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

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