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Lake City: Small Town with a Huge Heart for Art

Libby Wiersema Libby Wiersema
Libby Wiersema lived in California and Alabama before settling in South Carolina 30 years ago, where she's covered the state's best culinary offerings and tells the stories behind the food.
More from "Libby Wiersema"
Learn about the life and legacy of Challenger astronaut Dr. Ron McNair, a Lake City native.

Lake City might not be Florence or Paris, but its growing significance as a cultural destination is remarkable just the same. A 2019 designation by Travel + Leisure as one of the best places to travel in May (alongside world-renowned destinations like London, Stockholm and Monaco) was a major indicator of the agricultural town’s ascension into a big-league hierarchy no one would have ever predicted just a few years ago.

Beans, tobacco and cotton once ruled Lake City’s economy, but a burgeoning arts scene has redefined nearly everything while still paying homage to the area’s agrarian roots. The establishment of the wildly popular, nationally renowned festival ArtFields has awakened this once-sleepy Southern town.

Not only does it come to vibrant life each spring for the arts event, but that undercurrent continues throughout the year as Lake City embraces its new reputation as an arts mecca. In fact, art is everywhere, so while attending ArtFields is a joy, there’s still plenty of it to experience any time of year —no festival required. You can find all the info you need for mapping out your artsy scavenger hunt here.

The colorful Geisel’s Garden was inspired by the work of Dr. Seuss.

Murals

Downtown Lake City is not big by any means, but it sure knows how to make good use of its spaces. Everywhere you turn, there are murals, art installations and galleries to remind you that art isn’t just an afterthought that takes the stage once a year. Begin your art walk by hunting for the nine murals that pepper the town.

Sauls Street is home to four, including “Infinite Flowers” by artist Lance Turner. Inspired by local plant life, the muralist coordinated with landscapers from Moore Botanical Gardens to create the brightly colored floral scene. On the same street, across from the town’s iconic open-air produce market The Fruit Stand, you’ll find “Wrapped Up,” a joint nod to Lake City’s agricultural roots by artists Andrew and Sarah Wilson.

On Acline Street, there are four more works to take in including the ArtFields mural by Jessica Diaz, Morgan Funkhouser, Olivia Cramer and Sam Ogden. It was inspired by the railway that runs through the heart of the city as well as dandelion seeds that symbolize growth and rejuvenation—key aspects that drive this small-town renaissance. Get all the info for your mural hunt here.

 

Public Art

Seven 3D art installations call Lake City home. This includes two works by world-renowned sculptor Alex Palkovich. One of them honors the memory of a local figure, the late Huey Cooper, a cheerful fellow known for sitting on the corner of Acline and Main Streets where he would let passersby rub his rabbit foot for a nickel. You can still find him there proffering his good luck charm for those who put a nickel in the slot of his cash box—all part of the lifelike sculpture. 

Next to the iconic Bean Market, the site of the nation’s largest green bean auction, is “Waiting in Silence II,” a sculpture by artist Greg Mueller that incorporates salvaged pieces from agricultural and architectural sources.

Another installation that uses recycled components is “Geisel’s Garden” by self-taught artist Matthew J. Leavell. His metal art is filled with whimsy as it celebrates the spirit of works by beloved children’s author Theodor Seuss Geisel, best-known as Dr. Seuss. You can spend time in this bright and breezy landscaped nook in Lake City Theatre Park, the former site of the Ritz theater that closed in the 1950s.

The ArtFields mural captures the essence of the town’s forward-moving direction.

Art Galleries

A trio of galleries invite artists and aficionados to escape the heat for a cool immersion in fine art. At Crossroads Gallery on Main Street, you can see winning works from previous years of ArtFields. Because the collection grows and rotates, even repeat visitors are likely in for a fresh experience.  

TRAX Visual Art Center, one of the largest galleries in South Carolina, is at the core of an exciting project that will transform Sauls Street into a European-style promenade filled with cafes, bars and retail shops. For now, this gallery oozes with interesting, year-round exhibits inside its 5,000 square feet of space consisting of two galleries and a sculpture garden. Its sister gallery on Henry Street, Jones Carter Gallery, offers state-of-the-art exhibitions as well. All three galleries are free and open to the public.

 

Art Experiences

Part of the art experience in Lake City involves hands-on public participation. At Olio Studios, explore your creativity through artistic expression. Individuals and groups are welcome to sign up for a class or workshop or attend open studio hours. Throw pottery, paint, try your hand at mixed media—at Olio, you are only limited by your imagination.

Arranging a tour at Moore Farms Botanical Gardens is also highly recommended. The lush landscapes, serene meadows and pine vistas are designed to inspire you to turn your own yard and garden into works of natural art. Take a class in landscape design to really get those gardening juices flowing. See the website to plan your visit.

Other outdoor inspiration can be had at the pollinator gardens appointing the town. Lake City is an official “Bee City” and the first South Carolina city to adopt the national program’s standards. You can find pollinator gardens at the Whitehead Infirmary, the outdoor courtyard at the town’s boutique hotel, The Inn at the Crossroads and in other plantscapes dotting the downtown area.

The spirit of Lake City fixture Huey Cooper lives on in this downtown sculpture by Alex Palkovich.

Of Historical Interest

The Lynches Lake Historical Society oversees a historic display inside Whitehead Infirmary. Items of interest offer history buffs a peek into the area’s storied past, from Francis Marion’s brigade to Native American artifacts and more. A research center offers a more immersive experience for learning about the region called the Pee Dee.

All visitors should spend some time at the Ronald E. McNair Life History Center, which pays tribute to one of Lake City’s most beloved native sons. The astronaut and scientist, who perished in the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster in 1986, is honored here with a tribute in art, words, pictures and artifacts. Follow his remarkable life from scientifically curious child to ambitious student challenged by racial confines to renowned physicist, pioneer and accomplished musician. The museum is poignantly positioned next to his final resting place.

Libby Wiersema
Libby Wiersema lived in California and Alabama before settling in South Carolina 30 years ago, where she's covered the state's best culinary offerings and tells the stories behind the food.