Exhibition celebrates women’s role in Appalachian craft history

SISTER ACT: Not only were women the organizers of the Southern Highland Craft Guild, but they also made up a significant part of its membership. Here, Rowena Bradley makes a doubleweave rivercane basket — a style traditional to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians — in a 1991 photo from the Asheville Art Museum collecetion, 2009 Art Nouveaux Purchase. Photo by Tim Barnwell

It began with the women — Frances Goodrich of Allanstand Cottage Industries, Olive Campbell of the John C. Campbell Folk School and Lucy Morgan of the Penland Weavers and Potters, to name a few. These women were leaders in the regional craft movement and some of the founding members of the Southern Highland Craft Guild in 1930.

“This sounds really sexist,” says Andrew Glasgow, “but a bunch of men would never have worked cooperatively to found a multistate organization to assist in education, preservation and economic development of craft.” Glasgow co-curated the exhibition Appalachian Innovators: Women Makers in the Southern Highland Craft Guild, 1930-2000, with Lynn Poirier-Wilson. The show is on display at the Asheville Art Museum through June and features more than 20 artists who have worked across seven decades. It includes textile pieces, pottery and enameled jewelry, as well block prints, glassworks, cornhusk dolls, carved wooden animal figurines and more.

“I’ve always been interested in how it really was women who were responsible for this entire movement,” Glasgow says of his inspiration for the exhibit. “Men have certainly gotten involved in the past few decades, but it’s really largely a women-driven organization and field in many ways.”

When the Southern Highland Craft Guild began, more than 85 years ago, the craft revival represented artists working in their home communities while entrepreneurial marketers promoted their wares. Marketing looked much different in the 1930s, before the advent of online platforms like Etsy. The guild’s wares were being sold by mail order and in a physical storefront. That business, the Allanstand Craft Shop, is currently operated by the guild and has the distinction of being the oldest continuously run craft shop in the country.

Another marketing innovation of the time was a portable gallery, masterminded by Morgan, who outfitted a tiny log cabin on the back of a pickup truck and traveled to the Chicago World’s Fair. There, she showcased locally made handicrafts in what she called her “Travelog” — a precursor to today’s popular mobile boutiques. “I think offering an outlet for sales has always been one of the top priorities of the organization,” says Glasgow.

Not only were women the organizers of the guild, but they also made up a significant part of its membership. The works selected for Appalachian Innovators show a continuity of the female workforce over 70 years and include historical gems alongside contemporary works by Cynthia Bringle, Jane Peiser and others.

One piece in the exhibition is a large quilt made by Rubynelle Counts and designed by her husband, Charles Counts. The textile, from 1965, boasts free-form stitching and mod windowpane color blocks that combine olive with burgundy and blues. “That design and that aesthetic is just so perfect,” says Glasgow, who purchased several of the duo’s quilts for the Southern Highland’s collection while he was on staff there. (He was hired as the guild’s curator of education in 1988 and went on to work as the executive director of the American Craft Council until he retired in 2009.) The Countses, Glasgow says, were forthright about each person’s contributions and strengths to the craft process. Their piece seems to be a kind of midpoint in the historical story of gender and craft.

“I think that we’re much more gender democratic [today] than we were then,” says Glasgow. “So what I see in the arts is much more open-mindedness [instead of a] literal interpretation of gender identity, and what you can do if you’re a man versus what you can do if you’re a women.”

Looking at the role of craft going forward, Glasgow is strategic and passionate. “The museum is embarking on a pretty ambitious project and my goal has always been to make sure that craft and makers are represented in our artistic endeavors,” he says. “I hope it’s the first of several exhibitions at the museum concerning women and their role in WNC in creative industries.”

The guild, having helped birth the area’s craft movement, has continued its efforts and maintained its relevancy. Glasgow sums up the timeline with the quip, “Money is always relevant.” Just as 19th-century women handcrafted objects to bring in extra money for their families, today’s craft artists continue to sell their wares as their livelihood. As Glasgow sees it, from cornhusk dolls to mobile log cabin shopfronts, “The crafts have always been about economic development.”

WHAT: Appalachian Innovators: Women Makers in the Southern Highland Craft Guild, 1930-2000.

WHERE: The Asheville Art Museum, 2 S. Pack Square, ashevilleart.org

WHEN: On display through June. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 10 a.m.- 5 p.m. and Sundays, 1-5 p.m.

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One thought on “Exhibition celebrates women’s role in Appalachian craft history

  1. Chris Moses

    These women were the precursors of the women’s liberation movement in many ways. What an inspiration. As modern craftsmen/women, we have been standing on their shoulders for years.
    Looking forward to seeing the show.

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