The South's Most Creative Small Towns

Stacey Van Berkel and (center) Lissa Gotwals
by Donovan Webster, Pableaux Johnson, J. Wes Yoder, Nic Brown, John Kessler and Ronald Coleman - April/May 2011

These ten small towns are bustling with big ideas and big fun

Best Arts & Design Town: Florence, Alabama

Some say it’s the river that makes it easy for a wide-minded individual to live in this town. Looking out along the bluffs to where the Tennessee’s water bends, it’s hard not to feel a sense of spaciousness, and of possibility. Maybe that’s why in 1818 an Italian surveyor showed up and, not without nostalgia, named the settlement for the birthplace of the Renaissance. He was onto something. Almost two hundred years later, Florence’s creative community can be startling to an outsider, not just because of the number of artists the place is nurturing but also because many of the most talented ones have not forsaken small-town life for the big city.

At the forefront of a growing movement of artists and designers are renowned Florence clothiers Natalie Chanin and Billy Reid. While the awards and national attention make it tempting to call them darlings of the fashion elite, they’re finding success precisely by sticking to their ancestral roots. Along the way, Chanin, with her patient insistence that ordinary cotton is worthy of a gown, and Reid, with his knack for creating Southern cocktail parties that masquerade as clothing boutiques, are helping put some “life” back in lifestyle.

As their profile has risen, so has the town’s, in a way that no one here can fully explain. But one thing is for sure: Florence is a great place to be an artist.

What’s Going On
On the first Friday of the month from March through December, for an event aptly called First Fridays, downtown Florence becomes a sidewalk gallery of local artists and jewelry designers, with live music on every corner. North Court Street is the place to stroll, stopping in for an egg sandwich and a shake at Trowbridge’s, or paying a visit to the folks at Billy Reid, who always seem to know where the next gathering of pickers will be. In May, the Kennedy-Douglass Center for the Arts hosts Arts Alive, a juried exhibit of Southeastern artisans beneath the great oaks and walnut trees in Wilson Park. Music takes over the last week of July, when hundreds of acts perform in the W. C. Handy Music Festival, a tribute to the Florence-born “Father of the Blues.” Or for a quiet escape, duck into the only Frank Lloyd Wright–designed house in Alabama, the Rosenbaum House, open for tours six days a week.

Regional art collectors visit Tommy Mathis to buy his bright Tuscan landscapes or to discover other Southern painters at his gallery, ARTifacts. “Florence is an art mecca,” he says. “People from out of town come and they don’t want to leave.” Mathis is also something of a patron saint of local restaurants, especially the outdoor weekend brunch at new favorite the Sweet Magnolia Café, where warm crepes and fresh peach Bellinis await.

Town Boosters
Though their mediums vary, there is a commonality in the work of Florence artists, who have all found inspiration in the place’s history and land. Robin Wade takes downed trees and builds furniture that is at once rustic and modern, letting the trees speak for themselves, wormholes and all. The freehand prints of Jamie and Katie Barrier, owners of the Black Owl Trading Co., can be seen all over town, from record covers to concert posters. Members of a half dozen bands themselves, they took advantage of low property prices to open their studio. “The good thing about here is that it’s real, it ain’t fake,” Jamie says. “And you can live on nothing and concentrate on what you’re doing.”

Beginning this year, four twenty-foot sculptures celebrating the area’s music heritage will rise along the riverbank, one in each of the Shoals communities—Florence, Sheffield, Tuscumbia, and Muscle Shoals. The creation of artist, Florence native, and former demolition man Audwin McGee, the semiabstract statues are being made entirely from locally recycled aluminum. “I think there have always been a lot of creative people here,” he says. “Over the years the outlook has changed and those people have come to the forefront. Now young people can look at folks like Natalie and Billy and see that art is viable.”

The Runner-Up: Leiper’s Fork, Tennessee
It’s so small that the word village seems an outsized title. But tiny Leiper’s Fork draws folks from Nashville and Franklin, and up the Natchez Trace from north Alabama and Mississippi, to wander among its storefronts and galleries situated above historic horse pastures. They check in on works of contemporary Southern artists at Leiper’s Creek Gallery, handcrafted jewelry and pottery at Laurel Leaf Gallery, or the latest finds at design sanctuary Serenite Maison. And when the weather’s right, they find a porch swing or a deacon’s bench for a brief rest before the music starts up at Puckett’s Grocery.