Using your hands to make what you need or desire has long been a regular practice among the creative minds and curious spirits of Western North Carolina. If you can’t find it or afford it, you build it.
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 arts of metalsmithing and glassblowing, there has always been a rich atmosphere of creation in these parts.
Throughout the year, WNC plays host to numerous art and craft festivals, shows, and exhibits. These venues provide crafters with a platform to share their wares with locals and visitors in search for that perfect piece.
Qualla Arts & Crafts Mutual in Cherokee | Max Cooper Photo
“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 the 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 WNC.
“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.”
As a painter, Jenny Buckner constantly changes up her technique, almost as if to cover up her tracks before others can find her and pigeonhole who she “really is” as an artist. It is that unrelenting work ethic and internal drive of “catch me if you can” over a course of years which has resulted in Buckner becoming one of the most sought after painters in the Southeast.
“A painting creates an emotion just like a story does,” she said. “As long as you’re emotionally involved somehow, you’re going to keep on reading, you’re going to keep looking, keep being drawn into the story, into the painting.”
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.
“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 a very positive emphasis around their ethics—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 WNC, the students are not only preserving 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.”
Art by Jenny Buckner