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First Friday at 20: Festival has helped transform downtown Las Vegas

Updated October 5, 2022 - 10:47 am

He looks indivisible from his surroundings, his bright orange baseball hat popping in unison with the colors all around him, his T-shirt featuring the Morton Salt girl with arm raised in protest, a familiar depiction turned on its head, fist clenched.

This is what Izaac Zevalking does, repurpose iconic images and logos — Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, Land O’Lakes, Pepsi, to name a few — and transform them into something that makes you question both what you’re seeing and the world around you.

As reggae music blares in the background, Zevalking holds court at Recycled Propaganda, his downtown arts gallery flush with his creations.

It’s a Thursday, and he’s talking about First Friday.

If it weren’t for the monthly art festival, which turns 20 this week, he might not be here.

“It’s very personal for me,” Zevalking explains. “I’ve done 10 years, almost — in March, it will be 10 years — without missing a First Friday. It’s more than a festival; it’s like a rhythm to my creativity.

“It gives me a regularity just to make new art, produce new stuff because people are coming down to see it,” he continues. “The trajectory of my career is very linked with First Friday and the development of the entire area.”

Positioned near the corner of Main Street and Charleston Avenue, Recycled Propaganda is nestled in the now-thriving downtown Arts District.

As First Friday celebrates its 20th anniversary, Zevalking — this month’s featured artist — embodies the impact that the festival has had in helping turn this once largely barren area into a vibrant one.

“I think it definitely made people feel comfortable down here that didn’t feel comfortable — especially 10-20 years ago,” he says. “The way I look at it, First Friday is like the aspiration of the neighborhood. Ten years ago, that was very limited. Now, if you walk around on First Friday, there’s stuff happening everywhere. It’s kind of gone gangbusters.”

Inauspicious origins

It’s like a ghost town down here.

Corey Fagan remembers thinking as much when she first paid a visit to the First Friday grounds 11 years ago, a few days before that month’s fest.

A veteran of the Vegas event industry, Fagan was initially recruited to bring a Western element to First Friday during the National Finals Rodeo.

And then she went to the fest.

“It was magical,” Fagan says, “just to see all these people come together and see all of these artists.

“I remember it was like this loud voice,” she recalls of an inner monologue at the time. “It was like, ‘I don’t know what’s happening here, but I know I want to be a part of it. I don’t know what I’m going to do. But I know I’m going to do something.’”

After starting out as a volunteer for the nonprofit First Friday Foundation, Fagan has since become its executive director.

First Friday was founded by Cindy Funkhouser, owner of vintage shop The Funk House, and a pair of associates to help bring foot traffic to the area and hopefully support downtown businesses.

During their first event in 2002, 14 people attended, Fagan estimates.

“Now, close to 20,000 people are out at the events each and every month,” Fagan notes. “We service about 165 artists. We try to erect two to three stages during the event, depending on the budget, and just really support the community to have an inclusive space to gather, but also support these artists to have a place to share their creativity.”

For Vegas artists like Brian Gibson, who’s participated in First Friday, this can be a valuable outlet for gaining exposure.

“First Friday kind of gives everyone the platform for hundreds of people — thousands of people, really — to just walk by and possibly make a connection,” Gibson says, “because not often do you get people just wandering around, looking for art. It’s not every day — it’s First Friday.

“Preview Thursday is also a really good time to meet collectors and for collectors to see the artists actually installing the works. It’s really intimate,” he continues. “First Friday might be this big, open, public thing — and they’re adding food trucks and just becoming a little bit commercial — but at the same time, they’re really, really driving more and more people to just meet each other.”

An enduring impact

To hear Zevalking tell it, First Friday’s true impact can be felt when it’s over.

“The biggest change in my mind is the other 30 days in the neighborhood,” he says. “First Friday was very much an island in an otherwise deprived neighborhood that opened the door for investment and gentrification.

“You come the Saturday after First Friday 10 years ago, and there ain’t a whole lot to do,” he adds. “So, I think the truest testament to the success of First Friday is coming on the first Saturday and seeing that (stuff’s) open and selling and people are here.”

A British expat with a background in graphic design, Zevalking had his first-ever art show on a wall at the Arts Factory during First Friday in March 2013.

After gradually going from part-time artist to full-time creator, he opened Recycled Propaganda four years ago.

“I wasn’t in the market for this spot,” he recalls, “but the landlord actually approached me and said, ‘Hey, are you interested in the Arts District?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, of course. I’m very familiar and comfortable down there because of First Friday.’”

First Friday’s size and scope have ebbed and flowed over the years.

After Tony Hsieh purchased the fest in 2011, it grew to encompass five blocks downtown.

First Friday now spans one block down Charleston Avenue, though Fagan can imagine a day when it extends all the way down First Street to City Hall.

While First Friday’s footprint may have decreased, its community outreach has followed the opposite trajectory: The nonprofit has commissioned local artists to create murals for schools and women’s shelters. Its next program, Art You OK, which focuses on mental health, is set to take place in March.

“That’s one of the things that I’m most excited about for First Friday,” Fagan says. “It’s these ancillary programs that really create purpose for artists and for our community.”

For Zevalking, art is a crucial component of that community — and the same can be said of First Friday.

“I think if you’re paying attention to Vegas culture: Art, music are the future,” he contends. “Especially since COVID, we’ve seen this influx of culture.

“I think we’re about to transform this town because of that culture,” he continues, “and I think First Friday is really a linchpin in that development.”

Contact Jason Bracelin at jbracelin@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0476. Follow @jbracelin76 on Instagram.

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