“Consult the genius of the place in all.” That was Alexander Pope’s famous advice to landscape designers in the 18th century, and it is HandMade in America’s advice to the booming local building industry today.
What is the genius of this place? Well, many would say it’s the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains. And indeed that is true. But what else do we have here that sets us apart? Craft — a heritage so rich it oozes out of every holler in this splendid landscape, sings to us from commanding edifices like Biltmore Estate and the Grove Park Inn, and charms us in the cozy bungalows clustered all over Asheville.
Today Western North Carolina is reputed to be home to some 4,500 craft artists, and North Carolina as a whole is tied for third in the nation among states with the most working craftspeople. Here in the mountains, we can boast of the internationally known Penland School of Crafts as well as Haywood Community College’s Professional Crafts Program and the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown.
A graph tracing WNC’s craft heritage would not show a continuous upward line. In the early 20th century, the craft traditions that began with a very practical purpose — making jugs to hold water (and other liquids!), weaving cloth for clothing, etc. — nearly died out, displaced by manufactured items. The craftsmen who worked on Biltmore Estate and the Grove Park Inn and built many of Asheville’s beautiful homes for their own use are gone.
Apart from a few third- and fourth-generation craftspeople, what we have now are exceptionally talented artists working in craft media who are both reviving the old traditions and creating new ones. Mostly trained in art schools, these folks have chosen Western North Carolina as their home because of its community and culture.
And as the industrial world begins to recognize and act on the need to live sustainably, it’s time to look beyond earth-friendly construction and materials, extending the term “sustainable” to the hand that made those materials. As manufacturing jobs are lost to China, let’s make a conscious — and conscientious — effort to nurture the people who can sustain this country’s ability to design and make functional objects. By supporting these crafters’ work, we help sustain the cultural traditions that make our region such a wonderful place to live.
A good place to start is A HandMade in America Sourcebook: Handcrafted Architectural Elements. Designed for architects, builders, developers, interior designers and homeowners, the recently published volume zooms in on 69 regional craft artists who design and make everything from customized metal railings to hand-blown-glass lighting fixtures. In its pages, you’ll find decorative ceramic sinks, object-embedded concrete countertops, hand-carved wooden doors, stained-glass windows and one-of-a-kind cabinetry, all made by world-class artisans who live in your back yard (relatively speaking).
As the book’s preface explains, the architect who chooses a handcrafted element rather than a mass-produced or synthetic material “not only infuses their client’s project with a sense of humanity imparted by the artist’s touch, but forms a synergy of mutually beneficial relationships.” And by bringing clients to crafters’ studios, the preface notes, “designers [promote] greater awareness of the handmade industry, influencing expectations and spending habits. It is alliances such as these by which the handmade traditions of the Blue Ridge Mountains thrive, and demand for handcrafted work is fortified.”
Just as we work to protect, nurture and sustain the beauty of our natural surroundings, we can also work to sustain the special culture of our home place. In the 18th century, Pope’s dictum inspired the creation of an English landscape style. And if enough of us commit to “consulting the genius” of this place, it will have a lasting impact in our time.
[Jenny Moore is associate director of HandMade in America, an Asheville-based nonprofit.]
Complimentary copies of Handcrafted Architectural Elements are available to 400 North Carolina builders, architects, developers and interior designers. For details, call HandMade in America at 252-0121 (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org).