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Food Feature: Crafty Asheville

From old-fashioned to contemporary, handicrafts are a mission statement



Asheville is a mighty small city. But it could easily be dubbed the Crafts Capital of the Southeast. Give credit for that to the missionaries.

For the mostly poor and isolated people of the mountains around Asheville, furniture-making, pottery-making, weaving and quilting used to be a necessity. Even objects of pure pleasure, like dolls and whirligigs, were fashioned at home.

If a handful of missionaries and teachers had not arrived in the Southern Appalachians in the early 20th century to help save them, those old skills might have been lost. But because those outsiders came, the Asheville area is today a center not only of traditional mountain crafts, but also of cutting-edge contemporary work in those formerly utilitarian media.

The output of area artisans can be seen and purchased at museums, galleries and studios in Asheville. A handy guidebook, The Craft Heritage Trails of Western North Carolina, details driving routes to craft shops and artists' studios, historic sites and lodgings in the surrounding region.

But you'll get a chance to view, and buy, the newest works from some of the best artists all in one place at the 55th annual Craft Fair of the Southern Highlands, Oct. 17-20, at the Asheville Civic Center.

You'll see work in metal, fiber, ceramic, glass, paper and wood. All exhibitors are members of the Southern Highland Craft Guild, which means their work has been juried by a committee of peers. Some of the objects are usable, some meant only for viewing, and some a hybrid of both. All of it is serious and up-to-the-minute.

But it was humble woven coverlets that inspired Frances Goodrich, a Yale graduate who moved to this area in 1885 to do missionary work for the Presbyterian Church. She founded a cottage industry to support local weavers and find buyers for their work. Similarly, in 1923, Lucy Morgan, who came south to teach at an Episcopalian school in a nearby hamlet, organized the Penland Weavers co-operative. This soon became the Penland School, which taught a range of traditional skills. Others had also come to the region with social uplift on their agendas. When many of them met at Penland in 1928, the idea of the Southern Highland Craft Guild was born.

Penland has long since shifted its focus to using craft skills to make contemporary art. Over the years generations of its students have settled in the vicinity and established studios. The affluence and sophistication of Asheville, with its tourist industry and tony retirement community, has supported them and attracted other artists as well.

One gallery owner claims to have statistics to show that there are more working artists in the Asheville area, per capita, than anywhere else in the country.

Nowadays, the Southern Highland Craft Guild operates two facilities in Asheville. Guild Crafts, occupying a pair of stone cottages, is a shop offering members' wares. It also incorporates the jewelry workshops of Stuart Nye, an early Guild member who began working in silver in 1933.

The Guild also operates the Folk Art Center, just outside town on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Don't be confused by the term "folk art"; here it's a reference to traditional techniques, rather than to "unschooled" or "outsider" expression. Everything you see at the center's facilities, whether made in an old style or modern, is highly disciplined, self- conscious work.

The shop at the Folk Art Center is called Allanstand, named for the original craft shop started by Frances Goodrich in 1895, the nation's first. In the center's galleries, through the end of the year, there's a show called New Traditions, featuring work by Guild members, and a juried exhibition of marbling on paper, garments, boxes, hand-bound books and other three-dimensional forms.

Penland School of Crafts, about an hour north of Asheville, is not generally open to the public — hey, those kids have to study! But there are guided tours, by reservation, of the rustic campus on Tuesdays and Thursdays. And the Penland Gallery, featuring work by artists affiliated with the school, is open every day except Sunday into December.

Grovewood Gallery in Asheville owes its origins to outsiders who were more missionaries of wealth than social progressives: Edith and George Washington Vanderbilt. They constructed Biltmore, still America's largest private home, on the outskirts of Asheville. In 1901, they founded Biltmore Industries as a training school to revive interest in traditional crafts, especially woodcarving and homespun weaving. In 1917, the enterprise was purchased by and moved to the grounds of the Grove Park Inn resort. Along the way it too has shifted from a strictly traditional to a more contemporary focus.

The Grovewood facility now includes the North Carolina Homespun Museum, a shop representing craft artisans from around the country, and an exhibition gallery. In the latter, into early November, there's a show of furniture and accessories combining metal with imagery from antique wood-block prints.

Another stop on the crafts quest, for educational purposes, should be the Asheville Art Museum, which has a permanent collection rich in local work, both contemporary and historic.

But surely you're going to want to acquire some little handmade souvenir. Contemporary crafts are found in many Asheville boutiques, but the mother of all crafts shops is the enormous Blue Morning Gallery. Its sister emporium, Bellagio, specializes in drop-dead elegant, one-of-a-kind art-to-wear.

Such "simple" crafts often come with a high price tag. Don't come to Asheville with empty pockets, or you'll go home empty-handed.

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