Arkansas

We started the day pretty late, after coffee next to Lake Catherine.  We drove over to Hot Springs, and had brunch at The Pancake Shop.  Nell had scrambled eggs and a slice of ham the size of a dinner plate.  I had a cheese omelette, and we each had a blueberry pancake.  When I folded over my pancake, it was bigger than the omelette.  The meals weren’t expensive, but the coffee was, so we had plenty and took our time.

Third Floor Music Room, Fordyce Bath House

We walked off breakfast by strolling up Central Avenue, looking in shops and reading signs.  Did you know that Tony Bennett first sang “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” at the Black Orchid Club in Hot Springs?  Or that Hot Springs was neutral territory for gangsters from Chicago and New York, who came to enjoy the baths and the horse racing?  I didn’t either.

This is all part of Hot Springs National Park, and the Park Service Visitors Center is in the old Fordyce Bath House, which operated from 1915 to 1962.  Bath House Row, originally a collection of crude structures made of canvas and lumber, developed into a row of ornate Victorian buildings.  People came to the bath houses to take advantage of the hot spring water in the area, which was believed to have great health and healing benefits.

The third floor of the Fordyce Bath House boasted a gymnasium, with quite a range of equipment for the men to work out on.  The women had a music room, a beauty parlor, and State Rooms, where they could loosen their corsets and lie down for a while.  Times have changed, haven’t they?

"Bearing A Thought Past", Renzo, 34"x54", Oil on Canvas,

A couple of doors down from the Fordyce, one of the old bath houses is now home to the Hot Springs Museum of Contemporary Art.  The current collection has a real variety of paintings, sculpture, mixed media, and digital graphic art.  Renzo’s paintings had a strong effect on me, with thought-provoking subject matter portrayed with powerful images in a unique, layered style of painting.  Influences from his time in Costa Rica and Mexico are especially evident.

I was taken with the bronze scupture of Tuan, born in Vietnam to wealthy parents, then thrown into a concentration camp when the Communists took over.  He kept his love of art alive by sculpting likenesses of his fellow prisoners with the clay from the floor of his cell.  I was struck by how this artist went from those depressing circumstances to creating the works of great beauty and sensitivity that stood before me.

For some reason, maybe because contemporary art museums in certain parts of this country exhibit junk, I was not expecting this kind of craftsmanship and skill.

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  The leather sculpture of Liu Miao Chan was the high point of our visit to the museum.  This one room alone was well worth the $5 per person admission fee.  Many of these figures were 8 or 9 inches high, others were around 18 inches, and the central figure, a mounted Chinese warrior stood around 7 or 8 feet high.  Many of Chan’s pieces were vignettes, scenes with multiple people.  The entire figure and clothing are made from leather.  Photographs simply do not convey the craftsmanship of these works of art.

You can read more about these artists, and the others on exhibit, at the museum’s website here.

We left the museum and crossed back over Central Avenue to visit some of the local art galleries that line the street.

Sketch, Randall M. Good

Blue Moon Gallery had a collection of work by Randall M. Good, including a lot of drawings and sketches.  Much of it had the feel of academic studies done from old masters and mythology, but there was a lot of really great stuff that had to have just come directly from the artist’s imagination.  One of my favorites was Aegostatius and The Last Tree on Earth from his collection In The Company of Angels.

We had a nice conversation with Willie Gilbert at American Art Gallery, who took time to show us around.  He had a great collection of little paintings by Jimmy Leach called A to Z, just like the children’s books, except these were little framed oil paintings representing the different letters of the alphabet.

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We found our way into Gallery Central., where Laura Scott was trapped in her office trying to get customer service help with her computer system.  Here we found some wonderful landscapes by Bill Garrison (oil), Charles Harrington (acrylic), and Dennis McCann (pastel),  and some beautiful abstracts by Michael Ethridge.  Of special interest to Nell were some great little miniatures by Marjorie Stone.

Almost right next door, at the Artists Workshop Gallery, multi-media artist Eileen Manees and painter Jan Briggs were holding down the fort.  This is a co-op gallery of local artists that often has one or two of its members working in the public space to allow visitors to see art actually being made.  These two delightful ladies made us feel welcome and took time to visit with us..

The highlight of our little “gallery tour” was at Gallery 726.  A pastel landscape in the window had caught our eye, and when we went in we were welcomed by the artist herself, Shirley Anderson.  One of the four owners of Gallery 726, Shirley proudly noted that they were now in their third year of operation, no mean feat in this economy.  This gallery exhibits primarily local artists, and appears to have some of the best in the area.  Shirley’s plein air work was of particular interest to me (the painting in the store window was one).  There was a relaxed freshness to it that just simply made me feel good.  We spent a considerable amount of time visiting with Shirley.

One can appreciate, but not completely enjoy or see Hot Springs in one day.  There’s simply too much there.  When we had left The Pancake Shop and stepped out on the sidewalk around mid-day, we could have taken a guided tour, or gone into the Wax Museum or the Gangster Museum, or done any number of other things.  But I think, for this visit at this particular time, our little walking tour was just right.

We had pressing business down the road that didn’t give us much time in Hot Springs.  But we’ll be back.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Jimmie Brawner permalink
    April 26, 2012 1:55 pm

    You are presenting your followers such great experiences in being able to share your travels. I am especially enjoying your sharing the areas I’ve visited, but parts Charles would have never given me the time to explore. Keep sharing.

    • April 29, 2012 5:30 pm

      Jimmie, I really do appreciate your comments. I enjoy writing these posts and putting the photos together. It’s nice to know a few people enjoy reading them. Thanks!

  2. William R Moore permalink
    April 26, 2012 3:04 pm

    Thanks Ralph,
    Great tour, has been about 30-35 years since last in Hot Springs. Gives me the desire to visit again.

  3. Annice Anderson permalink
    April 26, 2012 8:42 pm

    Very interesting post. Makes me want to visit Hot Springs. Thanks.

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