It's no secret that many of the state's most renowned arts institutions call Little Rock home, but so do some of the most notable creators.
Here, meet six local artists every central Arkansan should know, all photographed in some of their most intimate, creative spaces.
It may be easier for Crystal C. Mercer to explain what form of artistic expression she hasn’t tried.
Artist, dancer, actor, poet, storyteller and costume designer are among the creative outlets Mercer has mastered and used to craft a message of activism, equality and awareness.
“I was always making something,” says Mercer, who these days has been focusing on textiles and fibers as her primary medium. Her Little Rock studio has two rooms dedicated to crafts, including an arbor press for embossing leather and two sewing machines, though she primarily stitches by hand.
“I would like to have a farm with manufacturing and retail space,” Mercer says of her possible future plans, “creating some of these textiles I work with from the ground up.”
Shy as a child, Mercer found her voice as a high school junior assigned to make up a commercial as a communications class project. She did a take on the Soul-Glo hair product from the Eddie Murphy classic “Coming to America,” and when she saw her classmates’ reaction, it was a pivotal experience.
“They were laughing and clapping,” she says. “I didn’t know I had the power to make people feel anything.”
She thought she would end up an attorney like her late father, trailblazing activist Christopher C. Mercer Jr. Among his many accomplishments, he helped integrate the University of Arkansas Law School and was NAACP field representative to Daisy Bates as she spearheaded the Central High School desegregation.
As a tribute to her dad, Mercer insists her name be spelled complete with middle initial, as his was, but she quickly realized her brand of activism would be expressed in art.
She majored in theater arts and dance at UA Little Rock, after transferring from UCA when her dad, who died in 2012, was ill with cancer. She also worked in the school’s costume department, has since published a book of poetry and recently a children's book featuring her textile work, much of which is on display at M2 Gallery. It is primarily through theater, poetry and textiles that she, according to her site, communicates “ancestral messages” and tells “social justice narratives.”
She is using her work, Mercer says, to break down barriers, kick in doors and lay bricks in the road for others.
Little Rock artist Susan Hurst knew she was the artistic type as early as fourth grade, when she took on a pottery project.
“I looked in my hands and said, ‘This is what I’m going to be doing,’” Hurst says.
She wasn’t sure what kind of artist she would become, but Hurst began to transition to sketching and portraits as she got older. It was Elvis Presley who brought her into the ranks of the professionals. The King was the subject of her first paid portrait, commissioned by her high school math teacher.
“Unfortunately, it wasn’t from life,” Hurst jokes.
Elvis may not have been in the building, and it was an oil painting, not black velvet, but Hurst was on her way to a career.
Hurst still works in oils but has a fondness for pastels — especially in children’s portraits — and is active in the Arkansas Pastel Society.
“I started out in pastels when I had young children and I needed to be able to put up the supplies quickly and go back to it,” Hurst says. “Pastels I could pick up and start right where I left off.”
Hurst was raised in Ohio and Indiana before her family moved to El Dorado when she was a high school sophomore. She now lives in the west Little Rock neighborhood of St. Charles, not far from Two Rivers Park, where she keeps a work space in an upstairs bedroom.
The fresh air of the nearby park and the quality of light that beams into her studio add energy to her work, while her inspiration is found in local museums and art communities.
“We have some wonderful art organizations and quite a group of artists that I associate with,” Hurst says. “Little Rock is just a very rich culture for the arts.”
Hurst is the sometimes painting partner of oils artist Megan Lewis at Cantrell Gallery, and also recommends the pastels work of Cathy Nugent at M2 Gallery. Hurst’s own work was recently on display in the Arkansas Pastel Society show through North Little Rock’s Thea Foundation, and can be seen in the society’s upcoming national show beginning in November at the Acansa Gallery, also in North Little Rock.
Long Island native Michael Shaeffer studied illustration at the School of Visual Arts in New York City in the early 2000s. Mirroring the speed of the city, he prefers acrylic paint for the sake of the speed in which it dries, as he often tends to complete a piece in the span of one night.
Creating under the name House of Shaeffer, much of his work is centered around cultural nostalgia that reflects his own memories from the New York club scene of the '90s and 2000s. His abstract, large format portraits, which he refers to as his “Club Kid” series, have been a focus for the past two years. He recalls fashion photographers taking pictures of kids standing in line to get into clubs and then featuring them in print. His work reflects snapshots of these scenes and showcases the fashion and moment of those nights.
He moved to Little Rock in 2010 to be closer to his mom in Hot Springs, and since the birth of his son, has no plans to leave anytime soon. During the pandemic, he built his son a studio within his own space so they could create side by side.
Shaeffer uses his art as a means to explore his own identity. He feels he is still looking for who he is, and hopes that by teaching his son how to create, he can give him the tools to learn how to figure that out for himself as he grows up. He believes ideas are built from a compilation of other peoples’ ideas, which he reflects by drawing on inspiration from multiple people, literally. He might see a nose he likes on one person and eyes from another. The challenge comes from getting them to work together and still be beautiful in congress.
“My process is to create problems and then to solve them,” Shaeffer says. “I guess my endgame is to run out of problems.”
Art projects have taken Jose Hernandez and his X3Mex team to Mexico, all over the U.S. and all over the walls of Little Rock’s Seventh Street.
As part of the 7th Street Mural Project, Hernandez and X3Mex joined forces with other local artists to add beauty and color to surfaces in downtown Little Rock while presenting a message of peace, justice and equality.
Hernandez, who works with the X3Mex team out of North Little Rock’s Dedicated Visual Art Studio and Gallery, takes his inspiration from nature, social issues, everyday life and human experiences.
“My work ranges from social/political stances to abstract color explorations to surreal desert themes,” he says. “It really depends on the subject and the project, and which method communicates the message best.”
Hernandez mostly uses spray and acrylic paints to craft large-scale murals, canvas paintings, screen prints and graphic design projects. But he also likes “3D projects” like masonry, iron work, wood sculpting and casting.
“Since a young age I’ve always been drawn to create,” Hernandez says. “I grew up around artists in my family. It just comes natural to create or just do it yourself, whatever the project may be. But it was after high school that I realized it was something I wanted to do professionally.”
Hernandez’s work can, naturally, be seen on the walls of Little Rock and surrounding areas including the mural project, the Paint Factory (commissioned by Cromwell Architects), The Little Rock Fire Department Station 7, The Rail Yard and in the Argenta Arts District of North Little Rock.
That doesn’t include the images X3Mex has created for clothing and business logos and works found in the homes of private collectors spanning from Searcy to Fayetteville to Siloam Springs.
“Mural painting, screen printing, graphic design and art direction are some of the services we provide,” Hernandez says of X3Mex, “as well as a gallery where other artists can exhibit and sell their work.”
Hernandez recommends a list of artists as long as his list of mediums and inspirations.
“The whole 7th Street Mural Project crew, full of local talent. A. Human, Matthew Castellano, Sector Sick, Milkdadd, Jen and Jesse Perren, Lilia Hernandez Gallusha, RAIZ apparel, Aero Signs [North Little Rock], [art collective] MSCHF, Matthew Bivens, Everett Gee Jackson and many, many more.”
Milkdadd wanted to do art however she wanted — with no name, gender or location attached.
“I was curious how my art work would be perceived if it were thought I was a boy or if it was unknown,” she says. “At my first public show in Little Rock people were looking for a man.”
About six years ago, Milkdadd moved from Tensas Parish, Louisiana, to attend the University of Central Arkansas to study art, but dropped out after two semesters to give birth to her son. She fell in love with Little Rock and found a home both with her family and with the local art community.
“Some of the friendships I've made in Arkansas have gotten me where I am right now,” Milkdadd says. “The other artists gave me a chance and listened to me and knew I was serious about what I'm doing. They lifted me up, helped me, guided me and gave me their feedback.”
Milkdadd works with everything from acrylic and spray paint to nail art, rhinestones and embroidery. She creates her pieces on drop cloths, which started because of their affordability, but became part of her style. Much of her work focuses on faces, details, patterns and fashion.
“When I am making my big portrait pieces, I will get like 10-15 pictures of different faces of men, women, different races and cut and paste them all together and create a mesh of all of them and make a mixed up person,” Milkdadd says.
“There is no message. I honestly think my work has been a big coping mechanism for getting through the world and what I see and what I feel and solidifying it.”
Milkdadd's work is currently available at M2 Gallery, where she'll headline their "She-Show" in September, a showcase of some of the finest female artists in the area. It's a fact not lost on her as she reflects on her beginnings.
“I started selling my work when I was 14 or 15 and I remember thinking, ‘This is what I want to do for the rest of my life,’” she says. “It feels like I'm dreaming because this is what I've worked so hard to be doing and there are people who like what I do and support me.”
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Bryan Frazier has lived in Arkansas almost his entire life and has been a creator in Little Rock for the last 20 years. Describing his style as abstract, contemporary or modern non-representational, this painter works fast and uses materials that fit his pace. He mostly uses acrylic because it dries fast, but changes up which drawing tools he uses for line work so the lines are always different.
“I love to mix similar colors and sheens side by side and acrylic makes that easy to do,” Frazier says.
Frazier is inspired by other artists and physical surroundings, but also inspired by commissions from his clients. He likes to push the limits of what they might end up liking, but not realize it at first. He is motivated by an ambiguous internal notion to create, and is simply trying to get out what’s in his head.
“I love to learn from others who are not artists who view or enjoy my work,” Frazier says. “They always have a different and interesting point of view.”
He wishes his process was more defined, but ultimately his goal is to start with one mark and find his way forward from there.
“A blank canvas can seem stifling and daunting, but if you just make a mark, it will go somewhere.”
Frazier tends to work on several pieces at a time and is inspired by contemporary and pop art of the ‘50s and ‘60s.
“I always enjoyed the connection between the art, lifestyles, fashion and the surroundings that inspired the art, such as music and specific palettes or landscapes,” Frazier says. “I think it was when I discovered the connection between Andy Warhol and The Velvet Underground that I really felt a dichotomy between visual and musical art, and that led me to find many of my other inspirations such as Willem de Kooning, David Hockney, Richard Diebenkorn, Andy Warhol, Franz Kline, Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Motherwell and Wayne Thiebaud to name a few…”