It can be easy to miss Memphis’s first, and currently only, Free Little Art Gallery & Free Little Zine Library (FLAG and FLZL, respectively). From a distance, the FLAG could be mistaken for a Little Free Library – the small houses that encourage people to take and leave books. But as you walk past the front yard gallery on Palisades Street in the Joffre neighborhood, you might do a double take. Instead of being crammed with books, tiny easels with miniature art are visible through the glass window. A small Tonka figure sits on the bench viewing the scaled-down art. At night, the gallery glows from a solar powered light installed on the ceiling.
Inspired by an article about a FLAG in Seattle, Laura McArtor, a website designer in addition to free gallery curator, decided to host a similar project in her front yard. She applied for the April 2021 round of the Urban Arts Commission’s Bridging the Distance program, an open call for small-scale community-focused art projects. Her proposal focused on her belief that art creates joy and the creative placemaking provided by a front yard gallery would provide a space for neighbors to gather even as pandemic restrictions continue lifting.
Similar in concept to a Little Free Library, visitors are encouraged to leave a piece of art, take art, or simply enjoy the rotating exhibit. Since opening in August 2021, about 80 pieces have moved in and out of the gallery. The works have included painted rocks and walnuts, handmade brooches, small watercolors, acrylic paintings, embroidery, handmade potholders, and a few zines. For Halloween, visitors could pick up a cat cutout, which they were encouraged to make spooky and bring back. In November, dinosaurs took over as gallery patrons in honor of Dinovemeber. A pink Christmas tree adorned the gallery in December, and visitors were asked to take a tree cutout and return an artistic ornament.
The FLAG is a family effort. McArtor and her daughter are partners in the project. The two built the popsicle easels together, and her daughter curated a show of art her Brownie troop created. Her brother in Michigan constructed the gallery out of repurposed bookshelves and built the bench for tiny patrons; her mother submits painted rocks.
It’s also a community endeavor. A neighbor McArtor met on NextDoor sank and painted the post. Additionally, she asks visitors to take pictures and tag @memflag to create a digital record of the circulating art.
When asked what has surprised her about having a gallery in her front yard, McArtor replied, “The level of talent in our little area. Joffre isn’t big, and we’ve gotten real art. I’m sure there’s more out there.” One memorable piece was a flower painted canvas with Tom Petty’s lyrics, “You belong among the wildflowers,” which moved from the gallery to her personal collection.
McArtor believes, “We should all be art collectors, art admirers, and artists. And now we can – one little free piece at a time.” She hopes that someday there will be a network of FLAGs throughout the city to showcase Memphians’ creativity. Until then, take a stroll down Palisades and add, take, or admire the small-scale art for yourself.
Caroline Mitchell Carrico is a native Memphian and the Manager of Programs and Associate Editor at StoryBoard Memphis. She enjoys researching the city’s past and pulling it into the present. When she isn’t reading and writing, she can often be found cheering on her kids’ soccer teams.