Sometimes it takes going away to discover what’s right in your backyard. At least that’s what Sherry Masters says she found when she went to her first big wholesale craft show in Philadelphia as a buyer for Grovewood Gallery in the early 1990s. She expected to have to explain to everyone where her little town was, she says, but practically every artist she met told her, “I know someone in Asheville” or “I want to move to Asheville.”
That experience opened Masters’ eyes to the special nature of craft art in this region. Nowadays, she’s showing off the unique artists and the heritage of craft arts in the area on Art Connections’ curated craft tours. “People need to experience Western North Carolina if they have any interest in art and craft because there’s so much here,” Masters says.
And she’s not the only one in town who feels that way. Others are creating tour experiences based on the rich tradition of crafting in Asheville. The Center for Craft has introduced the monthly Craft City Food and Art Tours with craft enthusiast Anna Helgeson and food writer Stu Helm. And, through River Arts District-based Asheville Art Studio Tours, glass sculptor John Almaguer and his cohorts offer insider glimpses of maker spaces.
“Even though I feel like I was the first one to start doing this in Asheville,” says Masters, “it’s great that there are others; we’re all different.”
The Food and Art Tours swoop around downtown Asheville on foot from gallery to restaurant to shop to bar, highlighting all things craft, which includes craft beer, farm-to-table meals and the art found throughout the city. The only place participants see work in process is Lexington Glassworks, but while experiencing something in the making is one way to relate to craft, says Helgeson, “Perhaps what’s [less] thought of is how we’re surrounded by craft every day.”
The tour was designed by Helgeson and Helm while thinking about Asheville as “craft city” and how broadly that idea can be applied in an authentic way. They visit and talk about potters and fine-food makers; they drink local wine and eat local cheese. And, along the way, they incorporate “craft in surprising places,” such as the sidewalk bricks and railings found as they stroll.
Perhaps even more so than downtown, the RAD is dripping with art. “I have to give a shout-out to Sherry Masters,” Almaguer says. Masters inspired him by bringing tours to his home studio. He thought to himself, “What a cool job: You get to … introduce people to artists.” Since no one was doing that consistently for the RAD, where tourists struggle to keep their bearings, he saw a real need to be filled.
Almaguer trains his guides to intuit the needs of visitors when it comes to what kind of information they are looking for, be it historical or making connections on art topics. “Our heartbeat is to connect people with art and artists,” Almaguer says. “If we can connect people [to] an intimate, close-up encounter with art that is inspiring to them … that’s a grand slam, in my book.”
Similarly, one of the goals of Art Connections is to be an accessible link between art lovers and collectors and the high-quality art studios in the region. The excursion is private and intimate in a way that more crowded day tours can’t be, Masters says.
She has built her tours on a foundation of longtime personal connections with local artists, a network that continues to grow. By partnering with a wide range of artists, Masters can offer a variety of experiences to those who take her tours. “Emerging artists can certainly talk about their education and why they do what they do,” she explains. “Artists who’ve been at it a really long time have more history to share, so that’s why curating the tours to what people want to know more about works.”
Beyond connecting buyers with sellers, the excursions are meant to teach. Masters says the elements of a good tour are activity in the studio, hearing the artist’s perspective on their craft and seeing work in different stages, along with the necessary equipment. “I’ve been doing a lot of glass tours this year,” she says, “and I’ve been learning a lot myself about the processes in glass. … It’s more than just the glory hole and the furnace that people think of when they think of hot glass. So, it’s been a real education.”
Authenticity in art is what Asheville’s craft tours seek to provide. That comes down to creativity with a commitment to process and materials, says Helgeson, “no matter what new name we come up with to call the city.”
She adds, “Brew City, Foodtopia — I think at the root of all of those things is really craft.”