LAKE CITY — An old South Carolina tobacco town working to reinvent itself as a cultural destination on Friday welcomed visitors to a 10-day arts festival that has drawn contributors from across the Southeast and is offering $100,000 in prizes.
ArtFields, featuring 400 pieces of art in both public venues and stores throughout Lake City’s quaint business district, is the latest step in efforts to revitalize the town of 6,700 about midway between Columbia and Myrtle Beach. The festival’s name conjures both the art and the area’s fertile fields.
Lake City is home of financier Darla Moore, who has donated millions to universities in South Carolina and is one of only two women members of the Augusta National Golf Club.
She worked with foundations to restore the 1930s-era bean market building – a market that was once one of the largest in the world – into a community center after former Gov. Mark Sanford called the project pork in a proposed state budget.
The market building, other nearby renovated buildings and a green near them are the focus of a number of Artfields events continuing through April 28.
Moore said the idea for the festival came from a similar event in Grand Rapids, Mich.
“We put a team together and sat down and said ‘Why don’t we try to do this?’ We said ‘OK, the worst that happens is it doesn’t work but we will certainly have a good time making it work,”’ she said in a Thursday interview on Thursday.
ArtField director Karen Fowler has been working on the event since January of last year and hoped as many as 30,000 people would be drawn to Lake City.
In creating ArtFields, organizers wanted to open it to artists from around the Southeast – a group Fowler says is not really celebrated – and make sure the town’s business people were invested in the event.
“We liked the idea of using the businesses as the venues. If we revitalize, we have to engage our community,” she said. To sell merchants on allowing paintings on their walls and sculpture in open spaces “we had to knock on doors and then knock again.”
There was skepticism in the depressed town, but merchants came around. The art work is being displayed in 40 downtown businesses and other venues. After the entries for the show were picked, they got to select which ones they would display in their businesses.
“ArtFields should bring attention to our town. It should put us on the map. It should give us exposure throughout the Southeast and hopefully further,” said Todd Creel, who for the next 10 days has a design on the floor of his drugstore made out of wood chips from tropical trees.
Organizers also wanted to get patrons involved. Visitors can vote for their favorite w
orks. The winner gets a $25,000 prize and the public votes will also be factored into judges’ decisions for the top prize of $50,000.
Visitors will also be able to help create a large public mural and artists will be on hand by their work at various times to talk to them. There will also be lectures and formal talks with artists, as well as en plein air painting, screen printing and bookbinding workshops.
There’s a “Before I Die” Wall, allowing visitors to write their hopes and dreams on a wall. A 40-foot steel shipping container called the “Mini Cini” is outfitted with 33 seats and a screen for art documentaries and short films. A concert stage will feature regional musicians.
Moore said Lake City has had to overcome what a lot of small towns charting a new course will have to deal with.
“There’s a lack of faith. We had to deal with the thought that this is Lake City and we can’t do that. Most people will fold when you get that kind of pushback. But in our case, we didn’t let that get in our way,” she said.