A day's drive, a world away
You'll experience the vibrant crafts tradition of western North Carolina with a trip along Heritage Trails
Published: Wednesday, June 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, June 5, 2005 at 5:10 p.m.
In July, while Floridians are cranking up the AC, the average temperature in Asheville, North Carolina is a pleasant 72 degrees. In contrast to Gainesville's flat vistas, the region offers sweeping blue-peaked mountain views. And the mountains' rich Appalachian heritage is unique to anywhere else in the world. While Western North Carolina might only be a day's drive from Gainesville, in many respects, the distance traveled feels much longer.
One of the unique assets of this region-lesser known perhaps than the Biltmore House or the Parkway-is the group of artisans and crafts people inhabiting these hills. Their work is steeped in history, yet thrives today on a national scale. Asheville was recently ranked as one of the top 10 arts destinations in the country by American Style magazine alongside such metropolitan cities as New York, San Francisco and Chicago. American Style notes that, "Though a community of about 69,000, Asheville has upwards of 150 boutiques, shops, art galleries and antique stores downtown-and more Art Deco architecture than any southeastern city aside from Miami Beach."
It is not only Asheville, Western North Carolina's hub city, that offers a vibrant arts culture. The surrounding mountain towns and hamlets provide rich opportunities for experiencing traditional and contemporary arts and crafts. Handmade in America, a nonprofit organization located in Asheville, publishes a book called "The Craft Heritage Trails of Western North Carolina." The book details seven driving loops with more than 450 stops, all in Western North Carolina between the borders of Virginia and Georgia.
For example, the guide book notes that you can stop in Little Switzerland and visit Trillium Gallery for a "high altitude collection of exquisite regional work" featuring pottery and glass.
Or visit Graham Crackers Too, a shop in Robbinsville that specializes in "thing-a-mabobs, doo-hickies, and whats-its." Regardless of their aesthetic, within a few hours of driving, visitors to this region can find pottery, fiber art, weaving, wood work, sculpture, instrument making, jewelry and rugs tucked away on the back roads of the Blue Ridge.
"THRIFTY, OLD-TIME WAYS"
Like the steady forces of wind and water that gave the Blue Ridge Mountains their distinctively gentle shape, so too has the region's crafts culture developed slowly over time. A turning point for the crafts revival movement came in the late 1800s when a wealthy, Yale-educated missionary woman named Frances Goodrich came to the mountains. There she found women who kept alive the "thrifty, old-time ways" of using traditional methods to weave, dye, quilt and spin. One day, a woman gave her a coverlet called the Double Bow Knot skillfully dyed with native chestnut oak. In a time when textile mills were rapidly replacing the slower, more complex methods of weaving, Goodrich realized that the gift was not only one of rare beauty, but might in fact have a market.
She sent the coverlet to her friends in the Northeast, and before long, horses pulling buggies of quilts were making their way up North.
A mail order business was born.
Goodrich started the first crafts store, Allanstand Cottage Industries, in 1902, in the same tiny settlement north of Asheville. The store sold directly to passersby and helped supplement people's otherwise sparse income as well as preserved the old-time crafts from extinction. Around the same time, John C. Campbell and his wife, Olive, came to Southern Appalachia for humanitarian work. They, too, wanted to preserve and share the crafts, techniques and tools that mountain people used in every day life. Their work led to the formation of the The John C. Campbell Folk School.
Both the Allanstand store and The John C. Campbell Folk School thrive today. Allanstand, the oldest continuously operating crafts store in the United States, is based at the Folk Art Center off the Blue Ridge Parkway near Asheville. The John C. Campbell Folk School, nestled in the hills of Brasstown, North Carolina, continues to preserve arts and crafts heritage by providing classes and programs in its beautiful mountain setting.
LIVING TRADITION TODAY
The Folk Art Center is the home to the Southern Highland Craft Guild, a juried membership organization of more than 900 craftspeople from a nine-state region. The Guild was formed in 1928 by leaders of the craft revival movement, including Goodrich and Campbell. Its mission is to conserve, develop, educate and preserve quality standards for the handicraft industry. More than 30 percent of Guild members hail from North Carolina, and each year in July and October, Asheville hosts the renowned Craft Fair of the Southern Highlands.
Sandie Bishop is one of the members of the Southern Highland Craft Guild and an employee of the Folk Art Center. Her craft is doll making, a painstakingly detailed process marked by patience, skill and emotional involvement. Each of Bishop's dolls is a unique character brimming with personality, from an elderly couple sitting on a bench to a blues singer in a sequined dress to a farm woman in a straw hat.
"A lot of the inspiration for the dolls comes from people in my own family," she says, pulling out a doll with an elderly face. "This one is just like my Granny. I also just look at people, study their faces. I love the history of this area so I look at Foxfire books or regional history for inspiration."
She runs her hand over the doll's soft, sturdy frame. "For the bodies, I use special muslin that looks like it doesn't even have a thread count; it's so smooth. You put it over wire armature with polyester stuffing. The faces are done with air-dried clay from Japan. It's hard to get the supplies. We have jokes between us dollmakers because we use pieces of calendar wire or coat hangers or whatever we can use to make them. All dollmakers have secrets."
Bishop is self-taught, though inspired by other doll artists that came before her as well as by her contemporaries. Her workshop is the old farmhouse where she lives in Barnardsville, North Carolina, population 2,100.
"This is Alice," she says, introducing a doll. Each has a miniature handmade paper booklet that tells her story. "She grows vegetables and always grows more than enough to share with her family and friends. Her hair is made from sheep's wool."
"This is Clary," she says, holding up an older looking woman doll with dark eyes and a turned down face. "She is an herb gatherer for medicinal purposes. Everybody goes to her when they're sick. If they don't know her, they think she's really odd, but if they know her, they know she likes to be by herself collecting her herbs. Her face is turned down because she's shy." Bishop laughs. "I think that's why she doesn't sell."
Visiting Western North Carolina with an eye towards arts and crafts offers rich opportunities to learn about history, contemporary craft making and the artists themselves. The guidebook, Craft Heritage Trails of Western North Carolina, reminds visitors that "the real treasure is often the story behind the piece. Ask questions. Crafts work is close to the heart."
PLANNING YOUR VISIT
There is no bad time to visit Western North Carolina, though snowfall can close the Parkway in winter. Fall is busiest when visitors throng to see the brilliantly colored leaves, and summer is the warmest opportunity to take the kids for a plunge down Sliding Rock Falls, a 60-foot slide formed by rocks that ends in a cold mountain pool.
To maximize your experience of the region's arts and crafts, Craft Heritage Trails of Western North Carolina, is an essential tool. It provides maps of back roads and scenic byways to artists' studios as well as restaurants, historic inns helpful phone numbers and a recommended reading list. You can order it online at www.handmadeinamerica.org.
Other Helpful Resources
ASHEVILLE AREA CHAMBER OF COMMERCE
Discover where to eat, stay, shop and acquire a visitor's guide for Western North Carolina's largest city.
BLACK MOUNTAIN CENTER FOR THE ARTS
Black Mountain Center for the Arts is located in the beautifully renovated Old City Hall at 225 West State Street in historic downtown Black Mountain. The Center offers a variety of fine art exhibits, a pottery studio, classes, workshops, concerts, theatre productions and special events.
BLUE RIDGE MOUNTAIN HOST
Browse accommodations, attractions, dining, shopping, outdoors activities and arts and crafts galleries at this web site for Western North Carolina. Order a free guidebook.
FOLK ART CENTER AND SOUTHERN HIGHLAND CRAFT GUILD
Located off the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Folk Art Center is the Southern Highland Craft Guild's flagship facility. The Folk Art Center showcases the finest in traditional and contemporary crafts of the Southern Appalachians. From March through December, visitors can observe craftspeople at work in daily craft demonstrations.
HANDMADE IN AMERICA
A nonprofit organization dedicated to enhancing the region's role nationally and internationally within the handmade field, Handmade in America publishes The Craft Heritage Trails of Western North Carolina. At the web site, you can click on "Craft Registries" to view artist descriptions, contact information and gallery locations.
JOHN C. CAMPBELL FOLK SCHOOL
A founding member of the Southern Highland Craft Guild, the Craft Shop at the Folk School offers carvings from the renowned Brasstown Carvers and a wide variety of unique items for sale from over 300 regional and national artists. The Folk School offers classes for youth and adults as well as inter-generational workshops.
PENLAND SCHOOL OF CRAFTS
Penland School of Crafts is a national center for craft education located northeast of Asheville. A pioneer in the early crafts revival movement, Penland offers workshops in books and paper, clay, drawing, glass, iron, metals, photography, printmaking, textiles and wood. The school also has a craft gallery open to the public.
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