Great Scott!: A Craft Fair of the Southern Highlands odyssey

STILL STANDING: Black Mountain-based woodworker David Scott, right, and Xpress reporter Edwin Arnaudin commemorate their shared experience on the final day of the Craft Fair of the Southern Highlands. Photo by Arnaudin

We’re practically best friends now, but it’s hard to believe that David Scott and I were strangers a few weeks ago.

That all changed when the Black Mountain-based artisan agreed to let me shadow him during the 75th Craft Fair of the Southern Highlands Oct. 13-16 at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center – Asheville.

At that point, I was also a stranger to the show itself. Despite growing up in Brevard, I have no recollection of my parents dragging me and my sister to the event — somewhat of a shock, seeing as they love these types of cultural experiences. But their general dislike of crowds and hesitancy to explore places larger than the Transylvania County seat kept us from making our way to “the big city.”

My parents’ anxiety over large groups is apparently hereditary, as evinced by my trepidation in seeing this assignment through. Along with swarms of people, I was entering new territory and potentially messing with a man’s livelihood by trailing him for several hours across multiple days.

On top of all that, Scott and I got our initial dates mixed up regarding when I could witness the load-in process. What initially felt like a missed opportunity, in retrospect, was a good thing. It would have been a tad awkward (and a bit creepy) to have one grown man watch another grown man strategically place rocking chairs, tables, stools and coat racks in a fairly small square space. Yet in the moment, the mix-up further added to my nerves as the morning of Oct. 13 rolled in.

Day 1: One small step for man

Though Scott and I arranged to meet shortly after the show opened at 10 a.m., I headed downtown early to see what kind of tent city had been set up by the hardcore craft enthusiasts and how far this makeshift civilization had progressed. Sadly, no signs of such a community were evident, though a line of fair attendees stretched from the front door down to Roman’s Deli.

“So these are the craft folk,” I thought, looking them over. They didn’t seem so bad — mostly retirees with a few fellow elder millennials and Gen-Xers tossed in. The sort of group you wouldn’t mind having on your side when the zombie apocalypse comes.

After a brief security stop where the ticket scanners didn’t know what to do with my press badge, I got waved in and made my way down the empty ramp to the arena floor.

Inside booth 309, Scott showed me around his station. The interplay of different-colored wood as well as creatively cut pieces immediately pulled me in. And though many of the angles were unusual, the tabletops were clearly level, and the rocking chairs looked quite comfortable.

I complimented the curved legs of the tables, adding that they reminded me of something out of a Tim Burton movie — so much so, I half expected them to start walking away.

“There’s a real energy in curved lines,” Scott said. “Early on, I learned that the furniture industry loves straight lines because it’s very efficient and the cheapest way to make the most out of the material. Simply by not doing that, I could really distinguish myself from the industry.”

Scott has participated in the craft fair since 1981. For decades he also partook in the guild’s July and October events as well as up to eight additional East Coast shows per year.

But in the early 2000s, he became a member of the Ariel Gallery, a co-op currently located next to the Mast General Store in downtown Asheville. Though the initial investment of time and money felt intimidating, Scott now considers it “the best thing [he] ever did.” The move has resulted in him making enough money that he no longer has to travel to shows. Instead, he can focus on making furniture and stick to the two annual Southern Highland Craft Guild fairs, sleeping in his own bed each night rather than paying for a hotel or Airbnb.

“I love doing this show,” he told me on opening day. “It’s kind of the hometown show, and I really love this organization and want to support it that way.”

Not wanting to interfere with sales, I left Scott to his commerce and wandered around, getting a glimpse of each booth. Over the years, I’ve trained myself to ignore eccentric human sights while traversing urban areas. As an arts reporter, I’m also more of a planner and try to arrange interviews in advance rather than cold calling. Sudden encounters aren’t really my thing. So, as I turned the corner and saw an elderly woman working a large sloth puppet that was as tall as her torso and head, I instinctually blasted by and avoided eye contact. Two booths down, however, I forced myself to stop.

“Engage, dummy. That’s why you’re here!”

And so, I turned back and had a chat with Alabama-based puppet maker Lucy Moore, who informed me that the fuzzy creature engulfing her right arm was named Pokey and that Pokey was shy. I inquired if Pokey was a gentleman, and she said she didn’t know. Well, folks — it’s official: Puppets are gender fluid, and I’m all for it.

NO INTERFERENCE: Potential customers near David Scott’s booth on the show’s first day, signaling our intrepid reporter’s time to leave. Photo by Edwin Arnaudin

Day 2: Judgment Day

Having witnessed the craft fair at the start of a day, I decided to compare it with its 4 p.m. activity on day two. After some pleasant small talk with the ticket taker, I made my way toward the ramp and spotted local woodworker Jesse Sawyer, my favorite server from his days at Plant. Stationed at Booth 44 with his wife, studio jeweler and metalsmith Audrey Laine Sawyer, Jesse reported a somewhat slow day though noted that overall sales had been strong.

Back down at 309, Scott had already made a few sales. I let out a huge exhale, relieved that I hadn’t jinxed him with this whole experiment.

On that note of superstitions, I asked about any “cursed spots” — dead zones in the arena or concourse that participating artists strive to avoid. Scott laughed, unable to think of any that are especially bad, but noted that booths close to the stage where live music is performed on Saturday and Sunday have been known to struggle.

“There can be a lot of people standing there, listening to the music, and nobody’s looking at your booth,” he told me. “And it’s a little hard to have a conversation.”

Bells rang from a nearby booth and continued to do so as we talked. Scott informed me that the maker, Beer Chunhaswasdikul, is a native of Thailand but is now based in Alabama.

“It’s kind of interesting — this is the Southern Highland Craft Guild, but we’ve had longtime members who are Hmong from South Vietnam,” Scott continued. “And there are several Japanese American members. It’s a neat mix of people.”

This and other comments drove home just how friendly the craft community is and the joy they get by reconnecting at annual events.

Amid our conversation, Jesse walked up and I introduced the two woodworkers. Jesse noted his admiration for Scott’s furniture and the two soon discovered they were both graduates of the Haywood Community College Professional Crafts Program — albeit 30-plus years apart. After a few minutes, Jesse headed back upstairs, and Scott made plans to visit Audrey’s booth.

Though Scott remained confident about the show, I continued to worry my presence would have an adverse effect on sales and opted not to visit on Saturday — historically the fair’s busiest day. Admittedly, I also had intentions of battling a different form of tourism by contending with the fall leaf-seeking crowd on the Blue Ridge Parkway. I updated Scott on my plans, and he handed me a card for a good psychiatrist.

Day 4: Closing Time

I arrived shortly before noon in hopes of beating the post-church rush, and there was a palpable sense of finality in the air. Artisans looked more tired than they did on Thursday and Friday, and booths didn’t seem quite as full. All things must pass, indeed.

Down on the floor, Scott was talking with a potential customer, so I headed one booth over and chatted with Colleen Williams, who made the drive from Chattanooga, Tenn. It was her first time at this particular craft fair, and though she’d sold several colorful porcelain bird sculptures, she said it hasn’t been a hugely successful show.

Undeterred, she vowed to return in 2023, ideally at a concourse booth where she thinks she’ll fare better. That night, she planned to return to Tennessee, then head down to Alabama on Thursday for her next show. I wished her well, in awe of her dedication to the craft fair grind.

At 309, Scott reported several more sales since we last spoke and noted that the cumulative results exceeded his  expectations. Minutes later, I nearly witnessed a sale myself as a couple from Michigan seemed on the cusp of purchasing one of Scott’s tables. Instead, they walked away with his card in hand and photos on their phone of the piece.

“For the record, I was pretty sure those folks were going to buy,” Scott said. “To me, a couple is the gold standard, because in a home you really have to get both sides with buy-in.”

With the final hours of the show ahead, I thanked Scott for his willingness to be a guinea pig and snapped a few more selfies. In a post-fair check-in the following morning, he informed me no additional sales came through after I left.

Yet he holds out hope that the Michigan couple — and others — might eventually come through.

“I’m feeling really good about the show,” he said. “Sales were good, and I think I ‘planted a lot of seeds.’ Who knows if or when they’ll grow?”


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About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for and is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Follow me @EdwinArnaudin

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