lake city’s gift

Writer’s Journal, Tuesday, April 28 — The mission? Check out a town transforming itself. The destination? Lake City, a town first known as Graham’s Crossroads. To get there, I take a back road as soon and as far as I can, Highway 521. Therein lies a tale of men and soil and transition and transformation.

Once upon a time, many a cigarette shot out of the earth here. And then a shadow fell over this land that grew bright leaf. Reports, stats, and finger pointing arrived. Now, come autumn, much of the region sports a puffy white coat, and tobacco barns trade leaves for bolls as more Pee Dee farmers switch from tobacco to cotton. Tobacco’s decline led to the demise of many a barn and that spiral gives us winsomeness.

Crumbling bit by bit
Crumbling bit by bit

In old tobacco land beautiful detrituess charms the eye. Old farmhouses stand weary but prideful. Spacious fields stretch to lines of dark green woods. Along the edge of fields, barns—veterans of former glories, old warriors that they were—do time. Changing lifestyles imprisoned them right where they stand. Rusting roofs, exposed beams, curling tin, and collapsing outbuildings stand as monuments to hardworking hands that work no more. Surely the hands that sawed and hammered these buildings into life lie beneath the soil they drove tractors o’er. The lonely splendor manifest in rusted tin ’bacca barns leaning away from the winds of change bless the land with beautiful detritus ….

Around these parts people still farm tobacco, but its demise has forced many to find new ways to earn a living, and the little towns they depend on have had to reinvent themselves too. For certain, one has.

There was a time when Lake City was South Carolina’s leading producer of strawberries and even more noteworthy the bean capital of the world. My first stop in Lake City, in fact, would be at the Bean Market, a warehouse converted into a cultural and community center. Back in Lake City’s farming heyday it was the site of the world’s largest truck auction of green beans. For anyone who farmed beans, all roads in the South led to the Bean Market. Farmers flush with green beans and dreaming of green flocked to old Graham’s Crossroads. All aboard! Their beans headed north on the freight trains that rolled through Lake City.As the economy rose and dipped through the years, Lake City became a place you passed on the way to the beach. And then three years ago, “The South’s Most Engaging Art Festival and Competition”—ArtFields—made the roads into Lake City a whole lot busier. As in Bean Market days, all roads lead to Lake City come April-May. At the Bean Market instead of beans, you’ll find offices and creative space for the people who help make ArtFields happen. The third annual ArtFields began April 24 and ends May 2.

All it needs is you
All it needs is you

While the story of Lake City’s transformation through art is still being written, it is known wide and far. ArtFields seeks to fill Lake City with art and events and installations of art in public and private spaces. Artists and artisans give talks. It’s fun, festive, and informative. Walk the streets and look for the round, fluorescent orange stickers on local businesses. Inside you’ll find art. The entire town embraces art.

At the festival’s conclusion, the people’s choice and judges’ categories designate the winning artists. Artists find the $100,000 in prizes enticing to say the least, though the forum itself is compelling. People walk the streets from venue to venue. They can register at the event and vote for the art that most impresses. Nearly every aspect of Artfields is free, but there are a few events that require tickets.

Philanthropist and Lake City native Darla Moore grew up watching farmers employ creativity to sell their crops at market. A creative gardening project on her ancestral farm grew into an inspiration that resulted in Moore’s supporting “The South’s Most Engaging Art Festival and Competition.” She wanted to see creativity spread throughout Lake City and its communities. ArtFields resulted and other blessings are on the way. Changes are coming that will lead to educational and technical opportunities for students and enticements to young professionals. In true gardener style, Moore is planting the seeds for Lake City to grow into a place attractive to young, creative entrepreneurs. She refers to Lake City’s renaissance as the reinvention of a town, not a revitalization. She and a team of staff and local business people she assembled seek to draw on the culture of authenticity that has given towns like Athens, Georgia a style and essence impossible to overlook.

I’d say that so far it’s happening. Ray McBride, the executive director of the Community Museum Society, spent much of his day showing me around the festival. As compelling as the art is I enjoy reading the artists’ statements. It makes for intriguing reading. The art itself ranges from playful (see the artist portrayed as a large white rabbit) to serious and startling.

Sun Boxes Mach II
Sun Boxes Mach II

Last year’s overall winner, Craig Colorusso, won $50,000 for his “Sun Boxes Mach II,” an environmentally interactive piece that uses solar power to produce a rhythm that would take 3.12 months of continuous sunlight before the composition starts over again. “As far as I know, that’s impossible as there’s no place on the planet that has that long (uninterrupted) sunlight,” said Colorusso.

I stood in the center of his array and a soothing, mesmerizing sense of calm enveloped me. Colorusso, who is from Rogers, Arkansas, says no two people will ever hear the exact same piece as each hears the tones based on where they stand within the work. “All the tones are different lengths so as they are lining up. It’s like a giant polyrhythm,” said Colorusso.

Lots of color and character here. Not long after meeting Colorusso, we walked by Joe’s Barbershop on Main Street, and McBride related the tale of how Baby Face Nelson robbed $114,000 in September 1934 from the Lake City Bank, which once sat where Joe’s Barbershop is.

Baby Face Nelson visited here
Baby Face Nelson visited here

I headed out for a walking tour of as much art as I could see. Walking the town is in effect a museum tour. Art covers a wide range and it’s interesting to watch the people study the art. Good place to people watch and see how the town comes alive.

As a grand finale, McBride and I met later and he drove me out to tour Darla Moore’s stunning botanical garden. Having spent a lot of time on a farm myself it pleased me to see how an old heap of abandoned car, truck, and farm equipment formed a self-made sculpture. When you see that, the art, and the botanical garden, you get a holistic sense of the power of pure creativity … plants, painters, portraits, photographers and photographs, pointillism, potters and more. It’s all waiting on you. This year’s ArtFields will end Saturday so now is the time to plan to attend next year’s event, an experience that sprouted on a farm.

Part of Moore Botanical Garden
A part of Moore Botanical Garden

“A” for agriculture. “A” for art. Both enrich the spirit. In A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold wrote, “There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.” On the other hand there’s spiritual sustenance in seeing how a town and farming community invited art into its midst.

As for the old farmers lying in the ground, well, they love knowing that warehouses that held beans and ’bacca now harbor brushwork, bricolage, beauty, and bios. I imagine, too, that the old timers consider the beautiful detritus they left us to be their contribution to art. For each collapsing barn stands as a mixed media of nails, wood, and tin that inevitably will crumble into the field it once surveyed and become part of earth—that all-embracing museum in this Pee Dee region where transition and transformation above ground are the order of the day.

Images: All the photos were by the author, Tom Poland.

Tom Poland

Tom Poland, A Southern Writer – Tom Poland is the author of twelve books and more than 1,000 magazine features. A Southern writer, his work has appeared in magazines throughout the South. Tom grew up in Lincoln County, Georgia, where four wonderful English teachers gave him a love for language. People first came to know Tom’s work in South Carolina Wildlife magazine, where he wrote features and served as managing editor.Tom’s written over 1,000 columns and features and seven traditionally published books. Among his recent books are Classic Carolina Road Trips From Columbia, Georgialina, A Southland, As We Knew It, and his and Robert Clark’s latest volume of Reflections of South Carolina. Swamp Gravy, Georgia’s Official Folk Life Drama, staged his play, Solid Ground in 2011 and 2012.He writes a weekly column for newspapers and journals in Georgia and South Carolina about the South, its people, traditions, lifestyle, and changing culture and speaks often to groups across South Carolina and Georgia.Tom earned a BA in Journalism and a Masters in Media at the University of Georgia. He lives in Columbia, South Carolina where he writes about Georgialina—his name for eastern Georgia and South Carolina. Visit my website at Email me at [email protected]