The Art and Soul of Mount Holly
Last October’s Lantern Parade was a bright, shiny beacon that Mount Holly had staked its claim as a thriving center for the arts. Now the town, and its unexpected artist champion, are making sure it stays that way for a long time to come.
A plan on pause
There was talk about finding a way to bring artists to Mount Holly back in 2003. That year, the town worked through a Vision Process with residents. The result of that process revealed five important goals. Eventually, all five of those goals would be accomplished. Intentional support for the arts was not one of them.
In 2008, a Strategic Vision Plan expanded on those five goals with a broader set of 68 objectives. An impressive 52 of them would be completed. Again, creating a robust art community didn’t make the cut.
“The real issue was, we didn’t have a dedicated champion for bringing artists to Mount Holly,” says Greg Beal, Mount Holly’s City Planner for the last 18 years. “We knew a thriving artist community would help differentiate us, increase property values, and add to the quality of life here, but we just didn’t have a really knowledgeable artist to lead the charge.”
So the idea to brand Gaston County’s second largest town as a thriving center for the arts remained on the shelf for another decade. That is, until a fateful property search led one artist to see the potential of an old shoe repair shop.
A champion of the arts
The only light available as Emily Andress walked into that old building was what could pour in from the front door; all the windows had been boarded up or bricked over long ago. She swept her flashlight across the interior, revealing brick walls barely visible beneath years of accumulated dust, a decrepit set of wood stairs, and a dirt floor.
The real estate agent suggested seeing the building next store. “The renovation is complete on that one,” he offered. After all, 107 W. Central Avenue, just off Mount Holly’s Main Street, had been abandoned for two decades. Exact details are fuzzy, but the building may have housed a dance studio, gun store, and a shoe repair shop.
Andress swung her light to the top of those old stairs and replied, “Up there, that’s where the other artists will work. And back there…that’s my studio.”
For 30 years the prolific artist (she estimates she’s completed about 8,000 pieces) had dreamed of owning a two story building with a gallery out front, a place where she could work in the back, and affordable studios for other artists to create as well.
She had been searching in Monroe. It was a bit far from her home near Ballantyne, but real estate was less expensive there. Then a listing popped up that fit her vision exactly. But it wasn’t in Monroe.
“The building was perfect, but I was like ‘where is Mount Holly,’” Andress laughs.
A quick map search revealed something very interesting. Mount Holly was not only closer than Monroe, it was closer to her home than South End Charlotte, where she had been working.
The very next day she was shining her light on those dust covered walls. “I could tell that building was suffocating. It just wanted it to breathe again.” It wasn’t long after that walk-through and Andress was in Greg Beal’s office to explain her idea.
“It was supposed to be a 30 minute meeting,” she recalls. “We talked for two hours.”
Andress had the building of her dreams, and Mount Holly found its champion.
The community supports the arts
It would take Andress two years to breathe life into that old building.
But when Awaken Gallery opened in March of 2018, the only thing clinging to those brick walls was a collection of artwork from internationally recognized artists. A grant from Mount Holly had replaced the old stairs. Now they lead to five artists studios, each occupied with a long waiting list should someone decide to give up their space.
It turns out, that was just the spark Mount Holly’s art scene needed.
Other artists began moving here. With the help of the city, the vacant Massey building became the home of Arts on the Greenway, a group dedicated to fostering visual arts in and around Mount Holly. They provide a variety of spaces for artists to create and connect and offer classes and special events.
This momentum is spilling out of the studios, transforming the image of downtown and catalyzing growth throughout Mount Holly.
Local artists’ work hangs on the walls at Catawba Coffee. And during art crawls—there have been three already—the coffee shop is standing room only. Other downtown businesses stay open late those days, offering art-themed activities of their own.
New artwork adorns Mount Holly’s Community Garden. More outdoor installations are being considered throughout downtown and on the greenways.
There are plans for a plein air event in Mount Holly. That’s when artists are sent to various locations to paint a scene while spectators watch them work. At the end of the day, people can purchase the pieces they watched take shape at a “wet paint” sale, Andress says.
It’s this broad community involvement and entrepreneurial spirit that she loves about Mount Holly.
“Everyone has been so supportive here,” she says. “And what’s different is that in Mount Holly, most of the businesses are locally owned. So when we want to collaborate, they can all work together quickly and effectively.”
The Lantern Parade: a defining event
No other event has exemplified that spirit of community more than the Lantern Parade.
During that first parade, on a pleasant evening in late October of 2018, students, teachers, artists, and community members proceeded down Main Street, hoisting their paper-and-wire creations.
Some lanterns were small, like the stars Ida Rankin Elementary Students carried as part of their Cow Jumped Over the Moon motif. They won first place in the student category (the lantern parade also featured a competition). “All you could see were their stars bobbing through the crowd, but you could hear their classmates yelling and cheering for them,” Emily recalls.
Some lanterns were huge. The first place winner in the artist category was a six-by-seven foot phoenix constructed by Teresa Rench, one of the five artists that works out of the studios above Awaken Gallery.
Andress brought the parade to Mount Holly after seeing a similar event in Europe. But the town’s schedule meant there was less than a month to make it happen.
The Mount Holly Community Development Foundation (MHCDF) stepped up big. A grant from them paid for supplies that teachers could take back to their classrooms. It also allowed for an expert lantern maker from Ireland to come and instruct those teachers who, in turn, taught their students.
With little more than 20 days to get the word out, over 200 lanterns floated down Main Street that night. And the sidewalks were lined with people curious to see the procession.
“It was amazing,” Beal said. “Downtown was packed.”
Parades like these are pretty common in other parts of the world. Not so in the U.S. In fact, Andress had to order supplies from Europe because they’re not available here. “I don’t know of another event exactly like this,” Andress said. “There’s a lantern festival in Atlanta, but it’s not the same.”
Now with 12 months to plan, this year’s parade looks to be incredible. The theme is Myths, Fables, and Fairy Tales. Andress offered a sneak peek at her lantern. No spoilers from us. But even incomplete, it’s stunning.
Word has gotten out. More than 20 teachers have already committed— up from six last year— to working with students across Gaston to participate. There’s been one lantern-making class for artists. It brought 50 people from Atlanta, Asheville, and Charleston, already more than the 46 artists who participated in 2018. And there are two more classes to come.
“Local merchants are asking to learn how to make lanterns because they want them in their shop windows before the parade,” Andress says.
With the town behind her and growing regional recognition, what Andress has started can become part of a brand that travels well beyond county borders.
“As a town, you try to do things no one else is doing,” Beal says. “The Lantern Parade— it’s not really happening anywhere else. It could be a big part of what differentiates Mount Holly.”
Making Mount Holly a long-term home for the arts
Bringing artists to a community is one thing. Making it possible for them to stay is another.
Before she bought that historic building downtown, Andress was the co-owner of a gallery in South End Charlotte. Rising property values—values that galleries like hers helped to increase—made the lease unaffordable and they vacated the space.
This cycle is common. Artists move into an underutilized area for its cheap rent. Their influence attracts people with money, values go up, artists leave.
But Mount Holly, and Andress, are making sure that isn’t the case here.
First of all, she owns her building. So no more notices of swiftly rising rents for her or the other artists there.
The city has also made sure that Arts on the Greenway will be a place for artists to create for a long time. Mount Holly maintains ownership of the building and charges a lease based on rents collected by the non-profit; the city gets 90% and the other 10% goes to upkeep and other expenses.
There’s also a new non-profit organization being incubated by the MHCDF. Arts Mount Holly will continue the work of attracting more visual and performance artists and creating events for the public.
Perhaps most telling of Mount Holly’s future in the arts, though, is a chapter in the newest version of the Strategic Vision Plan. It’s titled Placemaking, Arts, and a Healthy Community.
In it are plans to expand artist studios, create more outdoor art installations such as the ones in the community garden, and promote popup artist events.
Mount Holly’s plan to create a thriving center for the arts is finally official. And with Emily Andress championing these efforts, you can bet they’ll be amazing.
What’s happening in Mt. Holly is a high-profile example of how the arts, and artists, have flourished throughout Gaston. And how those artists help their communities grow in return. Several groups and individuals deserve recognition for their part in it all. Here are just a few places you can go to learn more about these champions of the arts, their work, and how you can get involved.
The Gaston County Art Guild has supported the arts across the county for 65 years. They create opportunities for artists to learn and work while making it possible for others to appreciate their art.
The Gaston Arts Council aims to make sure the arts are recognized, celebrated, and supported throughout the county.
Arts on the Greenway is located at 500 E. Central Avenue, next to the Mount Holly Municipal Complex. AotG has 10,000 square feet of rent-able space for artists and hosts workshops and special events.