Wander through any of the world’s great art museums and invariably you’ll find yourself in front of a glass case, face to face with what were once the simple objects of a lost people’s ordinary life.
Bowls, baskets, hair combs and earrings are often displayed amid the massive paintings and statuary that we tend to think of as “fine art” — a quiet testament to beauty not being the sole province of wealthy individuals and powerful institutions.
Intimate objects are our connection with the culture of those who’ve gone before us — and will, in turn, express the rhythms of our own lives to future generations. And such is the guiding sensibility behind Traditions and Innovations, the upcoming fall edition of the Craft Fair of the Southern Highlands, which is sponsored by the Southern Highland Craft Guild, a nine-state consortium headquartered in Asheville.
The 180 exhibitors scheduled for the event are among the creme de la creme of Appalachian artisans. All jury-elected members of the 56-year-old guild, they represent a diverse range of disciplines that includes ceramics, glass, metalwork, textiles, jewelry and woodwork. Here you will find weavers and blacksmiths who honor the processes practiced for generations side by side with those artisans exploring new boundaries, and integrating new technologies.
What binds them is superlative design and craftsmanship.
“What is truly exciting is the way many artisans are creating a new thinking about their medium,” offers guild member Lindsay Hearn. “They are taking traditional methods and materials and using them in untraditional ways. [This show] embraces new takes on old crafts, but always refers back to where [those crafts] came from.”
Exhibitor Ray Jones agrees.
“I’ve done shows all over the country, and the guild fair does have many more traditional artists than other venues,” says the artist, whose medium is wood. “But it has many people [working in new forms] as well.
“The opposite poles get along quite well,” he comments. “They all draw on the rich heritage of craft that exists here.”
For the artists, who often work in relative seclusion, the exhibit functions as a convention of sorts, where ideas and techniques can be shared, and a sense of community prevails.
Textile artist Jen Swearington, recently profiled in Fiber Arts magazine, is delighted to find herself rubbing elbows with veteran craftspeople.
“I’m one of the younger members of the guild, and the fair gives me an opportunity to meet artists whose work I have admired for years,” she says. “It’s really thrilling to be greeted as a peer by people who have been mentors.”
The family atmosphere is created in part by the nature of the show itself, notes Jones.
“It has a different feeling than other shows,” he insists. “It’s a show of craftspeople by craftspeople. There are no promoters; [there’s] no third party.”
And nothing to stand between the viewer and the creator.
The guild has scheduled a wide range of craft demonstrations for this event: Blacksmith Bea Hensley will work his “singing anvil”; woodworker Tom Donahey will use a treadle lathe and traditional tools to transform a tree into a chair; doll maker Charlie Patricolo, quilt maker Alice Wiley and natural dyer Dede Syles will wow observers with their particular skills.
“People can see the process and interact directly with the exhibitors,” Hearn points out. “It helps them to better appreciate the work.”
And it is work — hard work.
“I think many people have a mistaken notion of what craftspeople do,” observes mixed-media artist Nancy Kubale-Wicker. “They tend to romanticize it, or think of it as a hobby. But for most of us, this is our livelihood.”
And so, while Kubale-Wicker welcomes all collectors, casual to serious, she finds it particularly satisfying when folks show up who “are spending their last $100 on something because they love it, they understand it, and they simply must have it.”
Traditions and Innovations, the fall edition of the Craft Fair of the Southern Highlands, runs from Thursday, Oct. 16 through Sunday, Oct. 19 at the Asheville Civic Center arena. Hours are 10 a.m.-6 p.m. daily. Admission is $6/adults, with kids under 12 admitted free. For more information, check out www.southernhighlandguild.org, or call 298-7928.