Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Artfields Revitalizes Lake City

             Until 2013, T.OD Johnson’s place on Saul Street was Lake City’s singular art gallery. His storefront window is a hodge- podge of cheap Asian cups and knick-knacks surrounded arts and crafts (portraits, Eskimo and Indian motifs, hanging mobiles of spiraling cardboard and collaged cereal boxes) that he’d accumulated after years of teaching art in schools.  “When I retired my wife wouldn’t let me bring it home.”  In six years he’d sold three pieces.  His son teaches karate in the front room.  Count him among the doubters that art could revitalize the town.
            Lake City, S.C. is tiny, with a population under 7,000.  On the two hour drive from Charleston highlights included vultures eating road kill and signs for “Dan’s Car Crushing”. “Artfields will be the premier art event in the Southeast,” Lake City native and millionaire businesswoman Darla Moore boldly predicted before last year’s premier event.  She aimed to revitalize the entire town through a unique combination of art competitions and celebrations over ten days.  Huge cash prizes totaling $100,000 for winning artists, funded by Moore herself, would attract the talent.  Crowds would come for free.  There were plenty of skeptics and doubters of course.  Who would have thought that there would be 45 minute waits for tables in the restaurant?  On a Tuesday!  Or a racially diverse crowd discussing paintings in the African American barber 
shop?  The shoe store’s sales went up 75%.  The mattress store even made some sales to arts patrons.  In fact, the economic impact of last year’s event was $5.4 million dollars.  Attendance exceeded 22,000.  Galleries were reclaimed from old warehouses, hotels broke ground, an inventive mini-movie theater was built from a shipping container, restaurants and shops rushed to open in time.  Artfields is “the best thing since the invention of grits,” said Lake City gift shop owner Sophia Powell as she wrapped another purchase.
             “Try to show us something we haven’t seen before.  Share new ways of thinking of the world and be so good at it that it’s impossible to ignore.”  This is advice to artists from Jim Arendt, last year’s $50,000 Top Prize Winner for his cut-denim piece “Jamie”. It catapulted his career.  “Since winning Artfields I’ve had a chance to share my art with people all over the world.”   He was among the over 770 artists who   registered from 11 Southeastern states.  The 400 works that were selected were displayed among 40 downtown venues, all within walking distance.  Many of the artists were present to discuss their work including John Whitman with his sculpted life-size wooden torso.  He lovingly explained how “she”, the sculpture, was created from a downed tree and sanded to accentuate the grain.  Austin Grace Smith stood beside her abstract painting and explained, “The movement of light across sky and water and how that affects color is the focus of my work.  It balances me. What moments balance you?” she asked me.  We spoke like old friends. “The reason I paint is to have these conversations about deep issues,” she said.
 In a beauty shop window another deep issue was depicted as Leanna Knapp displayed the 500 pound sculpture she’d spent a year creating from her unworn wedding gown and plaster.  Viewers were captivated by the poignancy of her story which was awarded the $25,000 Juried Second Place Prize.  Everyone is a judge at Artfields through a cellphone based voting system that determines the winner of the $25,000 People’s Choice Award and weighs the juried prizes too.  As the deadline for voting approached on the last day of the event, nearly everyone in town was punching their cellphones to get in on the action. 
            The interactive “Before I Die” wall turned everyone into an artist and elicited such inscriptions as, “Before I Die I will….stand under the Eiffel Tower…be loved by a good man…dance with the stars…”  The portrait contest drew a large audience as 24 artists were pitted against each other to create a portrait of a local farmer within one hour.  Four rounds ended with Joe Begnaud’s painting of Butch Rodgers winning the $1,000 first prize.  “This was the most athletic thing I’ve ever done,” said the artist.  “It feels like an endurance sport.  The idea of art as sport is funny.”           
            “Look around you.  See how our town is changing.  It’s buzzing with new life, replete with masterworks of artists,” a triumphant Moore asserted.  This year’s Artfields will include music, dancing, community art, food, workshops and contests throughout the ten days and $100,000 in prizes.   Perhaps best of all, almost everything is free to attend, no tickets necessary.  If you doubt that art can change the world, or at least a small town in South Carolina, come to Artfields.  You’ll become a believer too. 

If You Go:
Artfields will be held in Lake City, SC on April 25 to May 4, 2014.  For more information:

For more images, please see Artfields

Monday, March 3, 2014

Big Laughs in Myrtle Beach

      My parents raised me by example to not mind making a fool of myself which was a big asset on a recent trip to Myrtle Beach.  It was the off-season and the town’s garishness and crowds were dialed down.  My girlfriend and I were not entirely disappointed at not being able to chomp on turkey legs while watching jousting horsemen or hit a golf ball past dinosaurs at one of the dozens of miniature golf courses.  They were all closed.
            But because it was winter we could book an inexpensive 2-bedroom cabin complete with a little kitchen and a screened porch at the Myrtle Beach State Park without much notice.  Horsemen were galloping their picturesque steeds through the waves, a winter privilege. There was no need for the assigned fishing spots on the pier and the pompano and whiting were still biting. The park bills itself as “The Last Stand on the Grand Strand”. Its 312 acres are the only undeveloped maritime forest left in the area. We rode bikes in the park’s extensive nature trails and strolled along its undeveloped beach.
            While returning from a walk up the pier, our ears caught the piercing sound of a familiar but unexpected horn.  “That sounds like a shofar!” I said.  Previously I had only heard one during Jewish religious services. Following the sound, we came upon Steven Smith with a table full of different sizes of ram’s horns.  “You called the Jews?” I asked.  “Well here I am!”  He was practicing for his Shofar Ministry and explained that the pattern he was sounding meant “Wake Up!  Something major is underway.  Make yourselves ready!”  That was a good segue for our other Myrtle Beach experiences.
            We woke up our taste buds at Redi-et Ethiopian Cuisine.  The nearly empty dining room was simple and colorfully decorated.  The menu required some translation:  doro wat, ye beg wat, alicha, shire, atkilt… but the exotically spiced split peas, collards and chicken were all delicious.  When I asked the beautiful Ethiopian waitress for a fork she kindly acquiesced but the injera, a flatbread, proved to be a better way to scoop up the morsels and eat with our hands. 

            You can’t go to Myrtle Beach and not do something cheesy.  It’s a rule. Rich and Beth Wild’s “Wild for Hypnosis Comedy Show” sells out throughout the tourist season but the winter audience was much smaller.  We sat next to a young woman with a “Bite Me” t-shirt and waited with expectation. “With hypnotism, we go into the mind to find what’s in there” Rich began.  He used to be a cow foot doctor but began his two-year study to become a hypnotist over 18 years ago and has been performing ever since.  “It’s kind of a truth serum” he explained. I didn’t need much encouragement to volunteer with about a dozen others and submit to Rich’s power of suggestion.  Over the next hour or so I was convinced that a puppy had licked my face then messed in my lap, that I’d milked a miniature and then a giant cow; I danced enthusiastically, got extremely hot and then freezing cold, and held my nose when Beth sang because we’d been told she stank.  When Rich commanded “Sleep!” in between each bit, the young woman next to me collapsed into my lap.  One woman catapulted out of her chair and sprawled onto the floor, still sleeping.  A skimpily dressed teenage girl belted out “I Kissed a Girl” complete with choreography. Then Rich planted a post hypnotic suggestion that every time we heard a particular song in the future we were to jump out of our seats, slap our butts and yell, “Who’s your daddy?”  It was a mysterious experience.  “The biggest thing is to see smiles on the people’s faces and know I did it” Beth said.         
      Our spirits woke up again at the rollicking House of Blues Gospel Brunch. Fortified with our make-your-own Bloody Marys, we heartily sang with the grooving house band “I’ve Got a Feelin’ Everything’s Gonna Be Alright”.  We   so believed it.  Even without rock ‘n roll shows or the abundant Sunday brunch it’s worth a visit here because of the 55,000 square feet of art that encrusts every surface.  Isaac Tigrett built all 13 of the House of Blues venues before selling to Live Nation.  His collection of outsider art rivals museums and includes Al Capone’s bar and a “God Wall” made by Andrew Wood that covers the ceiling with plaster casts of dozens of Blues legends.  Much of the building’s materials and art are reclaimed and found objects, like the bedazzled shoes that encircle the entry.  “Praise the Lord and pass the biscuits” is a good start to Sundays in Myrtle Beach
        We’d received religious messages, eaten exotic food and made complete fools of ourselves, all within a couple hour drive.  And so….WHO’S YOUR DADDY?...hey what made me do that??

If You go:
Myrtle Beach State
Redi-et Ethiopian Cuisine:      
Wild for Hypnosis Comedy Show :
House of Blues: