Words by Ashley Locke
“When you grew up in Lake City, you couldn’t wait to get out,” resident Holly Shady of Lake City, South Carolina claims.
Lake City was a small, agrarian town in the heart of South Carolina. Businesses downtown were struggling, young people were moving away, and there wasn’t much to be excited about. The city was declining, but seven years ago, everything changed.
“There was a group of women, sitting around a coffee table, and they saw that Lake City was a dying town. They asked the question: What can we do to bring it back to life? And somebody said, ‘art’,” Holly reveals.
That was the idea - that they could bring Lake City back to life with art. So these women schemed. They talked and dreamed about bringing an art festival to their less-than-7,000-person town.
“At first, it sounded crazy. Especially when art was not a thing that existed around here.” She goes on, “There was a lot of talking to the businesses downtown and trying to convince them to get on board to do this. Some people laughed in their faces and some people were really gung-ho about it.”
These women created ArtFields - a yearly art festival held in Lake City. Philanthropist and Lake City native Darla Moore led charge in creating the event, which is coordinated by a small team, and staffed by 200 local volunteers. Now, 7 years later, Lake City is completely different.
Holly Shady is the Fine Arts Manager for ArtFields. She reminisces on the change Lake City has seen since the creation of the festival.
“ArtFields was the start of a huge transformation. After that, more businesses started coming into town, more renovations started happening - it was definitely a domino effect.” Holly is reminded of what it was like watching this happen, “For me, going off to college and coming back and seeing this transformation - I’m really proud of it. And to be a part of that transformation is just unbelievable.”
Two weeks a year, Lake City transforms into a gallery with around 400 pieces of art, exhibiting artwork in professional gallery spaces, private shops, restaurants, and other local places. Over 20,000 people come to the event every year. The town nearly doubles in size. This year, ArtFields happened from April 26 to May 4 - free and open to the public.
Holly describes ArtFields as “a celebration of art”, and that is exactly what is represented throughout the festival. Every year artists submit work for up to $140,000 of prize money - the top prize being $50,000. Artists from twelve southern states are all welcome to participate and be celebrated during the festival. Visitors also come to celebrate and see great art for sometimes the first time.
“Because I did grow up here, art was never something that was easily accessible to me.” Holly continues, “Giving people this amount of art - in this kind of environment - is exposing everyone and waking them up to a different world of culture and creativity.”
ArtFields has awarded nearly $700,000 in prize money and helped launch the careers of multiple artists. But what draws people to this festival isn’t just the prize money, charm, and creativity - it’s the festival’s accessibility.
Holly talks about this aspect of ArtFields, “Art is so intimidating and you wouldn’t believe how many people, even now with the galleries we have, are intimidated to come in because they think it’s not for them. We’re trying to say that art is for everyone.”
ArtFields is giving people the opportunity to see things they wouldn’t normally see in a small town. Holly inspires people to think about what’s stopping them from being open to art, “Don’t be afraid and say, ‘Oh. Arts not for me.’” She encourages the average-person to give it a try.
Seven years ago, local residents of Lake City were unsure of whether or not they were ready for an art festival. But now, every year, they are waiting on it. By the time January rolls around, Holly says, “Everybody’s waiting. Everybody’s excited.”
Now that Lake City is flourishing, ArtFields isn’t the only thing the city has to offer.
On any given day, a Lake City visitor can admire artwork in the town’s two galleries, Jones-Carter and TRAX Visual Arts Center. Visitors can also see public art, murals, and sculptures throughout the town. People can enjoy food from local restaurants or even get a new outfit from a local boutique.
“We understand that art is not for everyone, so we try to cater to everyone. We have music. We have food. We have shopping. Lake City has something going on for everybody,” Holly adds.
Lake City’s businesses are booming, young professionals are moving in, and the town is growing in charm every day. Because of a group of women sitting around a coffee table, Lake City was brought back to life.
Holly looks back on the struggles they faced at the beginning of this journey, “For so many people that doubted us, we showed ‘em.”
If you find yourself in Lake City anytime soon, check out these galleries:
Jones-Carter Gallery: Jenny Fine, Suspending Disbelief
May 18th - Aug 3rd
Trax Visual Art Center: Jerry Siegel, Stompin' Grounds
May 18th - July 27th