Artistic Renaissance

Written By: 
Paul Grimshaw

Lake City, the home of ArtFields, is cultivating a future in art

In the heart of the Pee Dee sits Lake City, a community of less than 7,000. In many ways it’s typical of dozens of South Carolina’s small cities. It’s filled with history, friendly faces, small businesses, a few large manufacturers, and has had its share of ups and downs. Poverty and affluence coexist, and there’s evidence of both everywhere. But Lake City readily shares its hidden gems for those willing to seek them out, and in recent years the town has enjoyed an artistic renaissance, which has spilled over into daily life for many of its residents.

Some 62 miles west of Myrtle Beach and 25 miles south of Florence, Lake City is off the beaten path, not a place you accidentally stumble across. Interstate 95 and S.C. 378 have long since rerouted the heaviest traffic away from this once-important agricultural crossroads, and the city suffered. Though the deck is often not stacked in the favor of struggling small towns, Lake City has a trick up her sleeve.

While the city’s Native American and Colonial-era beginnings and the memorial to Challenger astronaut Ronald McNair attract a number of history buffs, it’s another group that is really making a mark. Thousands of hopeful artists over the past five years have been entering their individual works of art in hopes of winning some part of $120,000 in annual prize money offered at ArtFields. Held this year from April 21–29, ArtFields is the largest art competition and festival in the Southeast, drawing around 20,000 visitors.

From Agriculture to Art

Lake City, named for the once-popular small lakes north of town, grew as a crossroads when agronomics blossomed there in the 1800s. Uniquely situated between Camden, Charleston, Columbia, Florence, Georgetown and Conway, its importance to the region spawned slow but steady growth through the 1960s. The railroad, which first came in 1856, bisects Lake City, and trains still rumble through town every day. By the 1930s, the city was known as “The Bean Capital of the World,” and tobacco and strawberries shared the top honors for more than a half-century.

With a few exceptions, such as nearby McAll Farms, agriculture’s preeminence waned, though the city still hosts an annual Tobacco Festival each September. Downtown retail withered when the superstores and strip malls moved in on the outskirts of town. By the late 1960s, Lake City was forced to face a challenge known to many once-thriving downtowns—urban decay.

So What’s a City to Do?

The Carolina Academy private school, Florence-Darlington Technical College (Lake City campus), Nan-Ya Plastics Corporation and a few other large employers have helped keep Lake City’s population steady for decades. But real change came when internationally known Lake City hometown hero Darla Moore and her Texas-born husband, Richard Rainwater (now deceased), began to fund a variety of projects. Together these Wall Street investors, portfolio managers, distressed asset geniuses and billionaires-turned-philanthropists each amassed personal fortunes, both ranking among the wealthiest in the U.S.

Moore, a Lake City resident, had been regularly returning to her childhood home since leaving for the University of South Carolina in the early 1970s. She saw a need and an opportunity to give back to her community. Since her husband’s passing in 2015, Moore is now living mostly in Lake City, where five generations of Moores grew tobacco, soybeans and cotton. In 2002, she transformed a portion of the old family plantation grounds into Moore Botanical Garden. She created the garden as a “place for horticultural research and education, a gift for the ages,” and “as an enrichment to the lives of others.”

Around that same time, Moore funded the Lake City Creative Alliance, out of which ArtFields was born. Through her generosity (and shrewd business acumen), Lake City is enjoying a renaissance in downtown real estate and the arts, making it the envy of small towns everywhere. But she didn’t do it alone.

The ArtFields Impact

As similar towns across the state and across America struggle to reinvent themselves in an ever-changing modern world, Lake City is succeeding in slowly turning its once-blighted historic downtown into a shopping, dining and arts district, with the Creative Alliance as the anchor and ArtFields as an important partner.

“We’re in our fifth year of ArtFields,” beamed Carla Angus, Director of Community Outreach and a longtime staffer of the Creative Alliance. She is an energetic former educator, administrator and unapologetic champion of her hometown and of ArtFields. “This event, and other programs, have really changed Lake City for the better. “

ArtFields is the largest art competition, festival and exposition in the Southeast, with artists, professional and amateur, from 12 southeastern states, including 40 this year from the Grand Strand. But generous benefactors and foot traffic alone can’t fix a small town in trouble. It takes the right people, a shared vision and plenty of hard work.

ArtFields’ Project Director Taronda Barnes and a small paid staff plan events and answer countless emails and phone calls from hopeful artists and curious visitors. In the weeks prior to ArtFields this team directs the organized chaos. When not in the office/gallery on Main Street, they’re hanging art and working on countless projects all across the city and around the state. During ArtFields, some 250 dedicated volunteers are vital to the event’s success. The close quarters working environment and relationship they enjoy may be best described as “family.”

“Oh, we want to kill each other at times,” laughed Angus, “but we love each other.”

“Taronda and I have been here since before ArtFields had a name,” said Angus, who, along with the Alliance, was inspired by a festival and competition in Michigan. “We knew what we wanted to do, but had to take those ideas and make them work for our town.”

After developing a pilot festival program, which included substantial prize monies funded by Moore and corporate sponsors, the inaugural ArtFields’ huge success has lead to exponential growth. Live music, student-designed mini golf, an interactive public mural, food vendors and games for kids all help to give the festival its carnival-like appeal. But even with all that’s going on in the periphery, art is the clear focus, and with life-changing cash awards on the line, ArtFields attracts the best of the best.

Eye of the Beholder

The seven categories of art in the competition are: Digital Media, Photography, Drawing, Installation, Mixed Media, Painting and Sculpture. This year around 420 artists’ works were accepted from a field of 700.

Last year’s ArtFields first place $50,000 winner is Charles Clary, an assistant art professor at Coastal Carolina University (see article on page 62). He won for his Be Kind Rewind, featuring his signature hand-carved paper designs sculpted into a large number of actual old VHS videotapes. When asked about his win, he responded, “It was shocking to say the least. To receive that kind of accolade was really wonderful.” Clary and his new wife used some of the $50,000 prize money to splurge on a honeymoon to Scotland, with a few “extras,” he said. “It’s refreshing to see [Darla Moore] give back to her hometown, and to see a small community, away from any art hub, enjoy this kind of revitalization.”

“Any kind of art can win the grand prize,” said Angus. “Some people were surprised that Mr. Clary’s type of [modern art] would win, thinking only oil paintings are ‘art,’ but if you look at the past four grand prize winners, you’ll see all kinds of art.” Winners are chosen through a combination of people’s choice votes and selection by a juried panel of qualified art experts.

Around Town

With so much art to show, the ArtFields staff installs works on available walls in restaurants, hotels, banks, boutiques, the library, gift shops and almost any public space. The Bean Market, which was built in 1936 and recently underwent a $3 million restoration, is a perfect home for hundreds of works, as is a former tobacco warehouse, the 22,000-square-foot R.O.B. (Ragsdale Old Building). The state-of-the-art Smithsonian-qualified Jones-Carter Gallery, in another refurbished historical building, is the flagship venue for ArtFields.

Lake City guests often become reflective and are moved to tears when visiting the Dr. Ronald E. McNair Life History Center on Main Street. McNair was born and raised in Lake City, went on to M.I.T., received multiple doctorates and was fiercely brilliant and brave. The Challenger shuttle astronaut’s remains are entombed in a simple mausoleum with an eternal flame next to a bronze statue and memorial.

Across the street, the Whitehead Infirmary (1938) acts as an informal museum and houses the offices of a number of historians who chronicle the lives of the citizens of the region.

Moore Farms Botanical Garden (100 New Zion Road, Lake City) is a 16-year-old public/private garden, open to the public on select days throughout the year. Guided tours are available by appointment for eight or more ($10 per person). The garden also has 12 public events annually and is open for tours at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. each day during ArtFields. Quiet paths meander through sculpted gardens and around ponds on 55 acres of land. Educational events are held there year-round, and a Plein Air Day during ArtFields invites guests to set up their easels and paint. Visit www.moorefarmsbg.org.

Lake City Staycations

At less than an hour-and-a-half drive from the Grand Strand, the ArtFields event for many is a simple daytrip. It should be noted, however, that it takes several days to really see everything, and so some choose to include overnight stays. While you’re there, don’t miss breakfast of a boxful of take-home, homemade goodies from Baker’s Sweets Bistro & Bakery (129 E. Main St.).

While there are plenty of chain motels in and around Lake City, The Inn at the Crossroads (128 West Main St.) is the city’s centerpiece boutique hotel. The classically styled exterior of the two-year-old hotel looks right at home on Main Street and was designed to mimic the buildings that once stood there. It comes complete with a casual fine-dining restaurant, (Crossroads On Main), a cozy bar and an outdoor patio. With 57 modern guestrooms, The Inn fills up quickly during ArtFields, but is worth a visit any time of the year.

For those who prefer the peace and quiet of a country home, consider Olive’s Bed & Breakfast, less than 10 minutes from downtown. A friendly outdoor cat may greet you on the porch as the proprietor, Elaine Kirby, turns over the keys and guides you to one of the three comfortable guest rooms, each with a private, modern bathroom. Decorated with antiques from the family, the décor represents the home’s 100-year history. Breakfast at the large communal table varies, but often includes: sausage, egg & cheese casserole, spinach quiche, and buttermilk biscuits topped with homegrown fruit chutney. Scrambled organic eggs (culled from the nearby chicken coop) along with yogurt and plenty of coffee, milk, and juice, are all included with your stay. Visit www.olivesbedandbreakfast.com.

With so much to see, consider adding Lake City to your spring/summer trip list, especially during ArtFields. For more information visit: www.artfieldssc.org and www.lakecitysc.com.

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PHOTOGRAPHS BY DR. DONNA GOODMAN, XZAVIAR BOSTON AND FRED SALLY AND COURTESY OF ARTFIELDS