The Unexpected Project is wrapping up just its fifth year in Fort Smith, yet the annual arts event continues to leave a long-lasting impression on the River Valley.

The event was meant to bring pride of place to Fort Smith, help establish it as a leader in the genre of urban contemporary art and create vibrant spaces and drive-to traffic to the downtown area, among other objectives. But when the The Unexpected began in 2015, organizers weren't sure what to expect. The project's "unwritten mission" was to help inspire and enlighten community members on the growing artistic and social merits of mural artwork, Claire Kolberg, festival director, said at the time. Artists arrived in Fort Smith from all over the globe to paint murals on local buildings throughout the week, first held Sept. 3-12, 2015, and this year held Oct. 7-13. Artists weren't on a specific schedule, allowing local residents and tourists the opportunity to observe the artists at work.

Any trip through downtown Fort Smith and other parts of town provides visitors a glimpse of what The Unexpected is all about. Many murals touch on Fort Smith's history as an Old West town, and others touch on its Native American roots. Another offers a look at native son Alphonso Trent. Others are full of whimpsy and open to the observer's own interpretation.

Organized by 64.6 Downtown, the first festival featured artists Roa, Ben Eine, Ana Maria and Bicicleta Sem Freio that first year, who painted murals on the outside walls of downtown buildings. Other participating artists have included Maser of Ireland, Guido Van Helten of Australia, D*FACE of the United Kingdom, Askew of New Zealand, VHILS of Portugal and Bicicleta Sem Freio of Brazil.

The first Unexpected also included events such as Spoken Word Night with Chicago poet-activist Malcolm London and the Art in the Park event at Ross Pendergraft Park, which featured the artwork of 15 area artists. The Unexpected Project has expanded each year since its inception. More artists are now participating, and local students interested in art are taking advantage of opportunities to be involved. A pop-up skate park in downtown Fort Smith was part of the festival in 2017. This years festivities included a kickoff block party featuring a live concert with National Park Radio, food trucks, the Artisan Market, Yoga in the Park events, art activities with the Fort Smith Regional Art Museum, a break dance contest and more; a joint exhibition at Bation Gallery featuring works by Northside and Southside high school students; concerts by the Escape Tones and various bands along Garrison Avenue; and today's keynote presentations by Alexandre Bavard and Jia Jiang; Art Feeds and Wheel Mobile with activities for all ages.

It didn't take long for Fort Smith's Unexpected Project to make a name for itself. In 2017, it was named winner of the 2017 Henry Award for Community Tourism Development at the 43rd annual Arkansas Governor’s Conference on Tourism. It also has served to inspire other communities, including Decatur, Alabama, to work toward beginning their own version of the festival. Kolberg said in 2018 that local leaders regularly receive calls and emails from people in other towns who would like to duplicate the festival in their own community. Within Arkansas, Little Rock officials in 2016 reached out to Unexpected directors to inquire about the festival, Clark said. Muralist Alexis Diaz in 2016 completed a satellite Unexpected mural in Fayetteville that became internationally acclaimed, according to a news release from The Unexpected.

Locator maps for the murals — which now number in the dozens — are available at Miss Laura's Visitors Center in downtown Fort Smith. An UnexpectedFS smartphone app is now available to download as well.

It's safe to say not everyone likes the particular artwork left behind each year in Fort Smith once The Unexpected is over, but that was never the goal, organizers say. It's more about bringing artists, volunteers, students and tourists together each year in a positive atmosphere in Fort Smith. And to get people talking about art.

"Not everyone will love everything, but it allows you to go to a corner of your mind and talk about art," Kolberg said in 2015. "It will expand what people think of art. Experiencing this festival will be a good way to engage on a level that is so much more than just saying, ‘Ahh, that's a pretty picture.'"