Turning craft to cash

[Editor’s note: Back in January, Gov. Mike Easley proclaimed 2004-05 as the official “Celebration of North Carolina Craft,” kicking off a two-year, statewide commemoration (see more at www.carolinaarts.com). This story is the second in a series of Mountain Xpress articles exploring the art and business of craft in Western North Carolina.]

“People in general don’t understand how important the creative economy is to the well-being of the overall community.”

— Ruth Summers, Southern Highland Craft Guild

In many ways, Waynesville weaver and potter Liz Spear stands at the top of her profession.

Accepted into the Southern Highland Craft Guild in 1996, Spear supports herself by weaving beautiful, multi-hued fabric and using it to create high-end women’s clothing, which she markets at craft fairs and through the guild’s Allanstand Craft Shop. She supplements her income by selling her handmade pottery.

Yet despite her success — Spear has all the work she can handle — she knows all too well the economic challenges she and other craftspeople face, which range from keeping their mostly one-person businesses afloat to figuring out whether they can afford health insurance.

“This is hard work,” says Spear, taking a break from dressing her loom during a weaving demonstration. “And it’s constant work. And it is not automatic that after five years your business is going to be rolling down the road and … you’re going to be able to take a month vacation when you want. I consider that when I’m awake, I’m workin’.

“But that’s just me,” she adds with a laugh.

Spear is one of the thousands of mostly independent Western North Carolina artisans who are powering the regional craft economy, which appears to be growing — and grabbing a larger share of the spotlight — even as WNC manufacturing plants continue to shutter their doors.

“Entrepreneurs can always look for new, creative solutions to grow their business, and they’re not dependent on somebody else shutting them down,” observes fiber instructor Catharine Ellis of Haywood Community College’s professional crafts program.

And while earning a living through craft can be a challenge, local experts seem to agree that Western North Carolina’s strong network of educational institutions, professional organizations and galleries make it easier for crafters to earn a living here than in many other parts of the country.

Taking care of business

Thirty years ago, when clay instructor Gary Clontz helped launch Haywood Community College’s professional crafts program, the regional craft economy looked starkly different.

“There were lots of little, quote, ‘craft shops and things,'” Clontz recalls. “None of them were selling certainly local crafts at all. If [they were], it was … more trinkets [with] not a lot of design integrity.”

There were some bright spots, however. The Southern Highland Craft Guild, which turns 75 next year, was mounting craft fairs and running its shops to help members find buyers for their work.

“Part of the reason that the organization was founded was to be able to allow individual members to live and work in rural communities and to be able to help them market and sell their work,” explains Executive Director Ruth Summers. The guild now boasts nearly 900 members.

WNC also had the Penland School of Crafts (75 years old this year) and the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown (80 years old next year). And in 1972, John Cram had opened New Morning Gallery in Asheville, which has gone on to become a resounding success.

But in Haywood County, the late Mary Cornwell (who served on the community college’s board of trustees) was dismayed that many Western North Carolina craftspeople were selling their handmade objects essentially for the cost of the materials.

“She was very frustrated by that,” Clontz recalls. “She felt there ought to be a better way to help people earn a living from this. She just saw this as a viable way for people to get income.”

At Cornwell’s insistence — and with a boost from her political influence — the HCC professional crafts program formally opened in January 1977, reports woodworking instructor Wayne Raab.

The program now offers tracks in pottery, weaving, woodworking and jewelry making — supplemented by courses in photography and graphic design.

Equally significant, the two-year program also requires budding crafters to take business-and-marketing classes and ultimately develop business plans for their craft enterprises — an approach far different from the mostly short-term courses offered at Penland and the John C. Campbell Folk School.

Traditionally, “the premise has always been do the artwork and find some other job, so you can do this in your spare time,” Clontz explains. “Why do what you love in your spare time? Do it for a living!”

But business skills often don’t come easy to creative types, HCC faculty members admit. Accordingly, students are asked to research what kind of studio space, equipment and supplies they’ll need and produce a realistic operating budget, to help them calculate a legitimate hourly rate for themselves — and thereby price their products properly.

Students, notes Clontz, often find that compared to the business end, the easiest part of all is making the craft item itself.

Spear, who went through Haywood Community College’s professional craft program in the mid-’90s, extols the program’s focus on the practicalities of earning a living through craft.

“I recommend Haywood because it is so intense,” Spear observes. “I think it’s a real good kind of indicator of the depth of shock awaiting people who think this would … be a cool way to make a living. Yeah, well — it’s hard. What’s your work ethic, folks?”

Reflecting on her own labors, Spear admits: “I don’t even go anywhere close to thinking what I make an hour. I don’t think it’s negative,” she says with a laugh, “but sometimes it seems like it must be.”

And since the community college is itself a member of the Southern Highland Craft Guild, students enjoy the added perk (and challenge) of having their work displayed at the college’s booth at the guild’s summer and fall craft fairs — provided their instructors think it’s good enough.

Ironically, the program is so highly regarded in craft circles that students now come from all over the country — and very few of them hail from Haywood County, Raab reveals. But he and the other faculty members note proudly that Haywood’s business approach (developed with the help of the nonprofit North Carolina Rural Entrepreneurship through Action Learning) has become a model for other community colleges, including a new program in coastal Dare County, N.C., and another one in Kentucky.

About 65 students are working their way through the HCC program each in any given year; graduates depart with an associate degree (or a diploma, if they can’t handle the math component). Waiting lists are common; woodworking, for example, has a four- to five-year waiting list for its dozen full-time slots. (This fall’s fiber program still has a few openings, Ellis reports.)

And as Haywood’s program has matured, so has the region’s craft economy as a whole. Asheville alone is now home to 40 or more galleries, notes Clontz, who also points to the mix of galleries, antique shops, restaurants and boutiques in Waynesville and other small towns across the region.

“You look at the [craft] landscape today — wow!” he exclaims.

The Blue Ridge “brand”

Wow is right. Western North Carolina ranks among the top four spots in the country for crafts, based on both the number of people working in the field (more than 4,000 in 23 WNC counties) and the amount of money changing hands, notes craft-industry cheerleader Becky Anderson of the Asheville-based nonprofit HandMade in America. WNC, says Anderson, ranks behind both the New York City/Hudson River Valley area and the San Francisco Bay area but is running neck and neck with Southwestern art mecca Santa Fe, N.M.

An oft-quoted Appalachian State University study commissioned by HandMade back in 1996 concluded that crafts contributed $122 million annually to the region’s economy (based on 1995 information). WNC also regularly crops up on arts-related lists (last year, for example, the readers of AmericanStyle magazine rated Asheville among the nation’s top 25 arts destinations).

And NICHE magazine, a trade publication, has ranked both New Morning Gallery and the Grovewood Gallery in Asheville as the top craft retailer in the country in two recent years, according to the galleries’ respective Web sites.

The success of the craft economy appears to be intimately tied to the tourism industry. In fact, more than 60 percent of the crafts sold in the region are bought by visitors, Anderson reports.

“The craft industry is sort of being driven by the tourism industry,” agrees Mark Owen of AdvantageWest, WNC’s regional economic-development commission.

HandMade has certainly done its share to nudge that relationship along, producing The Craft Heritage Trails of Western North Carolina (a guide to studios and galleries in the mountains that’s now in its third edition), among other initiatives.

And Owen says Congress’ designation of WNC as the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area last October may ultimately help the craft economy grow even more. With the designation comes up to $9.5 million in funding over the next 10 years, to be administered by AdvantageWest.

The commission is now holding meetings across the region to solicit input on how to spend the money. One idea Owen favors is using the designation to create a recognizable “brand” for the Blue Ridge Mountains — one associated with craft, tradition and authenticity — that could help sell the area to tourists in much the same way that Napa Valley’s image lures people to California’s wine country. Among the strategies being considered are a Web site and, eventually, an e-commerce site.

Got craft?

Insiders like Summers of the Southern Highland Craft Guild see local artisans as an important component of both the regional economy and the cultural vibrancy that makes the area attractive to businesses looking to relocate. But she questions whether most of WNC’s movers and shakers grasp this.

“I think that people in general don’t understand how important the creative economy is to the well-being of the overall community,” muses Summers. “I think Asheville has a richness that other communities don’t have.”

Anderson, HandMade’s executive director, thinks WNC’s government and business leaders are waking up to the economic impact of crafts — but not without a struggle.

“I think they’re getting there, some of them kicking and screaming,” says Anderson. “When we started 10 years ago, they all thought we had rocks in our head.”

Figures from the ASU study help to bolster HandMade’s case. In WNC, the average annual income for full-time professional crafters was $35,000 back in 1995 — when the average manufacturing wage was $29,500, Anderson reports.

And a pair of ambitious craft ventures planned separately for Buncombe and Yancey counties suggest that at least some local leaders do appreciate the possibilities.

Earlier this month, UNCA announced with great fanfare that it’s partnering with Buncombe County to convert a portion of the former county landfill, near Woodfin, into a “craft campus” that will house a new craft-studies program (see “From Trash to Craft,” April 14 Xpress).

The craft campus will feature studios built using “green” construction techniques and powered primarily by methane, a byproduct of the decomposing trash.

“The university is furthering the economic viability of Western North Carolina as a sustainable home for the current and emerging craft economy,” Chancellor Jim Mullen proclaimed at press conference announcing the project two weeks ago.

Farther north, noted artist John Doyle of Burnsville is helping spearhead efforts to establish a craft-education program for residents of Avery, Madison, Mitchell and Yancey counties. Mayland Community College, the nonprofit Yancey Arts and the quasi-governmental Yancey County Cultural Resource Commission are collaborating on the project.

“There’s this whole group of traditional craftsmen who don’t necessarily consider themselves artists, but they are the ones who have been doing this for a couple of hundred years,” notes Doyle. “So what we want to do is create an arts-and-crafts industry in the county utilizing a lot of the displaced workers as well as the farm people.”

Proponents envision an apprenticeship program, studios and a marketing program to promote and sell locally made crafts — all housed at the Yancey County Mountain Heritage Center (formerly the Yancey Collegiate Institute) in Burnsville, Doyle reports. Classes are slated to start in the fall.

“We just feel that as we continue to lose manufacturing jobs … it’s more important than ever to provide service to our … generational craftsmen,” explains Jerry V. Hatfield, dean of Yancey County programs at Mayland.

Such efforts may well end up not only helping craftspeople continue their work — but also preserve their way of life.

The road ahead

Weaver/potter Liz Spear, a Minnesota native, appears to enjoy her work thoroughly. This despite the fact that she plies her trade for anywhere from 8 to 14 hours, seven days a week — and can’t even afford health insurance. That hard reality hit home a few years ago when she broke both arms while horseback riding and couldn’t work at her loom for six months.

For many craftspeople, finding affordable health insurance is one of the top challenges they face, acknowledges Anderson of HandMade in America. The nonprofit has tried to address the problem in several ways — putting out proposals to insurance carriers and lobbying the N.C. Department of Insurance to set up a medical-savings-account system — all to no avail.

“It’s the same struggle every small business is going through,” sighs Anderson, adding that craftspeople she knows have opened medical savings accounts in South Carolina since they’re not available in this state.

Anderson is also hard at work on other ways to fortify a growing craft economy. Tops on her list is finding new markets for the craft items produced here. She’s working on plans to increase the use of handcrafted items in the housing industry, as well as turning more people on to garden art. HandMade is also working with the Appalachian Regional Commission to come up with a workable apprenticeship program for the multistate mountain region.

For Spear, however, the advantages of her professional situation have more to do with autonomy than with money. She appreciates being able to work alone — “If I’m feeling curmudgeonly, I’m not going to bother anyone else” — and to cooperate with other crafters when she chooses to. She and fellow weaver Neal Howard of Cullowhee regularly market their work together at craft fairs.

“It’s a definite style of life that I’ve chosen,” Spear declares.

And despite all the challenges, the chance to create beautiful yet functional objects for a living seems to be beckoning to a whole new generation of craftspeople.

Three graduating students in the demanding woodworking track of Haywood Community College’s professional crafts program — Blaine Johnston, Susan Link and Jamie Womack — have decided to pool their resources to open a cooperative woodworking shop. It seems like a smart move, since Raab (their instructor) estimates that setting up even a low-end shop costs at least $25,000.

And however tough the odds, all three seem committed to putting their passion to work for them.

“We love it,” Womack says simply.

“It’s how bad you want it,” adds Johnston. “The more you put in, the more you get out of it.”

The next generation of talent

After two years’ worth of hard work, the students now finishing Haywood Community College’s professional crafts program are getting a chance to strut their stuff.

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