Pop up shop volunteers eager to share every Unexpected experience

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A year ago, Fort Smith area residents didn’t know what to expect. Murals? Street art? Will the artists talk to us? Will they like it here?

Two volunteers with The Unexpected enjoy a prime perspective on how the public is embracing the project. Judi McIntosh, who oversees the pop-up store, and Penny Packard and Suni Vallun have staffed the popup shop the past two years.

This year, the shop – featuring branded t-shirts, tank tops, tote bags commemorative posters, and stickers – is located on the first floor of the Propak building at the corner of Garrison and Towson Avenues.

Penny says, “The people who walk through those doors know what’s going on with The Unexpected. They immediately ask for one of our printed maps, and many of them already have the app on their phones (Apple and Google Play), but they want to hold the map and share it as they explore.”

The store is open from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. every day through Sunday, September 11. Penny has volunteered for every shift because she enjoys the interaction with people. She knows the excitement is a reflection of continued renewal of downtown, through art, entertainment, and music.

“We’ve enjoyed watching and being part of the renewal of Garrison Avenue for several years, but The Unexpected (Instagram, Facebook) is much more than international artists sharing their talents with us. This festival has brought excitement and enthusiasm to our residents. I see it every day.”

Penny is hopeful that the collaboration among Northside and Southside High School students will convince them to pursue art educations at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith, instead of leaving the community.

Penny says she would much rather spend her time during the festival at the pop-up shop because she will enjoy the murals many times during the lifetime of the art.

Suni Vallun takes a different approach. Before and after her shifts at the shop, Suni loves making the rounds, watching and talking to the artists, and interacting with spectators.

Suni is enthusiastic about sharing her discovery that, “The artists love Fort Smith! They typically work large metropolitan cities all over the world, like Las Vegas and Rio. They tell me how much it means to them that we care about what they’re doing, that we cheer for them and ask questions about what they’re doing. Plus, they’re amazed that we have so many volunteers to help them and to make their work easier.”

By the time Suni arrives at the pop-up shop, she’s armed with information about what’s happening on each wall. It helps her answer questions about the artists and the progress being made at each location.

What happens when a visitor walks into the shop with a less than flattering opinion about a particular piece of street art?

Suni and Penny both agree – everyone has an opinion about art. Not every person will like every piece of art. That the works evoke thought and emotion and that they spark conversation is healthy and fun.

“There’s genuine excitement about what’s happening downtown and in our city,” says Suni.

One frequent question is, “Who’s paying for all this?” Once it’s made clear that the project is entirely funded through private and corporate donations and a massive volunteer effort, even the most skeptical mural watcher tends to soften.

After talking to these bright and caring women, it’s evident that excitement and enthusiasm are growing within the hearts of the residents they encounter every day at The Unexpected popup shop – open 10:00 a.m. until 6:00 p.m. every day through Sunday.

Even if you don’t need a map, even if you don’t buy a shirt, stop by and visit with Suni and Penny. Watching them interact with other mural watchers is yet another Unexpected pleasure.

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