Bentonville, Arkansas. All either of us knew about it had been garnered from Wikipedia: A small town of 40,000. The headquarters of Walmart and Tyson foods, two of the biggest industry forces in America. Nestled near the Ozark Mountains. We knew the event would take place across a few different venues in Bentonville, one of which included the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, a gallery whose existence relied solely on the patronage of Alice Walton, the daughter of Walmart’s founder, Sam Walton. But factoids online or on paper never quite live up to the real-life experience.
We arrived bleary-eyed Tuesday evening and settled into the 21c Museum Hotel, a fabulous venue selected for the speakers’ accommodation by the Made by Few crew. The hotel was decked out with contemporary pop art – rhinestone portraits of Oprah and Condoleezza Rice, a wooden piano and wig/chandelier hanging sculpture in the lobby, and an incredibly detailed manda, a ritualistic act of faith and gratitude from an artist who’d served in Iraq. Our favourite was a series of larger-than-life plastic green penguins; described as functional art, to Moo’s utter delight we were able to move them around the hotel and even had a couple stationed next to Moo’s crib in our room for the duration of our stay.
Mark was speaking at Made by Few’s kickoff evening, a fireside event held at the Sassafras Winery and hosted by Chris Coyier. Cass was slotted for the final day to speak about design culture in small towns. Both talks were going to be a challenge; neither of us had finalized what we were going to say before we took off so we worked in wee moments on the planes, in hotel corners, and – after the babies had finally-for-godssake– gone to sleep – on the floor of the bathroom, loaded up with pillows.
Mark’s talk was held around an actual campfire so he didn’t have slides to support his words or jog his memory, and Cassie’s was a challenge as it ran an hour and there was never a full hour to actually run through and practice the whole thing. We were relieved and exhausted by the time both talks were done, but felt rewarded by people telling us they left our talks inspired and moved. Mark received multiple hugs; Cassie was told she’d made people cry. (Eventually we hope to share our thoughts and words here, but that will take a little more time to gather.)
Thankfully, our week opened up at times for real-world exploration. The Crystal Bridges museum is one of the finest in the world and what an odd thing really, that it is situated in Bentonville. A short nature walk connected the 21c Museum hotel and the gallery where works by Picasso, Cassatt, Homer, Eakins, Wyeth, Calder, Whistler, Sargent, Rothko, Haring, Pollock, Rockwell, Oldenburg, Hopper, Weber, Rauschenberg, and on and on and on, hung – all available to view for free (courtesy of Walmart). Everyone you might’ve studied in art school. Plus an incredible kids’ area, art library, and cafeteria with what’s been called “the world’s most expensive restaurant chandelier,” a hanging gold heart by Jeff Koons.
We liked the museum so much we went three times. (Although, we now regret not also going to the Museum of Native American History; it’s hard to think straight with two young kids.)
After Cassie’s talk on Saturday, we were all so exhausted we decided a drive would relax us. Our new friend Chad suggested Devil’s Den for a hike. We loaded the girls into our rental car and by the time we were ready the sun was sinking low. We carried the girls over stone steps a tad slippery with fallen leaves, up and over and under rocky sandstone terrain seemingly from another world. Caves and basins captured our imaginations and Moo kept us going with stories of Arkansian fairies. The drive home was delightfully cast by a glorious pink sunset.
On other days we were able to visit Eureka Springs, a charming tourist destination an hour from Bentonville. Trolley tours wind up and down the rocky streets past architecturally interesting hotspots, including the largest most intricate hotel we’ve ever seen, and Halloween-bedecked porches. Sadly we missed the Zombie parade, but now have it on our bucket list.
Just outside Eureka Springs was the Thorncrown chapel. We’d seen this recommended online but came upon it by accident; it seems that’s how visiting this place is supposed to happen. While sitting in pews the glass walls and ceiling give way to being absolutely surrounded by nature, a setting without manmade interference and utterly peaceful.
Rogers, yet another scenic nearby town, was another quick pitstop during our stay. We were completely charmed by its and Bentonville’s historic buildings. While Bentonville seemed somewhat Disney-like in its fresh licks of paint and obvious investment in infrastructure, we couldn’t escape what felt like authenticity in this part of America – from its residents’ sweet southern drawls to, as speakers, being treated like one of the family.
Bentonville’s roots as the genesis of Walton’s 5 and Dime store transformed into the Walmart empire had inspired mixed feelings in us prior to our arrival, but we left feeling it captured both a down-to-earth humility and an inspiring gumption. And lots of laughs, from a fellow traveler describing it as “the Waltons playing Sim City” to an article we unearthed – “My Failed Attempt to Suck the Walmart-Flavored Blood of Real America” – proving success doesn’t have to be serious.
Attendees to Made by Few also inspired us. One attendee suggested we add Patreon to this blog to help us keep it going (we will try this soon!) and others provided the simple encouragement in what we are doing here in Paris – it all meant so much to our little family.
Thanks so much for having us, Made by Few and Arkansas! We hope it isn’t too long before we meet again.