This side of paradise: WNC and the lure of crafts

Today, more than 50 million Americans make crafts; more than 5 million of them earn money at it. In the process, they buy $20 billion worth of supplies each year. Meanwhile, fairs and festivals (whose big three attractions are music, food and, yep, crafts) invigorate the life of towns large and small.

Some important bits in the history of this multibillion-dollar industry — such as the founding of the John C. Campbell Folk School, the Southern Highland Craft Guild and the Penland School of Crafts — happened right here in Western North Carolina, so it’s fitting that this year’s American Craft Week kicks off in Asheville Oct. 5. The occasion offers a chance to shine a light on this essential but somewhat hidden sector of the economy, where “made in USA” never went out of style. I'll be presenting the keynote speech, “David Rakoff's Paradise and Other Craft Places,” at the Haywood Park Hotel (see box, “Talking Craft”).

Why am I talking about Rakoff? Could it be because he was today’s typical Appalachian craftsman: Canadian, Jewish and gay?

Rakoff, who died in August, was a storyteller on public radio's This American Life. An actor too, he played the Gore Vidal character in Capote; he also played the lead and adapted the screenplay for The New Tenants, which won the Oscar for best live-action short film of 2010. Rakoff published three best-selling collections of essays: Fraud, Don't Get Too Comfortable and Half Empty, which won him the 2011 Thurber Prize for American Humor, the genre’s highest honor.

A few years ago, The New York Times Magazine assigned David to do a story on our school. When we found out he was coming to Brasstown, we were scared to death. What if he didn't like us? He was known as sardonic, cynical, sarcastic, a touchy social critic of great wit who surveyed the world and found hilarious dissatisfactions everywhere. A quick check of his accomplishments revealed that he’d: destroyed any mystique the fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld might have had; savaged Barbara Bush for her Iraq War comment that nobody wants to hear about body bags; and pegged William F. Buckley as courtly and possessed of a beautiful vocabulary but, alas, a Nazi. Rakoff had done numbers on Martha Stewart, Fashion Week and the Omega Institute in satire that didn't just bite, it chewed up and spat out. And at the folk school — so sincere, so earnest, presenting such a juicy target for this man’s rapier wit — we waited in trepidation, knowing he wouldn't hesitate to take on sacred cows and wasn't afraid to speak truth to hipness, having once informed Jack Kerouac’s ghost that what he needed was a damned good editor.

Rakoff came to Brasstown, went to work weaving baskets, and wasn’t seen for a week. His article dutifully acknowledged the excellence of the scenery, the food, the dances, the concerts, the camaraderie, but he was clearly a straight-ahead seeker of "flow."

Rakoff loved making things so much that he ended up serving on the folk school’s board of directors. Like so many craftspeople who wouldn't call themselves professionals and never sold a piece, he did something else to earn a living but lived most intently in a parallel universe where he was making things — and giving most of them away to the people he loved. Rakoff made crafts almost every day of his life, and for him, those were the best times. In contrast, writing was an exhausting task that only got harder the more he produced.

Rakoff’s article on the folk school ended with these words: "The time I spent there is as close as it gets to my idea of Paradise." Flow is what made Brasstown Rakoff’s paradise, “that time out of time when one is engaged in making something. There is not sleep enough in the world that is nearly so restorative,” he wrote. “I have never met an artist or serious craftsperson who doesn’t understand and seek out this feeling.”

David joined many others not so famously neurotic and pessimistic who have also found their thrill, their joy and their flow in Western North Carolina’s incomparable craft scene.

Murphy native Jan Davidson is the director of the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, N.C.

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