Fooling around with folk

Ceramic artist Liz Sparks, one of the artists-in-residence at the Energy Xchange in Burnsville, is also a newly appointed member of the Southern Highland Craft Guild.

“To me, folk pottery is what’s made in Seagrove,” she continued during a recent interview.

Seagrove, the North Carolina piedmont town famous for its large population of potters, is a place Sparks knows well, having spent time there honing her craft.

“In Seagrove, pottery is made quickly and sold cheaply,” she says.

Which isn’t to say that this pottery collective known for its functional and sometimes deliberately primitive wares is producing art cheap in quality. Sparks is talking more about function than form; it’s a concept she employs in her own work — and a bold stance in an era when crafters are increasingly trying to gain recognition as fine artists.

Along with many other young craftspeople in Western North Carolina, Sparks is embarking on a return to tradition. She throws her pots on a Korean-style kick wheel that she built herself, and she uses as many local materials as possible — including clay she digs herself.

From July 15-18, Sparks’ pottery will be on display at the Craft Fair of the Southern Highlands, held at the Asheville Civic Center. It’s her first time participating in the twice-a-year event, now celebrating its 57th anniversary.

The fair represents the works of Southern Highland Craft Guild members, all of whom are selected by jury. The guild’s history dates to the late 1800s, when Yale-educated Presbyterian missionary Frances Goodrich came to Buncombe County, recognizing that time-honored folk traditions could become real-world commodities.

The Samaritan encountered local women weaving wool and cotton coverlets, and began to develop the idea of a cottage industry that would provide a profit for poor mountain families. To that end, Goodrich founded the Allanstand Craft Shop in Madison County in 1895. By 1917, the missionary had moved her offices to College Street in Asheville, where she was able to network with others involved in the Southern-craft movement. Then, 11 years later, a meeting at the Penland School of Crafts led to the formation of the Southern Highland Craft Guild.

Today, the association represents some 900 craftspeople of all ages and genres from across nine states.

“We still have national treasures,” declares Ada Dudenhoeffer, a media coordinator with the Folk Art Center on the Blue Ridge Parkway, which handles the guild’s public relations.

She’s referring not to the work itself — but to the people who make it.

“We have members of the guild making very traditional rocking chairs and baskets, but we also represent people who are really on the cutting edge,” Dudenhoeffer notes. “It’s an interesting dichotomy.”

And one that lends itself to what she describes as an inevitable trend: craftspeople using time-honored techniques to produce thoroughly modern art.

“Furniture artists are creating contemporary interpretations of the classic Windsor style,” Dudenhoeffer points out.

Woodworker Derek Hennigar hand-carves chairs and builds cabinets by a method he calls “digital twist” — using conventional approaches to achieve a modular look. Robert Bondi embraces both technology and tools of his own crafting to fashion custom quiet-water canoes and paddles. And bench jeweler Joanna Goldberg employs the ancient techniques of her trade to create postmodern, geometric designs.

“Some of our newer [guild] members are contemporary jewelers,” Dudenhoeffer reports. “But we also have avant-garde quilters, which seems like a contradiction in terms.”

Fabric artist Niki Bonnet, for instance, incorporates into her patterns images she’s gleaned from the pages of National Geographic, while Jen Swearington’s acclaimed quilts resemble nothing as much as paintings.

Jason Bohnert, another Energy Xchange resident, explores traditional Chinese methods for making his carved and painted porcelain. In fact, the Xchange itself is a bit of a throwback, running its kilns and glass furnaces with methane captured from a retired landfill.

Sparks reveals her own personal modern-craft dichotomy: Working in a more conventional manner both uplifts her spiritually and grounds her to the earth.

“I like using traditional methods because I feel more emotionally … connected to what I’m doing,” she says.

“It also connects me to the place.”

The 57th Annual Craft Fair of the Southern Highlands happens 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Thursday, July 15 through Sunday, July 18, at the Asheville Civic Center (87 Haywood St.). Admission is $6/adults, free for kids under 12 (group rates are available). For more information, call 298-7928.

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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