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Small Town Mall: Rules of Engagement

How to deal with pushing the envelope in a “small town mall” – and life




Photography: Phil Chwalinski

AFTER LIVING AWAY from Arkansas for a decade and a half, in Florida and California, and then moving back to Arkansas, I had no street cred, even though I was born and raised here. “Where are you from?” and “Who’s your daddy?” (meaning: family) were the big questions I’ve been asked.

I’ve always known how to follow the rules, even in the most conservative religious environment, or the biggest public stage. Not everybody can or did. Some were invited to leave. I was mostly invited to return anytime, whether or not I would. My career was on a trajectory, for that reason and that I could do the job required and much more.

But I do like pushing the envelope, even if it gets me into hot water. And I do have a bit of a twisted sense of humor, not always appropriate in social situations. (Have you seen my altered doll pieces? Have you seen my artwork?)

Every once in a while, when I do a window display, it doesn’t go over well. Take for instance one that really broke the camel’s back: A gift shop downtown has a back corner with items of a wicked sense of humor, “R-rated” its called. The “F”-word is used profusely on towels, mugs, glasses and other such things. I work at this gift shop now, but when I worked at a fancy store next door year’s past, I loved the humor of those items and bought a wide selection, including a front door sign with “Welcome to Camp Quityourbitchin” on it.

Then I made the mistake of creating a window in said fancy store, in the front, on the street, without the owner’s permission, even though it was just up for a few minutes for pictures and then taken down. My other mistake was to post them on my Facebook page. It did not go over well.

I got a late-night phone message that my manager was driving to the store to see if that display was still up, and how disappointed she was in me. Oh, crap. I called her back and left a message that it was in fact down, and that I took the image off my Facebook page. But the damage was done. Oh, well, lesson learned.


My latest window at The Uptown Mall, in Hot Springs, Ark., celebrates the “stars and stripes” and, yet again, I decided to push the envelope. I used plastic tablecloths with stars and stripes to cover the walls, most of the window and the floor. The male mannequin even wears a star-covered suit with lots of red, white and blue accessories. The title of the window, “Uncle Ham: Super Hero” did not go over well with some veterans, and I was asked to change the title because it was making fun of “Uncle Sam.” Not wanting to offend any veteran, I agreed immediately and made the change to, “Be a Super Hero to Somebody.”

I did ask a friend, unbeknownst to me a veteran, and she said it was fine with her, so there’s that side, too. Veterans have enough to deal with and I don’t want to add to it. But I’m not done! Closer to July 4, his starry suit will be taken off to reveal a Superman costume.

Small Town Mall: Rules of Engagement

The reveal! Photography: Phil Chwalinski


Speaking of subtle, and not so subtle messages, my other window is finally complete in the former Victoria’s Secret storefront (see my last blog for details and images). It’s called “Gerber Daisy Babyland.” It took a while longer to find affordable props and clothing, but I did finally complete my vision. Of course, the irony of a baby display in a lingerie window should not be lost on you, and the other messages should be fairly clear as well.

There are six baby mannequins, each a different color, spanning the color wheel. I first wanted them to be all white, but couldn’t find them cheaply, or borrow them. I did find some baby dolls online that had a pink skin option and a brown skin option. The brown skin doll option had a better head shape and proportion, so I went with that. I spray painted one of them white and let it dry. Then I saw the option of using other cans of spray paint colors I already had: Red, orange, yellow, teal and orchid. It is June and Gay Pride Rainbows are everywhere you look, so I went with it.


Small Town Mall: Rules of Engagement


Next, after ditching the idea of borrowing six outfits from a new baby and toddler clothing store downtown, because I didn’t want to get fresh paint on them, I found some Gerber Baby onesies on sale online. Two sets, one with pastel colors and one with darker tones, for three boys and three girls. You decide who’s who.

Gerber is the perfect word to play on with Gerbera daisies, so I was developing the idea even more, but I had to find them. Luckily, I found white ones here, on sale, and enough to complete the vision. I spray painted them to match each baby and was ready for the install. But the dolls didn’t sit upright with their cloth bodies and I needed a framework to set them in or on. I thought about all the wire lampshades I’ve collected for my flea market booth, and that was the easy fix. I sat each baby inside a lampshade cage, attached the matching colored daisies and completed the install. The photographs of a baby doll’s face on the back wallpapered wall completed the window. (They are from my one man show “Lookin’ Good” from several years ago, of my altered dolls.) I needed a sign and an asterisk to the window, so I put a headless doll crawling under the green curtain wall sticking his butt out toward you, next to the sign. You can’t tell it’s headless, but I know. (By the way: Gerbera daisies technical name is “Transvaal Daisy” so maybe, now you know that reference too.)

Small Town Mall: Rules of Engagement



Update on my “Pink Lemonade Stand” window display from my previous blog: I set up a real live Pink Lemonade Stand (and worked it, too) at Emergent Arts during First Friday Gallery Walk for June Pride Month and their rainbow-themed art exhibit. My artwork is included in the show. I put in every lemon-flavored nibble I could find and made my famous Strawberry Lemonade including regular, sugar-free — and a “drunk” version with Deep Eddy Lemon Vodka. (And I made pink lemonade jello shots, as well, for the 21 and older crowd.) A good time was had by all walking into a real live Lemonade Experience. I’m trying to make that my retirement plan.

📷 Phil Chwalinski

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