Saturday, December 6, 2014

Art in the Ozarks, Part 1

Not too long ago my chums Martha and Bruce and I decided to go to Bentonville, Arkansas.

That’s right, Bentonville, Arkansas. It was a jaunt to see the Crystal Bridges Museum of Art. The museum—recently founded by Alice Walton (as in the daughter of Sam Walton, founder of Walmart)—focuses on American art. In addition to seeing the Moshe Safdie designed museum and its permanent collection, we’d get to see the State of the Art exhibition, for which curators visited 44 of 50 states to find new work that was outside the NY/LA art scene. Close friends had visited Crystal Bridges and came back with good things to say, so the three of us booked tickets for The Natural State.

The first thing I had to get used to after landing in Arkansas was seeing the initials N.W.A splashed all over the place. Every time I saw them I thought of the hip hop group from Compton, California rather than Northwest Arkansas. Call me a slow learner.

Instead of staying in the United States of Generica, as in a familiar chain hotel with e-z access to the interstate highway, we opted to spend more than we typically spend on lodgings to stay in Bentonville proper at the 21C Museum Hotel. It’s a boutique hotel/art museum, an unusual concept but certainly better than say a boutique hotel slash slaughter house or a boutique hotel slash bowling alley. At least that’s what I thought when I booked our rooms.

Google maps and my rental car led me from the NWA Regional Airport to the hotel with no problem at all. The non-descript modern building is a block from the super cute Bentonville town square. The hotel looked as if it could have been the headquarters of a specialty software firm, one that say, developed a management system for miniature golf courses or sold software used in the mega church industry. There was no porte-cochere, discreet awning, or sign indicating the place was a hotel. In fact, there wasn’t even an indentation in the curb that would indicate you should pull over there. It was hotel as twenty-first century speakeasy: the folks who know know, and the folks who don’t need to know won’t know.

There were, however, Kelly penguins here and there.

 They were the hotel's thing, as it were.

My first inkling that something was up was that you can’t park your own car. There’s just the valet option, at $12/day plus tipping. Even the over-the-top hotels of Las Vegas have a self-park option. But unlike the 21C, there’s nothing discreet about them---they’re out and proud as hotels, welcoming the hoi polloi, that is, as long as their credit cards aren’t maxed out.

The 21C’s lobby was a minimalist loft-y looking space with polished concrete floors, exposed brick walls and high ceilings. The desk clerk stood at something that looked like long slice of a redwood tree, as if George Nakashima did hotel furnishings. Two clerks laptops standing at a big log. That pretty much sums it up.
The lobby walls are hung with large artwork of the kind I’d associate with hedge fund billionaires, not that I associate with hedge fund billionaires. While it’s obviously popular with some folks, the art was a tad too contemporary for my taste. Don’t stop by if you hope to see a Gainsborough.  

At check in they told me that they’d just had fire in the kitchen—hence the faint smell of a charcoal grill. The restaurant and bar would be closed until further notice.

Ack!!   (That’s a direct quote.)

The last time I stayed in a hotel—let alone a boutique hotel slash museum—that didn’t have a bar was pretty much never. They told me that there were a couple of licensed establishments a block away. And no, they didn’t offer me a coupon for a free drink from my hotel room mini-bar for the inconvenience.  So much for Southern hospitality!

My room was on the second floor. There was a “Pardon Our Dust” sign taped to the wall of the second floor elevator lobby. It briefly occurred to me that it could be art, but my guess was that it was a real sign. I couldn’t figure out where they were working but the hallway plaster was battered here and there and needed a few dabs of paint. I’m all for the 21C’s somewhat minimalist esthetic, but it requires the management to be on its toes maintenance-wise, or else every blemish shows.

The minimalist vein continued in my room which had a view of the roof of the lobby with the Bentonville water tower in the distance.

As soon as I walked in I noticed the stain in front of the credenza as if someone spilled a cup of coffee and the Oxy-Clean was almost, but not quite, up to the task of getting the stain out.

I was reminded of a story told to me by a friend who works in the high end (think the Four Seasons chain) hotel industry. It seems that when rooms are cleaned by the housekeeping staff, a supervisor has to go over them on what they call “pube patrol” to make sure that everything is perfect for the next guest. I looked at the stain and thought, “So much for the pube patrol.”

My bathroom was huge and was tiled beautifully. In addition to fluffy white towels, it was fitted out with the mandatory soaps and lotions of an unknown but expensive sounding brand. There was even a yellow rubber duck for my enjoyment in the shower. It’s obviously meant to be humorous since there was no bathtub, just a shower. I turned it so it faced the wall. I didn’t want any old rubber duck looking at me when I was showering.

Since the restaurant and bar were closed due the fire, I walked into Bentonville to look for a place to eat. I settled on a burger joint. It’s supposed to have NWA’s best burger according to the local magazine. The burger wasn’t that great (as in no threat to In and Out Burger) but the Freedom Fries (Freedom Toast was on the breakfast menu) were very tasty, especially when accompanied by a bit of ketchup from the Paul Bunyan scaled squeeze bottle. Apparently they really like ketchup in NWA.

A bunch of business types in what are now called “dress pants” came in and sat at the table next to my booth. One of them looked a lot like Tony Romo, whom I find strangely attractive when he sports his usual backwards baseball cap look, even if he does play for the Dallas Cowboys. The burger wasn’t that good but the eye candy was excellent.

On my way out, I ordered the small twist cone. It was horrible. I didn’t know that soft ice cream could be so bad. I tossed it into the first garbage can I found. I didn’t need those calories anyway.

I’d scarcely thrown my cone away when a group of about eight thirty something corporate types asked if they could pick me up and take a photo while I held some sort of flower. They were on some sort of team-building scavenger hunt. I said sure.  Unfortunately for them, I didn’t have a business card that started with the letter M, the other thing they were looking for that night.

When M & B arrived at the hotel at 10:45 we made a bee line for a bar suggested to us by the desk clerk. They couldn’t believe we were forking over a pile for a hotel with no bar.

We crossed the town square—complete w Confederate monument—to the nearest licensed establishment. We arrived at that perfect moment between the band finishing and last call. B thinks about 95 percent of live music is too loud.

The handful of people at the bar worked at the place—it was nearly last call after all—and were quite friendly. The guys belonged to the au courant hair and skinny jeans tribe, while the women should have stopped getting piercings a couple of pokes ago. The bartender had a bouffant that would have made Jackie Kennedy proud--when prodded he said he used pomade but didn’t reveal any beauty secrets. Caleb the Dishwasher, who hadn’t cut his hair in three years, was especially engaging. I didn’t think that I needed to ask him if the haircut hiatus included manscaping. He told us the place serves a great breakfast and so we made plans to come back the next morning.

On Friday morning the hotel restaurant was still out of commission. The hotel had put a couple of Keurig coffeemakers on a table in the lobby. They'd also put out a bowl of bananas and apples, and a box of donuts with pink icing and sprinkles. I couldn’t figure out if the donuts were there to be ironic, or if someone really thought the hotel’s guest would want to chow down on some off-brand Krispy Kremes.

After our breakfast at the bar (in theory tasty; in reality cold) we headed out to see architect E. Fay Jones’ masterwork, Thorncrown Chapel, about an hour from the hotel. While we were there to see the Crystal Bridges museum, it was open over the weekend while the chapel wasn’t.

The place is truly spectacular, even on an overcast day. The non-denominational chapel is a glass box whose roof is supported by an elaborate system of small trusses made from what seemed to be 2 by 4s. The chapel’s furnishings are limited to pews, a pulpit, and a piano.

It wasn’t crowded; the two other visitors left shortly after we arrived. The chapel was staffed by a retired pastor. He was engaging and thoughtful, but he didn’t stand up the entire time we were there.  The one sour note—so to speak, was the sound track of music reminiscent of Koch Funeral Home, popular hymns played on the Hammond Organ. How Great Thou Art, indeed.

As we walked to the rental car, we met the property’s handyman. The handyman was itchin’ to chat and we learned all about his snow shovel on wheels. I can’t imagine that it snows much there but he said he was was blessed to have it. I thought he was going to take us to his shed to show it off, but I made sure we said we had to dash before that could happen.

Google Maps told us that Christ of the Ozarks was just a couple of miles away—I don’t know about you, but to me, nothing says Arkansas like a 67’ tall statue of Jesus, so we headed over there right as soon as we left Thorncrown Chapel.

Christ of the Ozarks is on the grounds of The Great Passion Play, a biblical tableau that happens in the summer. The grounds consisted of a bunch of ramshackle buildings, built without benefit of designer, arrayed around a parking lot, built without benefit of contractor. My guess is that the Angel Eddie Joe told some guy in a dump truck to drop concrete blocks and some macadam right there--hence Christ of the Ozarks.

After driving around the parking lot not knowing where to go, we went into the gift shoppe (always open) to ask where the statue was. The two staffers—who by their hair and clothes stopped getting Vogue in, well, um, a LONG time ago, suggested that our very first stop should be the Bible Museum in the back of the gift shop.
Pictures of CHRIST. Look closely.
Interestingly enough it was filled with Bibles and some kooky stuff too.

While M and I looked at the tchotchkes in the gift shop, Bruce chatted up one of the cashiers who urged him to come back in May, to the amplitheater (her pronunciation) to see the show.
The other cashier showed M. and me some pottery made by the now-retired Jesus. It’s a demanding role, playing Christ in The Great Passion Play, she said, “That cross gets heavy!

The Christ of the Ozarks, erected in 1966 by Gerald L.K. Smith, an associate of Huey Long, turned out to be even better than I expected. It’s one huge piece of whackadoodle outsider art; allegedly the third tallest statue of Jesus in the world.  The work has been described as looking like a milk carton with a tennis ball stuffed on top, and whoever it was who said that, well, they were on to something.

The sign at the base of the statue alone is worth the visit.

That’s where I learned that it cost $6,000 to repair one finger. No, no the middle one.

It's not often that I look at a photo and say, "Ozymandias!"

The sculptor, Emmett Sullivan, went on to do Dinosaur World, which, unfortunately we somehow missed.

After our fill of Christ of the Ozarks, it was time for a bite to eat in Eureka Springs, followed by a tour of the Pea Ridge Battlefield.

In case you're not familiar with the Battle of Pea Ridge, it took place in March 1862. Though Union forces were outnumbered by Confederate forces, the still carried the day, cementing the Union's control of Missouri.  We were the only tourists there, though we did run into a guy who was counting deer as a part of a research project.

Dinner that evening was at the Monte Ne Inn, a restaurant recommended by a friend, but also endorsed by Caleb the Dishwasher. It was one of the coolest places I’ve eaten in eons. There’s no menu. They serve one thing, a fried chicken dinner. And that’s bean soup, followed by fried chicken, mashed potatoes, corn, green beans, cole slaw, and hot bread. And the keep bringing the food until you tell them to stop. If you have room, there are homemade cobblers for dessert. The chicken is someplace between quite possibly the best fried chicken you’ve ever had and a religious experience. Yes, it’s that good. We had a great time talking to the owner, who shared the history of the place and what it’s like to own a restaurant that serves only one thing. He seemed like a good egg, and if you’re ever in NWA, make it a point to go there to eat.

OK, this is getting pretty long, so I'll close right here and save Crystal Bridges, The Walmart Museum, and what happens when your hotel room is across the hall from one of The Real Housewives of Arkansas for the next post.


  1. Maybe that fried chicken establishment can set up a booth at Arts Festival?