Arts & Culture

Small Towns with Big Art Scenes in the South

Tiny Southern towns host travel-worthy festivals and support growing arts communities

Photo: Krystal Kast

The Fearrington Folk Art Show in Pittsboro, North Carolina.

Small towns in the South can make a big impression. Four years ago, the gallerist Marcia Weber moved her folk art gallery from historic Old Cloverdale in Alabama’s capital of Montgomery to a little town nearby. “I visualized that Wetumpka could become an art mecca with its natural beauty and art colony history,” she says. “It reminds me of a charming Southern SoHo.” We’ve rounded up a few delightful small towns with a knack for cultivating creativity through vibrant, place-based community art.

Wetumpka, Alabama

While Erin and Ben Napier put the spotlight on this Alabama town on HGTV’s Home Town Takeover in 2021, this community has long been using its storied past to create quirky works of art, like hand-carved river snails, giant fish, steampunk-inspired metal sculptures along its riverwalk, and even a mural featuring an Appalachiosaurus dinosaur, whose ancient fossils were discovered in the area nearly fifty years ago. 

The nationally recognized Marcia Weber Art Objects gallery stands in the center of Wetumpka’s historic district. Weber started her gallery in 1991, after being introduced to the prominent blues musician and early master of Southern art Jimmy Lee Sudduth in the 1970s and living down the street from the heralded folk artist Mose Tolliver as a graduate student in the 1980s. “Mose T’s home studio became a destination for many who were on folk art journeys through the South in the 1980s and 1990s,” Weber says. “When my home grew overfilled with this art, I couldn’t stop visiting and collecting from these amazing artists who, by then, had become cherished friends. It was a natural progression for me to start a gallery to find other caregivers for self-taught art.” Weber’s gallery is filled with more than 1,000 rare and unusual one-of-a-kind works and features renowned artists such as Della Wells, Woodie Long, and Bill Traylor.  

Another Wetumpka gallery inspired by the town’s natural landscapes is the Kelly Fitzpatrick Memorial Gallery, which recently announced the Wetumpka Wildlife Arts Festival. The fest includes a series of classes, art exhibits, and expert demos by award-winning artisans including chef Chris Hastings, sporting and wildlife artist Dirk Walker, and Wildrose Kennels, the largest breeder, trainer, and importer of British and Irish Labradors in North America. The series celebration will take place intermittently from September 30 to November 17, with a signature daylong event on November 5 on the banks of the Coosa River. 

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Lake City, South Carolina

Each April, this town turns into a gallery during Artfields, Lake City’s flagship event which consists of local businesses displaying hundreds of works of art as artists compete for $100,000 in prizes. This historic community in the northeast corner of South Carolina  embraces its deep agricultural roots by implementing native flora throughout its downtown, complementing the varied colorful, expressive art pieces found there, like the sixteen-foot “Make a Wish” dandelion sculpture.

photo: Second Floor Media
“The Mother” by Jordan Sheridan at the 2022 Artfields event.
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Pittsboro, North Carolina

In the Piedmont region of North Carolina, Pittsboro’s annual Fearrington Folk Art Show in February showcases many self-taught artists. R.B. Fitch, who owns Fearrington House Inn, Restaurant and Village, has infused the property’s historic grounds with art since taking ownership decades ago. And after meeting artist Sam “the Dot Man” McMillan about twenty years ago, Fitch envisioned a small art show in the Fearrington Barn, with no booth fees nor commissions expected from participating artists. Nineteen years later, it’s now one of the region’s most anticipated annual events.

Kerstin Lindgren, co-coordinator of the art show, explains the intentional community engagement. “The folk art show welcomes about thirty-five artists each year, and they come from all over the eastern U.S. mostly, but it’s always been especially important to us to draw from the rich self-taught art traditions here in North Carolina. We host artists from right here. Even before the Fearrington Folk Art Show, there has always been a vibrant arts community in Pittsboro and Chatham County. We’ve just provided another way for the public to enjoy and think about art in an approachable way.”

Theresa Gloster’s work at the Fearrington Folk Art Festival.

Berea, Kentucky

In the Bluegrass region of Kentucky, you’ll find a quaint town with a rich heritage of craft and inclusion. Often referred to as the “Folk Arts & Crafts Capital of Kentucky,” Berea’s dedication is evident at the Kentucky Artisan Center and throughout the Berea Public Art Tour, which includes bronze sculptures, fountains, stained glass and a signature series of large-scale hand sculptures.

Natchitoches, Louisiana

Say it with me: nak-uh-tish! The art and heritage preservation of this historic Louisiana town has helped it flourish for generations, and its art origins are certainly worth celebrating. Home to the longstanding event Melrose Arts & Crafts Festival each April, this area is the birthplace of Clementine Hunter, an acclaimed folk artist who contributed to the town’s legacy of veritable art appreciation and cultivation.

Thomasville, Georgia

After twenty years of hosting the successful Wildlife Arts Festival every fall, this town holds its own when it comes to infusing art into the landscape of its community. The popular affair coincides with the start of Georgia’s quail season and offers a fine arts show, experiences honoring the land, workshops, and an unveiling of public art to celebrate its local ecosystem. The wildlife painter Sue Key was featured at its most recent festival, where she shared a journal of her memories—of water and the light filtering through pine trees—before she captured beauty in paint.

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