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Pine Bluff arts scene playing a role in city’s comeback

Vital Landscapes

Pine Bluff arts scene playing a role in city’s comeback

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A New Masterpiece

By Dwain Hebda -- There are many ways by which people mark their passage upon the earth. The arts are among the most powerful and to see that phrase in action one needs only to look at what’s going on in one of Arkansas’ most storied cities, Pine Bluff.

Long a poster child for urban decay, crime and addiction, Pine Bluff has spent the better part of a decade on a slow, foot-heavy comeback. New investments are noticeable through construction and business development while shiny new city amenities improve the quality of daily life.

It’s not a sprint by any means, but the steady march of change is as palpable as the hope and optimism of the citizenry. And at the head of the column in this revolution, the arts.

“The arts are necessary, in part because we have to redefine our spaces,” said Jimmy Cunningham, tourism development director with the Pine Bluff Advertising and Promotion Commission. “We are disconnected from a lot of our enormous history. When you live in a city where as a 15-year-old, and all you’ve ever seen is the city in decline, that’s all you know — the narrative of decline.

“Art becomes critical, not just in terms of, ‘Oh, that’s a nice abstract piece,’ or ‘Oh, look at those geometric designs.’ Most of the art we’re focusing on is art that relates to the culture and to the people’s sense of worth and value.”

Many of today’s Pine Bluff residents and visitors can’t fathom the heights to which this Delta community ascended during its history. In its Golden Age of the 1880s, the city sat at the crossroads of agriculture and commerce, a combination that rewarded vision and bold entrepreneurism. Many of those who prospered were Black and with that affluence rose a thriving music and arts scene, a citadel of culture celebrating a community of seemingly boundless opportunity.

Through the Jazz Age and World War II, Pine Bluff was known for music, specifically the blues. Seminal artist Big Bill Broonzy hailed from here and Charles Brown, who scored 13 No. 1 blues records in the 1940s, lived here. Pine Bluff also inspired George Washington Thomas to invent boogie-woogie, writing and recording its first track.

The blues informed other genres of music, including gospel legend Sister Rosetta Tharpe of Cotton Plant; and jazz, in a young Miles Davis who’d spend summers in Pine Bluff visiting his grandparents and soaking up the sound.

Visual arts have also been a big part of the community’s identity. Well before murals became all the rage, Pine Bluff was decorating the exterior walls of buildings with scenes that spoke of the city’s heritage. And, thanks largely to the University of Pine Bluff, painters and poets and photographers by the hundreds were developed and educated to unleash their vision onto the world.

“One of the best places I could start to talk about local art is with UAPB,” Cunningham said. “You have this university sitting here and it’s always had an incredible art department. It’s always had these majors and these professors who brought all this artistic talent.”

With new development and energy that’s underway, art has returned to the forefront of life in Pine Bluff. Prior to his current role, Cunningham launched the Delta Rhythm and Bayous Alliance to reignite interest in the musical heritage of the city and surrounding area, promote concerts and encourage live music to return to various venues.

Visual arts are also rejuvenating various parts of town, including new murals and commissioned pieces that fit into the overall arts movement, each genre supporting the other in an explosion of creativity and talent.

“The UAPB art department has partnered with The Arts and Science Center for Southeast Arkansas [ASC], with the Delta Rhythm and Bayous Alliance [DRBA], and with the Pine Bluff Advertising and Promotion Commission to have several works done,” Cunningham said. You’re looking at the footprint of African Americans doing public art now and getting recognition for standing pieces in the community.

“There’s art that’s going to be done to engage the community, particularly in the downtown area with several pieces. At our headquarters, you’ll see 75 to 80 pieces commissioned by the DRBA and all those are from either current UAPB students or graduates, telling the story of music, the blues in particular.”

Cunningham is particularly excited about the forthcoming DRBA Cultural District to be formed downtown, which will push public art, education and artistic opportunities even further into the spotlight.

“This cultural district is going to be a huge piece of everything that’s going on,” he said. “The driver in all of that is going to be art contribution. We intend to have a music trail and a cinema trail and UAPB’s art department is going to be involved in all of that. They are also going to work to get artists in residence to parley different artistic mediums.”

Cunningham said the effort to invest in art and art programming is more important than just the face value of the work being done. Reclaiming the city’s cultural past is a big part of recasting Pine Bluff’s self-identity and that which it projects to the world.

“If you can restore the spirit, you can build up the bridge and I think that’s kind of what the art here is designed to do,” he said. “It’s designed to speak to this greatness that comes out of Pine Bluff, this sense of a varied legacy. We’re trying to bring that to the forefront so people can latch onto the spirit that’s here in the air, that’s in the dirt, and move forward with more fervor rather than saving the narrative that is, ‘Woe unto this place.’

“When someone comes along and says there’s a different story that’s connected to the land that you stand on and folks see beauty can be created in hard times, that creativity reigned in oppressive circumstances, the idea is conveyed that if they did it then, we can do it now.”

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