New arrivals to Smith Mountain Lake are frequently lured to its shores by memories of water-soaked days and glorious sunsets. However, since 1989, the pleasures of the lake have included an opportunity for a life in the arts, with ever-broadening outlets for taking part in and enjoying artistic expression.
Now celebrating its 30th anniversary, the Smith Mountain Arts Council has been enriching the lives of residents and neighbors throughout Bedford, Franklin, Pittsylvania counties and beyond.
“SMAC has really spread its wings and is involved in so many activities,” said Barb Nocera, the group’s current president. With an array of artistic outlets and a warm welcome to artists of all ages, abilities and levels of experience, the council offers a showcase for actors, musicians, painters, photographers, writers and singers.
SMAC was founded in 1989 when the Liberty Singers became the Lakeside Singers, according to Karen DeBord, SMAC’s vice president and leader of the singing group. DeBord moved to the lake area nearly eight years ago and has been involved with Lakeside Singers for seven of those years. “It’s just fun,” she said. “And it’s great to have these artistic outlets in retirement. When you work, you don’t have time.”
The Lakeside Singers performs popular and traditional music. They ask members to make a three-month participation commitment, from March until June, culminating in a themed concert during the first week of June.
In addition there is the SML Boomer Band — a subset of the Lakeside Singers — that performs popular music. SMAC also supports performances of the B-Sharps and the Noteables, two groups that perform for residents in local nursing homes and senior living facilities.
The Lake Players also formed around the same time as the Lakeside Singers. With a wealth of dramatic talent at the lake, the group performed three plays that first year: “Talley’s Folly” by Lanford Wilson, “Chapter Two” by Neil Simon and “Crimes of the Heart” by Beth Henley.
These days, the Lake Players continue to present a variety of performances, including play readings, musical revues and full-length plays, often to sold-out crowds. Earlier this summer, the troupe joined forces with the Lakeside Singers to present “That’s Entertainment,” a show that combined theatrics with familiar Broadway music.
The Coffeehouse series, a vital component in SMAC’s contributions to the lake’s culture, takes place in the Celebration Room, a performance venue at Downtown Moneta. An intimate setting, it has been the site of many SMAC productions featuring both local and outside performers.
While she appreciates that the Coffeehouse has a home, Nocera said she wishes for greater capacity.
“The challenge is that it only holds around 100 people, which limits the amount you can pay talent to come in,” she said. In addition to local productions, the Coffeehouse has hosted the all-female bluegrass band Canned Biskits, the New Habit Band and the lake’s own Panini Brothers Band.
Displaying the Arts
Just a year after its founding, SMAC hosted its first art show, which has grown steadily in entries over the past 30 years.
“It takes the better part of two days to hang the pictures now,” Nocera said.
Cash prizes are awarded for best in show, people’s choice, as well as first, second and third place in adult and student categories. Entries include oils, acrylics and watercolor paintings, mixed media works, plus other media, such as pastels, pencil, stained glass, sculpture and woodworking.
A Larger Stage
In 1992, SMAC began inviting performers from farther afield to perform for enthusiastic audiences.
David Stewart Wiley, the music director and conductor of the Roanoke Symphony Orchestra and the Orchestra of Long Island, New York, has been a faithful contributor to the lake’s culture, performing concerts regularly with members of the Roanoke Symphony.
“Some of my fondest memories and life experiences have been centered around friendships at the lake,” he said. “In fact, when I was in Boston this summer, I was able to share with the Boston Pops my work with the movie score for ‘Lake Effects’ and my composition, ‘Concentric Circles.’ It’s wonderful to have these pieces being played on a national stage.”
Wiley has also performed more intimate concerts at the lake, such as the “Home for the Holidays” performance last December and “For the Love of Music” concert in February, which featured local vocalists Philip and Tara Bouknight.
In December, Wiley and his family will once again join the Bouknights for a holiday concert: “The Wiley/Bouknight Family Christmas” at 7 p.m. on Dec. 20 at Trinity Ecumenical Parish.
“The Smith Mountain Arts Council is a great treasure for the region, and I have been so pleased to take part in it for the past 24 years,” Wiley said. “In fact, 2020-21 will be my 25th anniversary at the lake. The council is absolutely vital to the lake region, now more than ever. I want to encourage all friends to support SMAC now and for the years to come.”
Art of the Written Word
For nearly two decades, artists who create with words have found a home with the Lake Writers, which supports the literary arts for Smith Mountain Arts Council. A satellite chapter of the statewide Virginia Writers Club, the Lake Writers meets twice monthly to share information on publication opportunities, contests and writing resources. The group includes writers of fiction, nonfiction, drama and poetry, those whose work has been published and those who aspire to becoming published writers. During each meeting, members who wish to read from works in progress can receive constructive criticism from club members.
The Lake Writers also presents programs to the community, such as writer Linda Kay Simmons’ Coffeehouse performance (with Kristi Mason) of an adaption of her novel, “Cahas Mountain,” and a group reading celebrating the release of the group’s latest anthology, “Encore: The Third Anthology of the Lake Writers.”
An earlier collection, “Reflections on Smith Mountain Lake: 50th Anniversary Anthology,” commemorated the lake’s 50th anniversary and welcomed contributions from the lake area. Lake Writers member Larry Helms, who helped edit both volumes, noted the anthology’s emphasis on inclusion.
“We made the … decision that everybody who submitted would have something published, because most people submitted several things,” he said.
The group’s first anthology, “Voices from Smith Mountain Lake,” was published in 2013 as a way to highlight SMAC’s work in the community and contains poetry, essays, short stories and plays.
Proceeds from the sales of the anthologies contribute to the SMAC annual scholarship fund.
Nocera noted that SMAC’s membership has continued to grow, now with around 350 members, up from 250 only five years ago. Part of that growth has come from a deeper awareness of the lake’s lively art scene, but some also has come from an expanding menu of options for becoming involved.
One example of this growth is SMAC’s photography club.
In 1995, SMAC hosted the first John Faber Memorial Photo Show and Contest. Faber, a nationally esteemed photojournalist whose 1960 book, “Great News Photos and the Stories Behind Them,” was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, retired to Smith Mountain Lake in 1985 with his wife, Trudy. A founder of the National Press Photographers Association and the Virginia News Photographers Association, Faber continued to photograph images of the lake through his retirement until his death in 1993.
Held each April, the photo show continues to be popular, drawing casual, amateur and professional photographers from around the region.
Within the past few years, photography enthusiasts have another outlet for pursuing their craft. SMAC approached John O’Connell, who had been a member of photography clubs in Bedford and Forest, to ask him to start the SML Photo Club. On the first Monday evening of every month at the Moneta/SML Library, photographers of all levels take part in workshops and learn from one another.
The club, which now has around 100 members, is free and open to anyone interested in learning more about photography. At each meeting, members select a best photo of the month from photos submitted around an announced theme, and discuss a particular topic relating to composition, processing, lightroom techniques or other photographic elements.
“I wanted to have a club I wanted to belong to,” O’Connell said.
Rather than host a competitive gathering, “my thought was, we’ll talk about whatever someone wants to do to improve,” he added.
For all of the changes that SMAC has embraced in 30 years, its mission has not changed: bringing together the arts and the communities surrounding lake, fostering participation in and enjoyment of the visual, performing and literary arts with a commitment to educational outreach.
Service lies at the heart of SMAC’s mission. Each year, the council awards two scholarships to high school students who are interested in the arts.
“We are looking for a student who has demonstrated an interest in the arts,” said Judy Helms, chair of SMAC’s scholarship committee. “We have had winners who have been actresses, singers, musicians, artists, photographers, and for the first year since I’ve been doing this, this year we had a writer.”
The council awards scholarships in the amount of $1,000 per year for two years.
“The applicants we’ve gotten have been so phenomenal. They humble us,” Helms said. “They’re impressive people.”
SMAC also supports young musicians through the Junior Appalachian Musicians program. Geared toward students in fourth through ninth grades, the program aims to expose younger students to classic, “old-time Appalachian music,” according to Jim Mullens, program coordinator.
Students in the JAM program begin weekly lessons each September and continue through the school year. Instruction is offered in guitar, banjo, fiddle and mandolin, regardless of the students’ ability to pay.
The program offers the students an opportunity to perform before wider audiences, too. Earlier this year, students performed at the Harvester Performance Center in Rocky Mount as part of the Bill Monroe’s “Sons of Bluegrass” event and at the HoustonFest bluegrass festival in Galax.
Mullens said he is grateful for SMAC’s support. “They have bent over backwards for our program,” he said. “If you get discouraged, they will give you a voice of encouragement, and they have supported us financially, too. Without the arts council, our program couldn’t have survived … it’s a great organization and I’m lucky to be part of it.”
Looking toward the future, SMAC is devoted to expanding. At a spring planning session, Nocera said the board made plans to increase its arts offerings for all ages, including more participatory and family offerings. Photo workshops for children, dance classes, writing with younger members of the community, pottery classes and graphic design are also being considered.
“We’re in a good place,” Nocera said. “I think we’re poised to continue what the organization’s been doing as we move forward.”