LAKE CITY — Artist Fleetwood Covington spent his formative years in Lake City, a town he remembers as a sleepy little Norman Rockwell outpost where a kid could meander down to the Main Street drugstore for a double-scoop chocolate ice cream cone and a cherry Coke.
There were hot summers pulling tobacco on his grandparents’ farm and plenty of lazy days to wander because “everybody knew everybody.”
But the rural Florence County community, once known for its bustling green bean and tobacco markets and as the birthplace of the late Challenger astronaut Ronald E. McNair, fell on hard economic times, its main street emptying of the familiar mom-and-establishments that Covington, 54, and others of a certain age recall.
“It was incremental,” said Darla Moore, the banking wizard who is among the most recognizable, and certainly the richest, of Lake City residents. “It was almost like a step down, then boom, step down, then boom.”
Moore is determined that her “resilient town” will be known for more than its storied agricultural past.
So from now until April 28, Lake City is offering up a movable, meandering downtown feast: A huge juried art show called ArtFields that features hundreds of museum-quality paintings, sculptures, pottery, photography and two-and-three-dimensional art created by 400 Southeastern artists.
Moore, whose multimillion-dollar gifts to the University of South Carolina and Clemson University have helped transform higher education in South Carolina, has put her considerable influence behind the development of ArtFields. But she insists it is a collaboration that extends throughout the community, from her own nonprofit Lake City Partnership Council and Lake City Community Foundation to local government and the chamber of commerce.
She hopes ArtFields will drive economic growth and place her Pee Dee town on the artistic map, the way the much-larger ArtPrize festival did for Grand Rapids, Mich.
As she roamed around in pink and blue curlers before Friday’s opening ceremony, she greeted the first smattering of visitors and marveled at the quality of the art.
ArtFields has been “a very big undertaking,” she said later in the day, from evaluating the artwork to figuring out trash collection and police presence. “If we hadn’t had the financial underpinnings of the people here, we couldn’t have done it.”
Origami and octopuses
About 800 artists applied to be considered for the show, lured by a $50,000 first prize and two additional prizes of $25,000, including a “people’s choice” that will be voted on by visitors who register at the festival’s main hub.
The 400 pieces selected are placed in 40 venues around town, inside Joe’s Barber Shop, Lake City Mattress Outlet and the old Ragsdale tobacco market, now transformed into the Ragsdale Old Building, or ROB, the hub of ArtFields.
An airy installation of origami cranes by North Carolina artist Jacqueline Dunford sits inside the doors of La Bamba family Mexican restaurant on Main Street.
“Octopus Landscape” by Columbia artist Thomas Crouch hangs at Beach Cruisers motorcycle and ATV shop, where manager Kralick “Kip” Cooper selected paintings and sculptures with a ocean theme.
A tapestry, “The Kids – Or are They?” of acrylic, fabric, mixed media, photo transfer and wood by Charleston’s Gwylene Gallimard and Jean-Marie Mauclet, (under the artistic name JEMAGWGA), hangs at the ROB, the largest venue.
On Friday, Charleston artist Karl Beckwith Smith and his assistant Clifton Brizer were still in the midst of constructing Bookzilla II, a colorful 14-foot circular tower of some 5,000 recycled textbooks that rises near the Citizens Bank.
Business owners got to choose the pieces of art that would appear in their shops.
There also will be concerts on the town’s green and at the Bean Market museum during the festival, art talks, and field trips for local schoolchildren called ArtFields Jr. A chalkboard is set up on a side street so that residents can share their thoughts on a “Before I die” wall.
“Anything that can breathe life into Lake City, I’m for it,” said Covington, a Wilmington, N.C., artist whose oil and carbon painting on tin of the musician John Lee Hooker is displayed inside Buddy’s Music. “This contest, with a first place of 50 grand, you are going to have a lot of professional artists crawling out of the woodwork to take a shot at that.”
Moore has infused private capital into the city of 7,000. She has built community coalitions that are aiding restoration of the physical structures and, she believes, strengthening the social fabric of the community.
Moore’s handprint can be seen all over town, from a Palmetto-lined brick alleyway on Main Street where a burned building once stood to the restored Bean Market and Jones & Carter’s feed and seed store that anchor community activities.
Those architecturally significant buildings “are truly serving as foundations for our growing economic vitality in Lake City,” she told a crowd at the ArtFields opening ceremony Friday. “And I just wish, this is my deepest, deepest wish, that the former governor Sanford and our present governor, who both made fun of us when we asked if the state could cover a small portion of the cost of the bean market, could see the economic successes we are enjoying because we do have the bean market.”
“You all remember they made fun of us, don’t you?” she said to laughter. “I just love that we are going to send them pictures and all the newspaper clippings off of this. Every community cannot have a Boeing facility. But every community deserves the respect and assistance of its governor when trying to create jobs and opportunity for its citizens.”
Embracing the future
Lake City has had its grim moments in history.
In February 1898, in an incident that made national news, the newly appointed African-American postmaster, Frazier Baker and his infant daughter Julia were gunned down after a white mob set fire to his home and post office and rousted the sleeping family from their beds. Baker’s wife, Lavinia, who was holding the baby, and five other children suffered injuries as they attempted to escape the flames.
Fifty years later, the Rev. Joseph DeLaine, a black A.M.E. church minister who had moved from Clarendon County and organized parents to petition for an end to segregated schools, also was subjected to a reign of terror. His church, St. James A.M.E., was burned to the ground. Days later, shots were fired into his home. He grabbed a gun and shot back, then fled the state.
Lake City has moved past those darker moments and has particularly embraced native African-American son McNair, a gifted physicist who died in the 1986 Challenger space shuttle explosion. McNair is remembered for refusing to leave the segregated Lake City public library in 1959 until he was allowed to take out books.
The Ronald E. McNair Life History Center, which details his life story, will display seven pieces of ArtFields art. One is “School Days 1949” a three-dimensional wood and paper piece by Hartsville artist Jean Grosser which recalls the segregated schools era.
Lake City Mayor Lovith Anderson said Moore tries to be sensitive to a community that is racially diverse and has suffered its share of economic depression.
“When you look at building infrastructure for a city, most people think of water and sewer and pipes, but you have to have a social structure as well,” Anderson said.
Anderson said Moore’s millions do not hamper a friendship that goes back to the Lake City High School class of 1971, when the two were part of the first integrated graduating class.
“We don’t have to beat around the bush or go through these rituals,” Anderson said. “We can be very candid with each other, and I love that.”
Moore has had her share of skeptics who mistrust her motives and her ideas for remaking a hometown that she obviously loves.
“When they first started, I was one of the naysayers,” said Phillip Young, who jammed Friday with Penny Hall and Buddy’s Music owner Mark DeFields as visitors began to trickle in. “She crushed the stereotype of rich people who get theirs and then run off.”
DeFields, who still works his day job with the railroad while he and his wife establish the music shop, said the town is getting a new vibe, “a little feel to it,” that signals change is in the air.
There were a few pointed jokes among the locals, said a chuckling Larry Hawkins, the owner of Lake City Mattress Outlet, like “were we going to have to rename the town Mooresville or something like that.”
But here he is, showcasing, among his six pieces, a digital photo collage by local artist Snow Donmoyer and a bronze figure by Townsend Holt of nearby Florence. Hawkins liked the idea of selecting South Carolina artists to display. He is awaiting a new boutique hotel planned across the street.
Joe McGee, owner of Joe’s Barber Shop, said the eight pieces he selected have renewed his long-ago interest in art. “This might bring me out of retirement,” he said.
Moore loves hearing those sentiments and doesn’t seem to worry about those who might not agree with her moves or motives.
“When you are an agent of change you have to be prepared for the pushback from people who are comfortable with the way things are,” Moore said.
Artists, including 45 or so from Columbia, are embracing the Lake City concept with vigor.
Kirkland Smith, whose portrait of Apple founder Steve Jobs, an assemblage made from Apple computer parts, hangs at Fairview Framers, said she is thrilled with the idea that a city – even one as small as Lake City – is embracing art.
“What I love, at least for those 10 days, is that people are going to be talking art,” Smith said. “I think this has opened a great conversation.”
Smith also is optimistic about its impact on Lake City, which she said “could end up being the town to live in, in South Carolina.”
That kind of talk is music to Darla Moore’s ears.
“This is what Lake City has always been to me, a town of great potential that is determined to grow,” she said Friday. “Whether it is the crops that we contributed that drove agricultural production in the 20th century or the creative expression we cultivate today, Lake City has always been about cultivation, about growth.”