“I’ve lived other places than Cherokee, but Cherokee is the only place I know of where most every home has an artist,” says Joanna Martin. “I think everybody realizes it’s a unique area.”
The bead jewelry-maker comes from a family of crafters. She learned beadwork from her father and continues to work with traditional designs as well as bringing a contemporary touch to her jewelry with the addition of copper. And, while Martin doesn’t know exactly how many generations back beadwork was a part of her family tradition, she recalls her grandfather working in that medium while her grandmother was a basket-maker — an art form Martin says she has yet to learn.
A decade ago, Martin joined the Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual, “the nation’s oldest and foremost Native American cooperative,” according to the organization’s website. The guild was established in 1946, at a time when expanding highways and the opening of Great Smoky Mountains National Park began to expose Cherokee to tourism. “Visionary Cherokee craftspeople and leaders saw that Cherokee crafts — if preserved and promoted — could strengthen tribal values and provide livelihoods while offering unique beauty to the wider world,” explains the organization’s historical notes.
Today, the cooperative includes about 300 members. Applicants go through a jury process and must show documentation of belonging to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Once in, those artists are lifetime members, even if they move away from Western North Carolina — as is the case with Shan Goshorn, who lives in Tulsa, Okla.
Goshorn’s work addresses political issues faced by First Nations’ people. She’s a featured artist in Home Land, the current exhibition at the Asheville Art Museum, which “explores the connections that Southeastern Native artists have to their ancestral homelands,” according to the exhibit description. Goshorn weaves baskets in traditional patterns, but instead of using white oak or river cane, she works with splints that are hand-cut from archival paper and ink reproductions and printed with words or images that challenge Native American stereotypes.
Home Land remains on view through Sunday, Oct. 22, and includes the creations of several WNC-connected artists, such as Joshua Adams. A member of the Qualla arts and crafts cooperative, Adams works predominantly in wood, carving masks, animal shapes and figurative sculptures. His great-uncle and great-aunt, James and Irma Bradley, were also carvers, and Adams studied with Cherokee artist James Bud Smith.
While Home Land includes his carvings, Adams also has two paintings in the exhibition, both of which combine Cherokee imagery, such as the snake symbol, with contemporary graffiti lettering. Adams has earned numerous prizes for his work and currently has art on display at the Tanzanian Embassy as part of the Art in Embassies project.
Martin points out that other Cherokee craftspeople — such as basket-maker Ramona Baith — have shown in embassies around the world, and in the Smithsonian Institution. “They’ve gone well beyond their local community,” she says. “They’re worldwide ambassadors for our arts and crafts.”
But the creative endeavors of the cooperative’s members still remain resolutely important within WNC, too. The arts and crafts mutual not only highlights the achievements of its affiliates but gives them a year-round place to sell work, helping to supplement the artists’ income. Before the casino became the area’s largest employer, many locals struggled to find year-round work.
Even as Cherokee has grown and changed, the Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual has remained true to its original mission of promoting the work of its membership. “By way of doing that, we’ve helped preserve those traditions,” says Martin. She adds that the institution’s permanent gallery also collects and maintains earlier work “so we can keep track of how things were, and how they’re changing over the years.”