The country roads cut through the mountains, winding along the rivers and next to farmers’ fields. This is the landscape of Mitchell and Yancey counties, where the 84 artists participating in the Toe River Arts Council’s studio tour — held Friday-Sunday, June 2-4 — live and work.
For the past 24 years, the tradition of a self-guided driving tour has been an excuse for many artists to clean up their studios, open their doors to the public and maybe put out a welcoming pitcher of sweet tea — of course, the ceramic pitcher would likely be a handmade one. The population of artists living in the counties has grown since the tour first began, and there is currently a rich community of makers who have made their homes here. The tour attracts about 2,000 visitors, and a study done by Mike Evans of the Appalachian State University Walker College of Business estimates that the total direct and indirect economic impact for the weekend is just over $200,000.
That’s an important financial boost to the region, but the real cause for celebration are the works on display. In addition to individual studios, there are several local galleries participating in the tour, including TRAC’s exhibition spaces in Spruce Pine and Burnsville. These can be a good starting point.
The downtown Spruce Pine gallery will have a group exhibit showcasing the tour’s artists. This is a visual buffet to get a sample of each artist’s work and style. The exhibition acts as a three-dimensional tour guide, with the display grouping artists by their geographic location. Gallery manager Kathryn Andree says that visitors “have said how wonderful it is to see the work, and then [they] can decide where they want to go.”
The TRAC gallery in downtown Burnsville will display the results from the 11th annual Paint Out that was held May 13, when artists set up their easels throughout the town for a plein-air painting session. The juror, Asheville-based artist John Mac Kah, says, “Jurying is not an easy job.” In addition to some key principles, “I look to see if the artist has an understanding of color and atmosphere in nature, and the ability to suspend disbelief so that the viewer can be transported, if only for a moment, into the picture.”
There is a philosophical motivation for plein-air painters to paint outdoors, on location. “Artists talk about the search for truth in art,” says Mac Kah. Addressing the important need for foundations like line, color, mood and temperature, he adds, “Working from photos cannot achieve the truth no matter how exact the representation turns out.”
Working on location is not the only way of making art. Burnsville-based painter Kat Turczyn says, “I’m not much of a plein-air painter, as I’m pretty slow and the light changes rapidly as the day goes on.” Despite this, she participated in the Paint Out. “After painting an awful little thing in the gray, cloudy morning, I picked another location for a second painting, a perspective on Lower Brown’s Creek by a bridge,” she says.
Turczyn is also participating in the TRAC tour. “Perhaps because I began painting very late in life, I paint in many different styles and choose a great variety of subjects,” she says. “I have found that when I feel enthusiastic and joyful about a painting, it transfers to viewers in some indefinable way, and I want very much to have my paintings bring joy to their viewers.”
Other mediums, such as fiber art, woodwork and metals bring joy, too. Potter Courtney Martin and glassblower John Geci each have their respective studios at their homestead just down the road from Penland School of Crafts. They both participate in the tour. Starting with last winter’s TRAC tour, they included another family member to help with selling wares.
“Grae was 5 when she first sold on the tour,” says Martin, “She made a bunch of pinch pots, which we glazed and fired in my wood kiln.” Some kids set up roadside lemonade stands to make extra cash, but the children of artists turn their own developing creative talents into early businesses.
“She’s very fun to have in the studio — it’s a special mom-and-daughter time,” says Martin. While giving her daughter lessons in fine craft, “We talk about form and about what we are making. It’s neat to teach her my process and talk about my pots with her.”
During December’s tour, Martin’s daughter made just over $100 in sales and donated half of her proceeds to the local animal shelter, as she will do again this year. “We went to the shelter with a Mason jar full of bills,” says Martin. “It was really sweet.”
“Many of the children of local artists are around their parent’s studios a lot,” says TRAC director Denise Cook. While some artists have adult children who will join them for the studio tour — glassblower Rob Levine‘s daughter Hannah Levine is a ceramist — there is a growing attention given to younger child artists.
The tour is “as much about the family life as well as an individual’s life in creative work,” says Cook.
WHAT: TRAC Studio Tour hosted by the Toe River Arts Council
WHERE: Mitchell and Yancey counties. Download the self-guided tour at toeriverarts.org/studio-tour
WHEN: Friday, June 2, to Sunday, June 4