Unexpected twists

While Western North Carolina harbors many pockets of great artists, for beauty bare, no region matches the Toe River setting in the northern Black Mountain range.

The art bug got a solid grip on the region 75 years ago, with the founding of Penland School of Crafts (see Xpress, March 17, 2004), and the burgeoning creative spirit evidently seeped into the water. All along the Toe, running through Mitchell and Yancey Counties, are potters and paper makers, glass blowers and weavers, photographers and blacksmiths, water colorists and wood carvers, all pursuing their compulsions more or less in solitude throughout most of the year. You can find their work at galleries in Asheville and across the country; but these creators, due to their relative isolation, generally work incognito.

Until there comes an open house.

This weekend, more than 100 artists and crafters will fling wide the doors and welcome the public into their lairs. The Toe River Arts Council has organized tours for a quarter of a century, and the twice-yearly events have blossomed into what is arguably the finest studio drive in the country, if you’re seeking rugged, scenic splendor along with polished craftsmanship.

A good place to start is in downtown Spruce Pine at the TRAC Center on Oak Avenue. (The center will be open at 8 a.m. both days, with complimentary coffee, pound cake and fruit to kick-start your adventure.) Two-hundred works from various member artists will be on display, and volunteers will gladly hand you a map and point your nose in the right direction. Most of the studios are located on very winding roads, but the tour route is usually well marked. (Take note: The Highway Patrol occasionally targets the event; buckle up between studios or you may incur unexpected costs.)

Before heading out of town, you’ll find a half-dozen studios and galleries in Spruce Pine and just to the south and west along the Blue Ridge Parkway, in the picturesque tourist hamlet of Little Switzerland.

Leaving Spruce Pine, you might start by heading north into the Bakersville, Red Hill and Buladean area, where a dozen or more artist havens are clumped within a stone’s throw of each other (as the crow flies — actual travel time may vary). Judson Guerard’s glass studio on Toecane Road, just off N.C. 226, is reliably one of the most social stops on the tour, with other artists joining the fun. (This year, Melisa Cadell’s clay work and Gwyn Selman’s handmade books will be featured there.)

“TRAC creates a really nice opportunity to see craftspeople in their studios, to see us in our normal working environment … although a little more cleaned up and presentable than we might be on an average work day,” notes Guerard with a laugh.

“A lot of times, you can get seconds or work that’s not gallery quality at reasonable prices,” he adds. In fact, some work is never available locally except during the tours (and that includes Guerard’s own exquisite, blown-glass goblets).

The Local Color Weaving studio, recently moved from Bakersville to Loafer’s Glory a few miles up N.C. 226, will be a welcome stop for physical nourishment as well as the artistic kind.

“It’s hard to find food during the tour, so we’ll be serving soup, salad and sandwiches for visitors as a convenience,” says weaver Deborah Wheeler.

Local Color will also offer hand-woven textiles by Wheeler and Fred Swift, handmade books by Lynn McLure (of Earth Wisdom Books), paper by Carolyn Riley (of Paper Blitz Studio) and fiber art by Janet Taylor.

The Penland School area harbors another studio cluster, and the facility’s own gallery will also be open for the event. Many TRAC artists are regular or visiting teachers at the famed craft institution.

If you drop down out of Penland via N.C. 80, you can pop into the Energy XChange, where an innovative environmental program taps landfill gas for glass and pottery studios, and for greenhouse heat. Glass blower John Geci is one of six artists currently doing residencies at the facility.

“We are always open,” he reports, “but this is the best time to visit, since we have the shop cleaned up and we’re available to talk to visitors.” (The greenhouse will be open, too, with plants for sale.)

Heading west on U.S. 19E, it’s hard to know which way to turn. But take a spin to the south, to the fabled Celo intentional community, infested by crafters of every sort. Two sculpture studios — Susan Hayden’s, featuring whimsical metalwork, and Becky Gray’s, with delightfully figured clay — are absolutely not to be missed.

Gray is keenly aware of the social aspect of the tour.

“It’s not just going around to buy things,” she explains. “It’s more like a reunion: People who met on the tour years ago get together again each year. Some of them bring swimsuits or kayaks and picnic down at the river.”

Further along, there is another hotspot in Burnsville, with a dozen or more participating studios both downtown and upslope through Pensacola. Burnsville’s old downtown is a treat in its own right, preserved in its old-timey charm, while the fast-food and retail strips are thankfully confined to the highway two blocks to the south.

The Spring Studio Tour has traditionally been held in early May, but organizers were drawn to June’s bluebirds and rhododendron blooms, thus bumping the event forward this year.

Regulars won’t mind the wait. And first-timers will never know the difference.

The Toe River Arts Council holds its Spring Studio Tour from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. on Saturday, June 12 and Sunday, June 13. An opening celebration will be held at the TRAC center Friday, June 11, from 5-8 p.m. For more information, contact TRAC at www.toeriverarts.org, or at (828) 765-0520.

About Cecil Bothwell
A writer for Mountain Xpress since three years before there WAS an MX--back in the days of GreenLine. Former managing editor of the paper, founding editor of the Warren Wilson College environmental journal, Heartstone, member of the national editorial board of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, publisher of Brave Ulysses Books, radio host of "Blows Against the Empire" on WPVM-LP 103.5 FM, co-author of the best selling guide Finding your way in Asheville. Lives with three cats, macs and cacti. His other car is a canoe. Paints, plays music and for the past five years has been researching and soon to publish a critical biography--Billy Graham: Prince of War:

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