About 15 Ouachita Artists Gallery and Studio members sat in their Mount Ida studio just down the hall from the gallery and took notes about the Arkansas Arts Council’s Individual Artist Fellowship awards.

“What do we have to produce to get this grant?” one artist asked.

“Nothing. You don’t have to do anything. We’re awarding you for being an Arkansas creative, for being a creative in Arkansas, and for what you have already accomplished. Ideally, our grant will help mid-career creatives succeed, thrive and stay in Arkansas,” I said.

“Oooh,” several creatives said together.

As the artist services manager in charge of the Fellowship program, multiple creatives (AKA artists) have called or emailed me about our Fellowship grants, but I realized recently, while looking through completed applications, that several artists, writers, musicians and crafters I know and who I think should be applying — just… aren’t.

Why? Where are all my fellow creatives? Where are your draft applications? The Fellowship deadline is April 16, which is just around the corner.

Arkansas is filled with talent. On my way to work on a recent Wednesday in March, I ran into two creatives who earned Individual Artist Fellowship awards in the past. One was considering how to curate visual arts exhibits throughout 2024; the other was considering the art of poetry while quietly tapping his feet because he’s actually a tap dancer and choreographer.

Sometimes I toy with the idea of calling our state “ART-can-saw.” (I know, it’s bad.) But, Arkansas is a state with murals sprouting up all over; community placemaking events (virtual and in-person) are happening, so much so that it’s hard to keep up with them; new museums and galleries have or are opening; new grants for arts have started up; and there’s a new focus on celebrating the creative economy overall. Our state tourism dollars are, in part, thanks to the arts in Arkansas. People are driving to see us, to see our art, to participate in our events and music venues, and to experience our natural resources and culture. In Mount Ida, creatives said out-of-state visitors frequent their gallery regularly. Tourism is, once again, on the rise, they said.

They aren’t alone. The ACANSA Arts Festival of the South drew visitors to new venues all over Central Arkansas. On Tuesday night, I watched 10-minute plays at the Argenta Community Theater (The theater was nearly full) written, produced and performed by local creatives for the ACANSA festival. Our Arkansas creatives are literally everywhere. Our fingers are in all the pies.

Last year, Arkansas Arts Council staff went out of their way to have listening sessions with nonprofit organizations, businesspeople and creatives. We talked with community leaders and researched the best practices for grants that go to individual artists. You see, we want to better serve individual creatives, reach into underrepresented communities to provide support and build a statewide ecosystem that encourages creatives to stay in Arkansas. Why? Because individual artists are the backbone of our creative economy.

So, when those creatives told me they need more individual support, the Arkansas Arts Council partnered with Wingate Foundation to increase our Fellowship awards. We doubled our program for the next three years. Now, our Fellowships are $5,000 grants per person, up by $1,000, and for the first time in at least a decade. Also, we have three new categories, which means up to 18 creatives in six categories could be awarded this year.

By the way, the Fellowship categories this year are: Delta blues songwriting or score; flash fiction or flash creative nonfiction; graphic novel or narrative; contemporary craft; multisensory artwork and community engagement. Applications are free and online.

On top of that, we created a slew of virtual, free workshops to help creatives sharpen professional development skills and get ready for grant applications. This year, we’ve had: finding grants for individual artists, writing artist statements, and applying for the Fellowships. And, yes, your Fellowship application will need an artist statement and resume.

Some creatives might have trepidations about our categories. We’ve never before included sequenced, visual art storytelling as a visual arts category, for example. The 2D works can be any medium, but the idea is to create a series that tells a story – and that is new. Several artists called to say how excited they are the Arkansas Arts Council is offering a category that is trending nationally and includes them.

Of course, not everyone is happy. A couple of creatives called me because they were frustrated about “no visual arts” as a category, but several of our categories include visual arts. Besides graphic storytelling, our multisensory category includes 2D or 3D works, including paintings. We, at the Arkansas Arts Council, are trying to acknowledge works that create multiple ways for audiences to experience the arts. It makes art more accessible, which is a win for everyone. Also, our community engagement category could be anything from a pop-up, visual art show to community murals.

You can read all the criteria, learn about each category and start your application process at https://www.arkansasheritage.com/blog/dah/2021/12/29/2022-individual-artist-fellowship-awards.

Here’s the thing: If you do nothing, you get nothing. I know, I know, I probably sound like your mother. My mom used to say: “Can’t never could,” which is still confusing to me, but I think it’s about perspective. Think about your artwork, then put it into a category that best fits what you do and who you are — and just go for it.

Back in Mount Ida, Arkansas Arts Council Director Patrick Ralston and I toured the gallery. The soft, track lighting bounced off polished wooden floors to create a cozy but beautiful, contemporary atmosphere, despite the gloomy rain outside. Creatives milled about to talk about how passionate they are for the arts in Arkansas, their arts space, workshops and studios and their fellow creatives.

“We’re proud of our gallery,” an artist told me. “They told us when we opened we’d only make it three months, but here we are, still, four years in.”

The gallery is completely run by volunteers. Every piece of artwork inside is handmade. Members pointed out woven pine needle bowls and vessels; clay finger bowls; community engagement paintings; jean-worked pillowcases; fine paintings in mixed media, pastel, acrylic and oil paints; photographs; sculptures; glass beads; and jewelry – all made by Arkansas creatives.

I looked around at all the works on display. Surely, these works could fit into a Fellowship category that could benefit the creators who are behind the success of this gallery. Surely, more creatives, the very people who make Arkansas so attractive for the arts, will apply for a Fellowship soon.