Light up the Night

Crystal Bridges Museum of Art's North Forest Lights gives a safe way to experience art

February. It's a month of love but it's also one of the coldest months of the year. After January resolutions wear off and March's promises of spring seem so far away, February is the perfect month to pack up for a short road trip. Destination? Bentonville, Arkansas. 

Bentonville is a short three-hour drive south of Kansas City on Interstate 49. Once there, visitors will find a plethora of activities, most of them safe even with pandemic precautions. The community is known for its vibrant mountain biking community, with bike shops readily available and the hills of the Ozarks calling the daring and nimble on two wheels. 

Alas, I'm neither nimble nor daring so Bentonville drew my attention for other, more intellectual reasons--the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. Founded in 2005 by arts patron and philanthropist Alice Walton, Crystal Bridges uniquely blends art formed by man's hands with the creation in which it sits. 

The building, designed by Moshe Safdie, (who coincidentally designed Kansas City's own Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts), allows natural light to play a character in the art it holds. The collection is expansive, featuring works by American artists dating back to the Colonial era all the way to modern art. In its galleries, you'll find works by Normal Rockwell, Georgia O'Keefe, Ansel Adams, and Andy Warhol, with well-curated traveling exhibits to draw you back for more. 

But the physical building that houses Crystal Bridges is only half of the equation. Nestled on 120 acres of parkland is a sculpture walk, that, from September to April, the North Forest Lights Exhibition has lived.  

The North Forest Lights is now in its second season at Crystal Bridges. Created and produced by Moment Factory, the company behind a projected nativity scene exhibition on the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain and luminary walks in Japan and Singapore, the production company uses the North Forest and its permanent collection of art as a backdrop for five light-and-sound installations. 

Walking along the paved trail through the park, visitors are ensconced in sound with subtle lighting variations intensifying until they come upon their first installation, the Crystal Grove. LED light strips glow in sequence, seemingly sighing with the breeze. 

One of my favorite pieces was the Hearth, a bonfire-inspired sculpture that glowed with warm tones and smoke. Viewers feel as though they are staring directly into the beating heart of the forest as a four-to-five minute soundscape plays around them. 

The Memory of Water also impresses with undulating laser lights mimicking a stream as viewers stand on a bridge overlooking a dark abyss. When blue lights illuminate the dry creek bed below, it's mesmerizing to watch. 

The installations of the North Forest Lights are only one section of the walk. Patrons will also be able to view permanent installations by Dale Chihuly, Buckminster Fuller, and Brian Tolle, all with the added element of artificial light. Seeing these works illuminated accentuates shape and challenges the perspective of color outside of daylight hours. 

As an outdoor exhibit, the North Forest Lights provide a perfect opportunity for safe viewing with timed entrances, social distancing, and masks required. Paths are clearly marked, with docents for guidance, and all paths are handicapped accessible. For a break, you can grab a hot beverage and lounge by the fire or order ahead of time and reserve one of the Snow Globes to enjoy the view from the comfort of a warm, translucent igloo. 

Once you've experienced Crystal Bridges, head downtown to experience the charm of small-town Bentonville. Although Bentonville has grown significantly over the years, the square retains the same sense of Americana that existed when Sam Walton started his empire. 

In fact, you can visit The Walmart Museum right there on the square. The Walmart Museum goes back to the early years of Walmart through artifacts and exhibits. If you want a taste of the historical Walmart, stop into the streetside soda shop window for a scoop of ice cream or a phosphate. Tickets to the museum are currently timed and available at WalmartMuseum.com

Once you've strolled the square and popped into a few of the locally-owned boutiques, bike shops, and gift shops, you'll have worked up an appetite. Luckily, downtown Bentonville is home to more than twenty eateries and coffee shops, such as the Onyx Coffee Lab, The Hive, or The Preacher's Son, which is housed in a converted church. 

When in Arkansas, you have to respect the razorback, so James Beard Award-nominated Tusk and Trotter is a sure stop. This bastion of all things pork offers nose to tail cuisine. Start with a bowl of freshly fried pork skins flavored with garlic and shaved parmesan cheese.

For those with a big appetite, dive into the Hogzilla sandwich. This ground pork burger is topped with house bacon, swiss cheese, housemade bacon jam, and horseradish remoulade. With a side of hand-cut french fries and a local beer from one of the many neighboring breweries, you'll have just enough energy for a walk on one of the trails leading away from the square to Crystal Bridges or the nearby children's museum, the Amazeum. 

For just a short jaunt from the city, Bentonville offers a richly diverse experience--art, sport, and dining all in one picturesque setting. With plenty of opportunities to stretch your legs, even in the midst of a pandemic, it's time to head south. 

Admission to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art is free but timed tickets must be reserved in advance. The North Forest Lights exhibit runs on the weekends through April 4. Tickets are $22 for nonmembers or $15 for members. Children 7-18 are $10 for nonmembers or $7 for members. Children 6 and younger are free. For more information or to purchase timed tickets, visit CrystalBridges.org.

Not to Miss: 

The Momentary

Crystal Bridges Museum of Art has expanded! The Momentary is a home for traveling exhibits, culinary arts, and performing arts. Just off the square, it offers a place for art to evolve and grow. 

Old Spanish Treasure Cave

Capture the imagination with a guided tour through an Ozark mystery, the Old Spanish Treasure Cave. The cavern is said to hold hidden treasure buried by Spanish conquistadors. It’s still down there. . . will you be the one to find it? 

Museum of Native American History

Look into the wisdom and history of the First Americans at this 10,000 piece strong collection of Native American artifacts. Admission is free. 

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