Small Town Charm, Big City Sophistication

    By Amy Shepherd Nance

    You could travel to metropolitan areas for great art, but north central Florida has an impressive collection of its own.

    Art depicts the unexpected, the beautiful, and the natural. Those words can also be used to describe a hidden treasure of central Florida where unique art is made and featured. Polk County embodies rustic, bygone touches, warranting artistic study. Cultural venues display meaningful work everywhere. From top notch museums to restored churches doubling as art centers, history museums to symphonies, Polk County’s cultural venues are fresh, dynamic alternatives to what you find on the usual cultural circuit.

    Not a Still Life

    From the moment the Lake Wales Art Center appears on the road like a Spanish Mission-style mirage, it is evident you're in for something different. The church, with its cupolas and bell towers, dates back to 1927. Set to be demolished in the 1980s, the community rallied and gave the building new life as a home for the Lake Wales Arts Council.

    Upon entering the Michael Crews gallery, you find yourself surrounded by red earthenware and pottery pieces in varying shades of rust, a color that recalls the stucco exterior of the church itself. The space is airy and well lit, with pedestals featuring work by regional and national potters. The exhibit will be switched out soon enough, replaced by pieces from the permanent collection, new work and student exhibits.

    The old building is also restored and all gleaming wood floors and white walls. New Guinea masks lurk in corners, a group of mixed-media pieces and an arts library. The stained glass windows in the church are comprised of chunky blocks of colored glass, separated by not a little cement. An inexperienced company put them in the 1970s, and they have an odd Cubist allure. And they're rare: only two examples of this mistake remain intact. The church's lantern is painted with stars and clouds, and there are wrought-iron lights and lots of stone. The stage is small, but the Art Center takes full advantage of it. Chorale, folk and flamenco concerts, small plays and chamber music performances are held throughout the year.

    Upstairs, local artists teach classes to the community. The transition from the bold formal display in the new gallery to the quiet serenity of the church and now to a bustling workshop complete with its own kiln is exciting indeed. There's a sense of movement and activity, the idea that a community can create an artistic space that functions on many levels.

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    Orange and Art Groves

    Standing before a bicentennial quilt at the Lake Wales Museum & Cultural Center (commonly known as The Depot). It will dawn on you that local history museums are also galleries. Lake Wales is a town of around 12,000 that puts on an annual juried art show that drew 20,000 visitors last year.

    The Depot - a small pink onetime railroad station with a 1926 caboose out back - makes a kind of art out of industry. You pass through a room that features an original parachute dress and a German machine gun to a perfect replication of a trainmaster's desk, complete with a mailhoop. Discover a Native American exhibit with a chickee, Seminole clothing and two 1,500-year-old dugout canoes just across the hall in another room. This is total local history immersion at its finest here in the Lake Wales Room, which houses the permanent collection and includes old telephone directories, letters and an original Highwaymen painting.

    The freight room, built in 1938, returns you to just after the Florida land boom. Here, each period industry gets a tribute, with representations of turpentining, a selection of citrus labels and a whirring model train. There are dollhouse cracker houses, cattle horns and, finally, passage into the caboose itself, which is remarkably preserved. Each item at The Depot is displayed with all the consideration such artifacts require. With exhibits changing frequently, The Depot is vibrant and intimate.

    The Polk County Historical Museum

    Bartow is equally fascinating. The sober neoclassical building looks imposing when you arrive, but once inside the Dixon rotunda, its floor handlaid with mosaic tiles, you encounter more preservationist spirit and wide hallways leading to countless rooms.

    The first floor has a children's Discovery Room and a Natural World Room, where Florida pioneerism goes interactive. As this was once a courthouse, you head for the restored courtroom upstairs, where plays are performed using local lawyers and judges. Here too we find a local gallery depicting the community timeline, and the exhibits are rich in visual and tactile representation. Period clothing, photographs and tools are arranged thoughtfully in cabinets, and each period is shown in such authentic, characterizing detail. Admission here is free, and the museum is so spacious that you could lose yourself several times. The scale is just right, for capturing the area's rich historical, social and environmental persona.

    The Artful Dodger

    Far from dodging art, you will keep running into it. In Lakeland, it's right there on Lake Mirror in the form of a public sculpture, Tribute to the Volunteer Spirit. Rising vividly from a simple pedestal, the work is anything but static. Colorful and evocative, the piece proudly demonstrates the abundant force of volunteerism. But it's the Florida Outdoor Sculpture Competition held in conjunction with the Polk Museum of Art that stirs this community to make public art a priority. Lake Mirror Park and the Lemon Street Promenade showcase placeholders in this national competition.

    In the Polk Museum of Art's sculpture garden, youfind a water wall and a wolf-like skeleton bolting out from the wall. Inside, you stand in the light that streams from an atrium ceiling and try to decide where to start. There's the permanent gallery of Pre-Columbian art, or begin in the Dorothy Jenkins gallery where changing exhibits are shown, some brought in from regional and national collections, others supplemented by the museum's permanent collection and still others devoted to regional work entirely.

    You will find yourself drifting easily through the nine exhibition spaces, including a sculpture garden, attentively reading the name cards. The museum literature boasts that it's more than a museum. The astute, wide-ranging exhibits in the first galleries are rivaled by another devoted exclusively to student work.

    The museum offers art classes throughout the year. Its identity is decidedly progressive and outreaching. The 152-seat auditorium hosts lectures from visiting artists, gallery owners and art historians. The museum shop is a gallery in itself, and upstairs we find classrooms, workshops and serious pieces from the permanent collection on the walls. Here, kids and community folks learn the language of art, with a variety of hands-on activities and classes and camps energizing the museum's mission, extending the community's cultural conversation and helping to produce more work for the student gallery downstairs. The student gallery features nine juried shows a year highlighting local high schools.

    In the Art of the Art of the Country

    The small towns in Central Florida's Polk County each offer distinct takes on history and culture, with dozens of antiques shops in Winter Haven and Auburndale, fine dining at Antiquarian in Lakeland for some small town charm and independent galleries popping up everywhere.

    If you are trying to find a prime time to visit Lake Wales, the fall is a fine choice. Choosing from Lake Wales' own Pioneer Days, the Bartow Main Street Market, Antique Fair, the Polk County Museum of Arts' blues festival "Red, White & Blues," and Bok Tower Gardens' "Sunset and Symphony" with the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra seems a tall order, but, as is often repeated by famous artists, "Life is short; art is long." Polk County is one vibrant patch.

    small town charm at Bok Tower in Florida

    Spring is a rite of passage at Bok Tower a must see.

    - Bok Tower Gardens

    Pol Museum of Art in Florida

    Polk Museum of Art

    - Contributed Photo

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