Earthquake at the Fayetteville Underground yields two art organizations, including new Fenix group

Fenix Fayetteville image by Octavio Logo

There is a way forward for the more than 20 artists who left the Fayetteville Underground en masse after a recent censorship controversy at the downtown Fayetteville Gallery.

There is also a way forward for the Fayetteville Underground, which went from a full house of artists in residence to having bare walls to having a new crop of artists in the span of a few days.

And the leadership at both the Underground and the artist collective known as the Fenix, assembled from the artists who left, hope there’s a way forward for the Northwest Arkansas arts scene, now with an additional downtown art group.

The kerfuffle followed the removal of a photograph by Alli Woods Frederick which showed a woman in a meditative state in front of a penis. The photo, “Axis Mundi (Love and Worship)” was taken down on Oct. 7, the day after the First Thursday showing at the gallery.

As a response to the removal of the work, Frederick and many of her colleagues at the Underground promptly removed their works from the gallery.

“The exodus was not planned. It was not organized as such,” said Sabine Schmidt, one of the artists who left and has since helped start Fenix. But the close-knit nature of the artists there, many of whom had worked together for five years or more, spurred more to follow suit.

The chair of the Fayetteville Art Alliance Board of Directors, Sharon Killian, herself an artist, said the removal was temporary and that the work needed to be shown in a different location and with a warning preparing viewers for what they would see. The Fayetteville Underground, which is operated by the nonprofit Art Alliance, has shown nudity in the past and will continue to do so.

What: Fayetteville Underground
When: 10 a.m.-2 p.m. and 4-8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays and noon-5 p.m. Sundays; special First Thursday sale from 5-8 p.m. Dec. 1
Where: 101 W. Mountain St., Fayetteville
Information: 479-439-8641 or

“It needed appropriate exhibition space and signage. That’s it,” Killian reiterated on Wednesday on the eve of the Dec. 1 edition of First Thursday, taking place at the gallery from 5-8 p.m. The First Thursday event will be under the direction of new gallery manager Joelle Storet, who inherited the position after gallery manager Jeanne Parham was relieved of her duties following the incident. Storet, a Europe-born, Fayetteville-based artist known for her colorful murals in the downtown area, got right to work. The worst thing an art gallery can have is empty walls, she said.

She brought together several artists working in the community, many of them friends, and many others who had contacted the Fayetteville Underground in the past requesting a show but had yet to be placed on the walls. Several other “new” Fayetteville Underground artists are those who have exhibited there in the past or chose not to leave.

There were other problems at work in the Underground, Storet said, and she hopes to address those soon. She wants the gallery to continue its run as a community hub, and to continue to expand the notion of art. Soon to be included at the Underground will be works in metal, prints, video and poetry, to name a few examples.

“I want to elasticize the idea of the arts,” Storet said.

And she wants to make sure the gallery is including more diverse voices on its walls, specifically mentioning a potential collaboration for Black History Month and also reaching out to the Marshallese and Latino communities in the area. Killian said the gallery will not hesitate to show works that some might find controversial, and that policy didn’t change because of the recent situation.

What: Fenix Pop-Up Holiday Show
When: 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Dec. 9-18
Where: 208 N. Block Ave.
Information: or

Killian said the gallery’s attendance has shot up in the wake of the event Storet calls “the exodus.” The wave of new visitors is already making the Underground rethink its operating hours, and they will expand in December to accommodate the recent influx of visitors and the expected holiday traffic.

“I’m happy and hopeful,” Killian said. “There is an infusion of artists that need to be seen in this really fine gallery space. And we didn’t have to go anywhere to find them.”

And those who left could be considered again, Killian said.

“We don’t have animosity. We just told facts. We haven’t put a block on anyone,” she said. Such a reunion might have to wait until 2018, however. Killian said most of the programming for 2017 “is almost completely formed.”

But it’s also hard to imagine many of the recently departed Fayetteville Underground artists returning anytime soon, considering the new gallery they’ll have. A collection of 23 artists who left, all part of the Fenix, will host a pop-up show on from Dec. 9-18 at the former Beaver Electric Building on Block Avenue in Fayetteville. That temporary location will eventually yield to a more permanent home, Schmidt said. After meeting several times over coffee and drinks, the artists who had departed met more formally two weeks after the exodus to process the situation and regroup. The idea to start something new together was there almost immediately. Until open space – which comes at a premium price – is found in Fayetteville, Fenix will concentrate on pop-up shows. But much of the group’s future is still being planned, and many of the details, such as having a website, are still in progress. For now, the group is relying on Facebook and Instagram.

Schmidt, a photographer who first joined the Underground in 2009 before leaving in October, said Northwest Arkansas in general, and Fayetteville more specifically, can support another arts group.

“We could thrive as an organization. But we’re not planning on getting rich,” she said. Instead, offering art from practitioners already familiar to the community is the goal. Fenix hopes to host lectures and workshops when a more permanent space is found. Schmidt also said that while the current roster of Fenix only includes former Fayetteville Underground artists, they will expand the roster with unaffiliated artists after the dust settles.

“It’s done. It’s over. I’m just super pleased we were all able to stay together,” Schmidt said.

Even if it meant breaking apart first.