So that year, they held an art fair. They dolled up a red barn and invited artists from the community to show and sell their work. With the $50 they raised, the Kings Mountain Volunteer Fire Brigade was formed.
Fifty-six years later, the Kings Mountain Art Fair has become a Labor Day Weekend tradition. From Aug. 31 through Sept. 2, a serene redwood grotto off Skyline Boulevard filled once again with fairgoers, artists, and local volunteers for a community event that unites the beauty of nature with that of local art.
One of the fair's defining features is that it is run entirely by volunteers. Each year, 400 people from the Kings Mountain community — a large subset of its residents — come together to plan the event, provide information and activities, and cook pancakes and burgers for hundreds of guests.
Volunteering is a highly intergenerational affair, Ken McIntyre, a 25-year Art Fair volunteer, explained. The volunteers range from residents well into their 80s to children as young as 4. "We're always looking for younger people to step up and take it on," said McIntyre. Young children start in the "cook shack" clearing trays and washing dishes, and often continue volunteering for many years thereafter, he added.
For most volunteers, the work starts about a week before the fair. But for Bev Abbot, the event's executive director, it's a job that keeps her busy year-round. Starting in February, Abbot begins the process of choosing the 130-some artists who will be featured that year based on a number of criteria specific to the fair.
"The requirement that the artists make their art [themselves] sets us apart," Abbot noted. All artists must also be present in person at the event, which she said enhances the experience for art-buyers. "We encourage our customers to go around and meet with the artists," she said. "They love to talk about their art, and then you get a real sense of how they created it. It has more meaning."
The artists, who hail mainly from Northern California, represent a wide variety of media and styles—everything from painting, pottery and sculpture to clothing, jewelry, woodworking, and clock-making.
Justine Tatarsky, known in the local art world by her middle name, Tot, creates tiles with vivid glazes and intricate tessellated designs.
"Tessellated patterns are patterns that repeat in all directions," said Tatarsky. "That's something that I kind of got fascinated with after years of working in this medium." Her designs are inspired by a lifelong interest "in bodies, and human relationships, and a feeling that people are part of nature," she said.
Ryan Spangler, a jade artist who specializes in jewelry, gives new meaning to the term "local art." All his pieces are made from jade he himself unearths in nearby mountain ranges.
"Because jade is such a tough stone, it erodes out of the mountains and tumbles down into the rivers," he explained. Every few months, he and his team hike into Big Sur or the foothills of the Sierra Nevada to search for the stone. "You have to make sure the geology's somewhat right, and if you get lucky, you'll find a piece. But it's not easy to find, so it's quite the adventure," Spangler said.
One of the fair's longest-running acts is landscape painter Rebecca Holland. Holland, one of several "Mountain Artists" who live in Kings Mountain, has been featured at the fair since the very first one 56 years ago.
"I wasn't a professional artist [back then]. The neighbors came over and just pulled some of my drawings off the wall," she recalled. "This show really encouraged me: They said, 'we need to buy a fire truck, and you need to help us — you need to paint and sell your artwork!"
When it comes to inspiration, Holland says, she looks no further than her picturesque home. Her paintings, distinctive for their eye-popping colors and surreal use of light, capture the beauty of the forests, foothills, and oceans around her. "It's just where I live, you know? This is it," she said.
As they have since the beginning, proceeds from the event mainly benefit the Kings Mountain Fire Brigade. The firehouse has 15 men and women, all volunteers, who receive the same training, and many of the same responsibilities, as municipal firefighters. The brigade responds to over 250 calls per year; it helped fight the 60-acre Skeggs fire near Woodside in September 2017.
Some of the funds also go to the Kings Mountain Elementary School, a three-room schoolhouse serving 60 children in grades K-5. In addition to proceeds from art sales, the school also raises money by selling "Grandma Jenny's giant cookies," massive homemade treats some 8 or 9 inches in diameter.
The cookie-baking operation has been a highlight of the fair for decades, said Amber Stariha, one of the elementary school parents in charge of it this year. The parents bake over 4,000 cookies at an industrial bakery in San Francisco the Saturday before the fair; then, on fair days, the school kids load them into red wagons and sell them $5 each. As Abby Zantos, a Kings Mountain Elementary student, said, "My mommy forces us to do it every year because our job is to look cute."
But although fundraising was the original purpose of the fair, for the residents of Kings Mountain, the event has come to mean something more. "Community members who haven't seen each other during the year, who are busy — everyone comes together," said Abbot. "It's a three-day event that we all really love."