North Carolina’s Mountain Craft Tradition
It's hard to imagine that a simple handmade object from the North Carolina Mountains could ignite a major American arts movement. But a little over a hundred years ago, it did.
The object was a woven double bowknot coverlet, given as a humble gift of friendship to Presbyterian missionary Frances Goodrich. So taken was she by the coverlet's meticulous handiwork, Ms. Goodrich was inspired to save the fast-disappearing mountain traditions that had gone into producing it. The result was the formation of Allanstand Craft Shop, opened in 1895 and presently America's oldest continuously operated craft shop.
Today, several North Carolina organizations are dedicated to carrying on the time-honored handicrafts traditions Ms. Goodrich made it her life's work to preserve, and each of which is worthy of a day trip (or longer). These organizations provide oasis of craftsmanship and beauty in an increasingly pre-fab, homogenized, mass-produced world.
The Southern Highland Craft Guild
Housed in the Blue Ridge Parkway's Folk Art Center (five miles outside of Asheville), the Guild has promoted crafts made by accomplished Mountain artists for seven decades. The Center is now home to Allanstand, which occupies 3,000 of its 30,500 square feet, as well as three other craft shops. Walk into the building, and you're surrounded by the finest work of the Guild's more than 700 member artists: ornate quilts and baskets, magnificent pottery, jewelry, woodwork, lovingly crafted paper, glass, metalwork and more.
Selections from the Guild's Permanent Collection, a 3,500-piece assemblage of craft objects dating back to the turn of the 20th century, can be seen at the Center during special exhibitions. From April through December, you can also observe craftspeople at work in daily demonstrations, as well as take in a host of other special events.
John C. Campbell Folk School
Founded in 1925 by Olive Dame Campbell, the idealistic widow of the missionary John C. Campbell, the school is the North Carolina version of what was originally a Danish idea, the folkehojskole or "folk school", which had been instrumental in transforming the Danish countryside into a vibrant creative force. Mrs. Campbell wanted to do the same for the then-isolated people of Appalachia, hoping to provide an alternative to the higher-education facilities that drew young people away from the family farm.
Today, students here can take one of more than 300 week-long or weekend classes in subjects ranging from writing to cooking to woodworking, turning any hobby into an art form. Students can choose to stay in on-campus lodging or a campground, and the school provides three meals a day for those who want them.
But even those who like to admire art rather than create it will find a haven here: the Folk School’s Craft Shop represents more than 300 juried artists and features an impressive collection of Appalachian crafts, including jewelry, pottery, wood, fiber, ironwork and basketry. The Craft Shop is also home to the world-famous Brasstown Carvers, a group of local artists who directly benefited from training the John Campbell Folk School provided.
Penland School of Crafts
Much like the Southern Craft Guild and the Campbell Folk School, the impetus for Penland's founding was provided by a visionary and determined woman: Lucy Morgan. Similar to Ms. Goodrich, "Miss Lucy" had observed firsthand the impoverished conditions of what was then a woefully isolated area. She noticed in particular how the machine-made goods of the Industrial Revolution were beginning to threaten the age-old mountain tradition of handweaving.
So, in 1923, with just three looms, Miss Lucy established the Penland Weavers to help revive the vanishing craft and supplement the locals' subsistence-level incomes. The looms hummed with the activity of skilled hands, and it wasn't long before additional instruction was offered in pottery, spinning and dyeing, and other traditional arts.
Word of Miss Lucy's success quickly spread, which led to the establishment of the Penland School of Crafts in 1929. Lucy Morgan's inspiring mission is still being carried on at the School today, although with a somewhat more contemporary emphasis. In fact, the School's educational program has attracted world-renowned instructors for years, along with serious craft students who range from novices to professionals.
At the Penland Gallery, you can see and buy work by resident artists and students, as well as Penland's instructors. The Gallery also presents special exhibitions, twice-weekly tours of the campus and occasional craft demonstrations. But be forewarned, visiting here may seduce you into becoming a student yourself.
Located near the charming town of Spruce Pine, Penland School offers one, two and eight-week classes in books and paper, clay, drawing, glass, iron metals, photography, printmaking, textiles and wood.
Qualla Arts & Crafts Mutual
If practice makes perfect, the beauty of Cherokee arts and crafts should come as no surprise, since crafts making skills have been passed down from generation to generation over hundreds of years. In 1946, sixty Cherokee craftsmen who were looking for a better way to sell their wares founded the Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual.
Today, the Mutual offers works from more than 300 artists and is the oldest Native American Arts cooperative in the United States. It offers a rich scope of arts and crafts to admire and acquire, from pottery and woven baskets to dolls and masks.
The Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual is located on the Cherokee Indian Reservation and is open year-round. Groups can even schedule a lesson in custom craftmaking from one of the artists themselves.
And for more information about art, crafts and activities around North Carolina, visit www.homegrownhandmade.com.
added: December 10, 2008
updated: May 4, 2009
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