As the center of one of the top folk art and crafts regions in the United States, this picturesque city is an ideal base for launching day trips to find and enjoy traditional and contemporary works.
More than 4,000 people residing in 23 western North Carolina counties make at least part of their living producing art and crafts. These include paintings, sculptures, intricately patterned and hand-sewn quilts, hand-forged jewelry, pottery with custom-created glazes, blown glass of delicate prism-like colors, ornate pieces carved from fine-grained native wood, fabrics woven of hand-spun wool, and much more.
Here you can spend a day, a week, a month, or even years seeing, learning about, and purchasing beautiful handmade art, and perhaps even shaping some of your own.
The area's first craft art was born among the indigenous Cherokee Indians. To this day, producing crafts continues as part of their heritage and culture.
European settlers later applied their handworking skills to cope with the harshness of the then-remote wilderness. In the process they created much of what is now referred to as traditional crafts.
Time passed, industrialization came, its jobs replacing much of the hardscrabble farming as a livelihood. And then the economyfaltered, leaving many searching for ways to earn a living.
Meanwhile, though often regarded as quaint and curious, folk art and crafts survived and even blossomed. This was due in large part to the foresight of those who founded institutions such as the Penland School of Crafts and the Highland Craft Guild, both currently celebrating 75th anniversaries, and the John C. Campbell Folk School, now 80 years old. All were started to help keep alive the unique mountain heritage, culture, and production of beautiful handmade art while also providing opportunities to improve lifestyles.
Two projects of HandMade in America, a support system for artisans, provide excellent starting places for art and crafts adventures. "The Craft Heritage Trails of Western North Carolina" is an excellent guidebook to open studios and galleries, and provides related information on historic sites. It includes eight highway loop tours, most with easy connections to the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Visitors may also use the craft registry found on the organization's website, www.handmadeinamerica.org. It tells where artists' work may be found even if they don't have open studios.
The 500-mile Blue Ridge Parkway runs north to south, following the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains through Virginia and North Carolina.
Some of the Blue Ridge Parkway's oldest settlements and restored historic structures provide perspective on 200-plus years of Appalachian culture and its influence upon the region's art and crafts. Along the way, overlook signs and visitor centers lead to points of interest.
About seven miles from downtown Asheville is the Folk Art Center, a cooperative effort of the Highland Craft Guild, the National Park Service, and the Appalachian Regional Commission. Representing more than 800 juried craftspeople from nine Southeastern states, it offers craft demonstrations, free educational events, and gallery exhibitions.
Near Spruce Pine, the Penland School of Crafts educational program provides classes and artists' residencies, exhibitions, demonstrations, tours, and a retail shop where you may see and buy the work of instructors, resident artists, and students. Founded in 1929, the school comprises 400 acres and 41 structures (see sidebar at left).
The John C. Campbell Folk School began in 1925 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is located on 380 acres in Brasstown near Murphy and offers courses in music, dance, and crafts, has a retail shop that includes work from many of its instructors, and includes a history center.
On the first Friday of every other month from April through October, the Asheville Downtown Gallery Association sponsors Art Walks. Galleries are open until at least 8 p.m. A majority of them feature folk art and/or crafts.
Several art and craft festivals and shows are held in western North Carolina. In Asheville, the Highland Craft Guild hosts one in the spring and another in the fall. The Biltmore Village Craft Fair is a prestigious and popular August show.
One thing a visitor quickly learns in western North Carolina is to allow more time than he or she might normally on a vacation.
The Blue Ridge Parkway and other mountain roads are built for a more leisurely pace. Then, too, you are likely to need extra time here and there to listen to the fascinating stories of the folk artists and crafters you meet. Most love to talk about their work and lifestyles. And that's part of what makes such a trip special.
2004-05 Celebration of North Carolina Craft
John C. Campbell Folk School
One Folk School Road
Brasstown, NC 28902
Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual (Cherokee)
645 Tsali Blvd.
Cherokee, NC 28719
(828) 497-9193 www.insidenc.com/mountain/quallacoop.htm
Penland School of Crafts
67 Doras Trail
Bakersville, NC 28705
(828) 765-2359 www.penland.org
Southern Highland Craft Guild
PO Box 9545
Asheville, NC 28805
(828) 298-7928 www.southernhighlandguild.org
Asheville Convention & Visitors Bureau
PO Box 1010
Asheville, NC 28802