Can art transform a town? The idea smacks of naïvete, but after spending a day at ArtFields in Lake City, S.C., on Saturday, I can’t help but wonder.

The 10-day art festival, which lured about 400 regional artists with $100,000 in prize money, was made possible largely by a donation from Lake City native businesswoman Darla Moore. In addition to the remarkably democratic art competition, which allows attendees to vote for their favorites, bands have been playing in a green space downtown, artisans have been teaching workshops, and specially commissioned installation artists like Jonathan Brilliant have been giving talks on their work. During his talk on Saturday, Brilliant — who constructed a massive, wavy sculpture out of wooden coffee stirrer sticks inside a warehouse — was frank and engaging, fielding questions from art nerds, children, and people who were simply curious about what would possess a man to do such a thing.


The result of all those artists converging on Lake City was engrossing. My wife and I spent six-and-a-half hours touring the shops, museums, and restaurants of downtown Lake City, only to find out from other art fans at dinner that we had missed dozens of works along the way. If the festival gets any bigger next year, we’ll need to plan a two-day trip to see it all.

I won’t pretend to know what Lake City is like when there isn’t a world-class art competition in town, and I won’t even venture to say that the town needs changing. The place has its charms, and unlike at other art events, we didn’t meet a single art snob on the sidewalks all day. From the artists to the volunteers to the shopkeepers, everyone was hospitable and warm. If nothing else, ArtFields introduced us to a gem of a town that we probably would never have seen otherwise.

But I will say that we were impressed by Table 118, a brand-new restaurant on Main Street that opened on the first night of ArtFields. Not only were the food and service excellent, but we were treated to a seat with a view of Columbia artist Laura Spong’s abstract expressionist painting “Don’t Sell the Land.” And as we enjoyed pork chops and salmon on par with Charleston’s best, I was reminded of a conversation I had overheard in a furniture shop being used as an art space across the street.

“I want to know what you know about art,” a man said to the owner, grinning as he walked in the door.

“Not much,” the owner replied, “but I know it’s good for Lake City.”

Below are five pieces that earned my vote. Needless to say, photographs can’t do them justice. ArtFields continues through Sun. April 28, and admission is free. Go see it for yourself.


“Choice v. The Machine”

Oil on birch panel and found object assemblage

30″ x 40″

Hirona Matsuda (collaboration with Erik Johnson)

Charleston, S.C.

I’d seen several of Matsuda’s quirky assemblages in Charleston at the Michael Mitchell Gallery, but enlisting Johnson’s help for a photo-realistic painting of the objects was a playful twist.


“Untitled (Column)”

Dried layers of acrylic latex paint

6′ x 10.5″ x 12″

Katy Mixon

Orangeburg, S.C.

Remarkably, Mixon makes this pile of dried paint squares look like a geology textbook illustration of the earth’s layers, right down to the molten core. I sat down on the floor for a minute to take in this 6-foot-tall piece.


“The Calf Died Quick”

Oil on canvas

95″ x 80″

Sarah Haynes

Charleston, S.C.

This piece reminded me of the British painter Francis Bacon’s raw, vivid images of human bodies in pain — only in this case, it’s the body of an animal. This painting unsettled me.


“Truck in Field”

Fiber (quilt)

52″ x 93″

Emily Miller

Lenoir, N.C.

You see those pixels? Those are quilt squares. I have nothing but respect for an artist with this sort of patience. The result: A pastoral photo rendered in a digitized format on a traditionally pastoral medium.


“Post Season Depression”

Oil on panel

84″ x 72″

Jeffrey Hodges

Greenwood, Miss.

Speaking of patience, this massive piece by an athlete-turned-farmer-turned-artist is the sort of meticulous work that would drive an ordinary person insane. I kept zooming in and out, walking toward and away from the painting to get a sense of it. In person, it’s impossible to take in the entire painting at once. Instead, you end up staring at one element at a time — first at the man’s disturbing glare, then at the various trophy antlers, and then at the man again.