A good-natured bird

For Phillip Brown, an old-time carver, and Judi Harwood, an innovative maker of clay drums, the Southern Highland Craft Guild's biannual fair is as much a meeting place as a marketplace.

"It's one of my favorite things to do," Brown says. "I'll run into old friends and craftsmen I haven't seen in years." 

Brown, Harwood and her business partner Melanie Robertson are among 200 mountain makers scrambling to put the finishing touches on pottery, woven goods, quilts, furniture, carvings, corn shuck dolls, handmade instruments, needlework, glass, jewelry and much more for the 62nd installment of the Craft Fair at the Asheville Civic Center, Oct. 15 through 18.

Phillip Brown carves birds so filled with life you half expect them to fly away or take a peck at your hand.

Brown, who has participated in the fair since 1992, carves birds so filled with life you half expect them to fly away or take a peck at your hand.

"Come on down — the chips are flying," says Brown from his Swannanoa studio, which he jokingly calls "the birdhouse."  The outside of the two-story studio is lined with stacks of silvery-grey driftwood that he's collected from area lakes to create environments for his birds. 

His wife, Andrea Gay, a potter, is busy glazing and firing on the first floor of the studio, while Brown carves upstairs in a woody nest filled with shavings.

Visitors to Brown's booth will see as many as a hundred of his painted basswood birds — chickadees, Carolina wrens, cardinals, owls, hummingbirds, bluebirds, jays, woodpeckers and other species native to the region that he's observed and gotten to know. They seem to breathe.

"I particularly like chickadees," he offers. "The chickadee is a good-natured little bird. It lets you come right up to it when it's at the feeder."

Brown learned to carve from Edsel Martin when he was a teenager, and over the years he's figured out how to capture the spirit as well as the detail of each species. His painting technique makes the birds look soft and fragile. You can almost feel their fine bones pushing out against their feathers. He's carved other things besides birds, but he always comes back to birds. "I guess you'd have to call me a bird-man," he says.

Smaller birds take two or three hours to carve, and larger ones demand as much as two or three days. He alternates between carving big birds and small birds to save wear and tear on his hands — especially when he's in overdrive getting ready for the craft fair.

Meanwhile, down in Arden, Judi Harwood and Melanie Robertson are literally up to their elbows in clay getting ready, gathering goat skins and goblet-shaped pottery bases to demonstrate the steps of drum-making at their educational booth. Harwood got the idea for making pottery drums from her son Jonathan, a drummer who has become the "technical advisor" for Earth 2 Art Studio's innovative venture.

These pottery versions of African wooden djembes have a bright, clear sound that rings somewhere between metal and wood. Harwood and Robertson carefully round the edges of each pottery base to protect both the goat-skin drumhead and the drummer's fingers. The drums, which come in different sizes and glazes, can be tuned. 

"A lot of people who buy them just set them on a table, but they're designed to be played. Each drum has its own sound," Harwood explains. Some of the drums are decorated with horses — a totem that appears frequently in Harwood's work. A self-taught potter, she joined the Guild in 2004. 

Judi Harwood's pottery versions of African wooden djembes have a bright, clear sound that rings somewhere between metal and wood.

Like many mountain craftspeople, Harwood and Brown are also musicians. Harwood writes songs and Brown picks guitar. In fact, music may be the magic ingredient in mountain crafts, and the fair will feature plenty of it. Fairgoers can tap their feet to old time bluegrass from the Guildenaires, rock out to kazoos and the cacophonium with Hot Duck Soup, or mellow with Firefly's mother-daughter harmonies.

Fiber artist Susan Sorrell, blacksmith Alwin Wagener, spinners and dyers Dede Styles and Cassie Dickson, corn-shuck doll-maker Anne Freels and calligrapher Michael Hughey will also be demonstrating their skills at the fair.

I (perhaps naively) ask Brown, who was featured in Tim Barnwell's Hands in Harmony, a photographic essay on Appalachian musicians and craftsmen, if he's ever won any prizes for his work.

He shakes his head modestly:  "You know, to win prizes you have enter the contests, and I don't go for that so much. When somebody buys a bird, and they look tickled to death to have it — that's all the prize I need. That's what it's all about."

what: 62nd annual Craft Fair of the Southern Highlands
where: Asheville Civic Center
when: Oct. 15 to 18 (10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Adults, $7, children under 12 free. www.craftguild.org or 298-7928).

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