Using your hands to make what you need or desire is a unique trait in Western North Carolina—the idea that if you can’t find it or afford it, you build it. That notion is one embedded in the creative minds and curious spirits of craftspeople across the region.
This region has a storied history of handmade crafts, ranging from weaving to woodworking, pottery to jewelry. From the passed-down traditions of basket weaving and stonework of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians to the modern cosmopolitan art of metalsmithing and glassblowing, there has always been a rich atmosphere of creation in these parts.
“It’s maintaining that thread through generations, time and history. It’s about what we do, the objects we make, and it’s really important that history doesn’t get lost.”
— Amy Putansu, fiber instructor at Haywood Community College
Throughout the year, Western North Carolina plays host to numerous art and craft festivals, shows, and exhibits, all in an effort to provide crafters with platforms to share their wares with locals and visitors in search for that perfect piece.
“At these shows, you can see the love and compassion that come from each individual piece. Sometimes it makes you want to cry because you see so much love exhibited in their work—our souls are absolutely in our work,” said Cherokee silversmith General Grant. “They’re not just ‘taking it home with them,’ they’re coming in to get what they were looking for. People are looking for something to feel real, they’re drawn to certain pieces and can’t put them down.”
And in a 21st century global society, many of these cherished skills can fall through the cracks, gone forever. But, luckily, that’s not the case in Western North Carolina.
“It’s amazing how easily things can be lost, where a family technique can die out in a generation,” said local weaver Amy Tromiczak. “There’s something incredible about working with your hands, and that everything you put into a piece really does matter.”
Along with innumerable artisan galleries in every downtown and home studios dotting the mountainous landscape, there’s also a handful of renowned academic institutions promoting and teaching the specific skills to the next generation of crafters. From the acclaimed Penland School of Crafts in Bakersville to the professional crafts program at Haywood Community College in Clyde, the future of handmade items is not only in safe hands, it’s revitalizing what it means to make something and be able to find a market for it.
“We discovered this whole community of artisans and art lovers in Western North Carolina, which then exposed us to how great and supportive Asheville is to artists.”
—Billy Guilford, owner of Lexington Glassworks in downtown Asheville
“The professional crafts program at HCC is very unique. It promotes not only creativity and craft, but also how to market yourself as an artist,” said Amy Putansu, fiber instructor at HCC. “The students here are learning to make things, and make things well, with the emphasis around their ethics very positive, very minded in the local sustainability movement. I love it because they’re creating a whole new future, a different shape of manufacturing in America, a new design in conjunction with manufacturing.”
With textile crafting a large part of the heritage in Western North Carolina, the students are not only preserving the traditional skills, they’re perpetuating them. “It’s about staying in touch with history,” Putansu said. “It’s maintaining that thread through generations, time, and history. It’s about what we do, the objects we make, and it’s really important that history doesn’t get lost.”
Local artisans are building on this history of craft making to create futures for themselves in WNC communities. Co-owner of Lexington Glassworks in downtown Asheville, Billy Guilford has been a glass artist for the better part of the last decade. What started out as a curiosity has now become a full “blown” career. “It’s a very challenging medium, but I also like the immediacy of it, where the moment you’re done firing up and shaping the glass, the piece is finished, too,” said Guilford.
Though he studied at the New York State College of Ceramics, Guilford honed his craft at Penland with his peers. That time learning and apprenticing not only opened them up to the endless possibilities of their creativity, but also to a haven of encouraging artists from around the region. Lexington Glassworks is now in their second year of operation, but has already become a fixture on Lexington Avenue.
“We jumped right into this community of artists, and we feel part of this community,” said Guilford. “This area and this city are rooted in crafts, in arts, in culture, and in a great sense of community. People who come in here ask us if we really do this for a living. Yes, yes we do, and we feel so lucky to do so.”