Handmade in Appalachia

Unless you’ve just flown in from Oz, you know that the Southern Appalachians boast a long line of talented craftspeople who create beautiful things (like brooms, turned Windsor chairs, jewelry, baskets, woodcarvings), and that the center of this arts-and-crafts community is (are you ready?) Asheville. For the past 52 years, in July and October, the rest of us have swarmed, like bees to rhododendron, to the Craft Fair of the Southern Highlands to admire (and if we’re lucky, buy) those beautiful things and meet the magicians who make them.

For four days at the Asheville Civic Center, we can ogle what Newland, N.C., woodturner Alan Hollar calls “the cream of Appalachian craftsmanship.” All the exhibitors have been elected by peers in their craft to the Southern Highland Craft Guild, the fair’s sponsor. Hollar, one of this year’s 33 new Guild members, said his “goal for the past five years has been to get into the Guild. [For craftspeople], it makes the difference between scratching along and making a living.”

Visitors to the more than 160 booths at this summer’s fair will be treated to a mix of Appalachian-heritage crafts and contemporary designs. Jewelry designer Joanna Gollberg, another 1999 Guild initiate, makes what she calls “modern jewelry … hollow, so it’s light, and mostly sterling silver with a lot of freshwater pearls.” She also molds molding sterling silver and nickel, to make contrasting patterns. Like most of the fair’s crafters, Gollberg offers work at a wide range of prices, “from $18 to $800.” (The high-end figure is for special one-of-a-kind pieces.)

Many booths, says Guild representative Katherine Caldwell, will feature items for as little as $5: “Even if [the craftsperson offers] immense glass window hangings, they’ll try to offer smaller things that even a child can buy.

“Lots of craftspeople will demonstrate in their booths, too,” continues Caldwell. “Often, they’ll gear their demos to children, [and] lots of kids will gather.” What can one expect to see? Potters at the wheel, basket weavers, spinners, marblers, glass-bead makers (wielding a torch) and stained-glass makers cutting and soldering.

Fairgoers can also watch wood crafts (this year’s theme) in the making. Fifth-generation chairmaker Max Woody (from Marion) will be embellishing chairs outside the Civic Center. Inside, Tom Donahey (from Madison County) will work a foot-pedaled lathe to make a Carolina “settin’ chair,” and William Showalter (from Greenville, Tenn.) will use hand tools to craft a Windsor chair. Representing the non-wood artists, longtime Guild member Ganell Marshall from St. Paul, Va., will demonstrate the crafting of apple-head dolls

To set the proper down-home mood, the fair’s entertainment lineup will include Transylvania County’s Hogtown Squealers (an old-time string band), upstate South Carolina’s Split Rail. offering “consumable bluegrass,” Avery County native Red Wilson and His Hotshots (old-time mountain music) and The Magills (Celtic-flavored old-time). Longtime fair favorite Sheila Kay Adams, a seventh-generation ballad singer, rounds out the musical program with authentic (and woeful) mountain ballads and stories.

Besides Hollar and Gollberg, five other new Guild members will be first-time fair exhibitors this month: ceramicists Mark Tomczak (from Nebo) and M.L. Bagwell (from Robbinsville), jeweler Howard Thompson (from Tullahoma, Tenn.), woodturner Cliff Ammons (from Greenville, Tenn.) and fiber artist Allison Dennis (from Asheville).

Dennis’ specialty is handmade, hand-woven and surface-design clothing. She says she works “with a sophisticated palette, often with very unusual color combinations.

“It’s important to see the mark of a hand on a piece,” Dennis notes — which could serve as a mantra for the whole show.

“Every artist has their followers,” Caldwell explains. “Some of the popular returnees are potter George Handy (from Asheville), basketmaker Billy Ruth Sudduth (from Bakersville), silkscreen artist Debbie Littledeer (from Micaville), broommaker Ralph Gates (from Leicester) and jeweler Stuart Nye (from Asheville).

It’s hard to say who’s more enthusiastic about the fair — visitors or exhibitors. Speaking for many of the SHCG crafters, Gollberg says that one of the things she’s most looking forward to is “getting feedback from customers — people who are buying my work.”

Folk Art Center hosts musical about a Blue Ridge Mountain Boyhood

If you’re a sucker for the real Western North Carolina, you can’t get much more authentic than this: the boyhood stories of North Carolina poet laureate (and Haywood County native) Fred Chappell, dramatized by an off-Broadway actress who’s long lived in the WNC mountains, backed up by a fifth-generation Madison County ballad singer and a fourth-generation banjo picker who grew up in Barnardsville … and performed practically on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Buck-os and Lady Misses, sponsored by the Southern Highland Craft Guild, pays tribute to some of Fred Chappell’s best-loved tales about growing up in these mountains in the years before World War II. Chappell — whose writing has been compared to that of James Agee and Robert Penn Warren — gives the show two enthusiastic thumbs up: “It captures the spirit of my books, their respect and affection for the land and people of Appalachia. I loved it! It was fun!”

Barbara Bates Smith portrays characters from two Chappell novels — Farewell, I’m Bound to Leave You and I Am One of You Forever (Ivy Rowe, Smith’s one-woman show based on Lee Smith’s Fair and Tender Ladies, toured for a decade). Brooke Windsor (balladeer, songwriter and banjo player) and George Buckner (award-winning banjo player extraordinaire) weave regional tunes around the tales — often humorous, always pure WNC.

A typical story tells of the time the boy Jess’s father substituted foil-wrapped pullet eggs for his grandma’s special chocolates and got served nothing but eggs for weeks:

“‘Say, Johnson [a friend],” asked my father, ‘Do you ever get a strange craving to scratch dust and cluck?’ My grandmother patted me on the head … ‘Jess, don’t you never grow up to be like them two.’ ‘No ma’am,’ I said, promising myself that I would grow up to be exactly like them two.”

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