Angie Chandler, the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area executive director, describes art as an “inspired response” to Western North Carolina’s mountains, foothills, forests, and fauna. If you’ve been to the area, you know it’s no wonder that artists flock there. At sunset along the Blue Ridge Parkway, mountain ridges and tree canopies gently turn to silhouette against a vast skyway, the entire region a beautiful composite of scenic vistas, forests, trails, waterways, and cloudscapes.
Designed to celebrate the artistry of the region, the completion of the Blue Ridge Craft Trails was recently announced. The trails are comprised of 310 artist and artisan studios, galleries, festivals, and arts organizations traversing 25 Western North Carolina counties and the Qualla Boundary, home to the Eastern Band of the Cherokee.
The trails provide opportunities to browse, shop, and put your imagination (and your hands) to work with clay, glass, beads, wood, metal, textiles, and more. They also offer a chance to envision and customize pieces of artisan-crafted furniture or pottery with a skilled maker and learn more about craft traditions at museums and heritage sites.
If you’re traveling, you can even use the trail’s website to customize your personal ultimate itinerary. Find suggested regional and sub-regional craft itineraries here, and read on for a few can’t-miss highlights along the Blue Ridge Craft Trails, working from west to east. So, get ready for an adventure! Just be sure to note whether you need to call ahead before popping in.
Create, Learn & Shop Along the Blue Ridge Craft Trails
Cherokee and Murphy, NC
Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual in Cherokee, North Carolina, is a one-of-a-kind co-op showcasing more than 3,000 handcrafted items created by Cherokee members. Storyteller Matthew Tooni describes how craftsmanship first evolved from practical purposes and has reached new audiences in the age of tourism, with items made from natural resources merging art and function. Close by, Qualla Creations, curates modern and traditional items by local artists. To learn more about Cherokee history, music, dance, and storytelling, check out Unto These Hills, the second longest-running outdoor drama in the United States. You can also visit The Oconaluftee Indian Village, which, per the Cherokee Historical Association, “transports you back in time to a living, working Cherokee Village of the 18th Century.”
Check out the Mountain Farm Museum to learn more about the history of log cabins, and make an appointment to visit Cherokee Baskets and Vessels, founded by Mary Thompson and her sister Betty Maney. Both women were founding members of the Cherokee Potters Guild.
About an hour away, in Murphy, North Carolina, visit the Cherokee County Historical Museum and the studio of Jo Kilmer, who crafts furniture, arbors, sideboards, tables, and jewelry.
Maggie Valley, NC
Maggie Valley is just across the border from Tennessee and a few miles from Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Check out Different Drummer Pottery from Terry Painter, who fell for pottery while studying engineering. Now, he and his son craft crock drums, a combined ceramic crock with a wood sounding board to create percussion tones. At Woodburnings by Myron, Myron Carter’s pyrography woodburnings draw from Carter’s photography and the region’s idyllic mountain landscapes. In the same location, Myron also designed a series of escape rooms, Maggie Valley Puzzle Rooms, for a different kind of adventure. Visit the studio of Mike McKinney for live-edge wood creations made from local and reclaimed maple, chestnut, and cherry (among other woods). You can also explore the Haywood Quilt Trails Project, which connects local and historic sites through mounted quilt blocks.
Hayesville & Brasstown, NC
Pick up the Clay County Barn Quilt Trail in the easily walkable town of Hayesville, and pop into Goldhagen Art Glass Studio to check out David Goldhagen’s large-scale glass works featuring bold and bright swirls of color, each encased in crystal. Brasstown, also in Clay County, is the home of several unique galleries and the storied John C. Campbell Folk School, founded in 1925. John and Olive Dame Campbell first journeyed to the South in 1908, “as humanitarians, to study the region, collect ballads and contemporary handcrafts.”
The trails’ website states, “The Campbell school might be the only place on earth where you can jump into a course called ‘It’s Time To Try Blacksmithing’ and follow up with ‘Hammering a tune on the hammered dulcimer.'” The Campbells envisioned a school modeled after rural Danish folk schools, and, following John’s passing in 1919, Olive formed a school and community where courses now range from fiber arts to glass to bead-making and beyond. Good news, there’s also a gift shop!
Roughly 45 minutes west of Asheville, Waynesville offers a plethora of local galleries and studios. Peruse Green Hill Gallery, Mud Dabbers Pottery, Glass by Gayle, the Kaaren Stoner Design Studio, and Christina Bendo pottery; Bendo’s pottery is highly decorative, inspired by flora and fauna from hiking and foraging. The Jeweler’s Workbench showcases work by 50 regional designers and be sure to stop for a few photos along Waynesville’s Public Art Trail.
Just a half-hour west of Asheville, near the Canton Area Historical Museum, visit the studio of Thomas Langan. His pine creations reflecting the animal kingdom are carved with pneumatic tools and finished by hand, and his work is featured at a permanent display in Manhattan’s Museum of American Folk Art.
Mills River & Hendersonville, NC
In Henderson County, South of Asheville, many potters warmly welcome guests into their studios. Rodney Leftwich of Leftwich Pottery describes the trails as an opportunity to get to know craftspeople, as “there is a story behind every artist and artisan out there.” For instance, Meghan Bernard’s functional handmade porcelain is inspired by her natural surroundings and reflects dogwoods, foxes, dragonflies, dahlias, poppies, and more. For weaving, knitting, spinning, and rug hooking classes, you can visit Heritage Weavers and Fiber Artists. (If you aren’t in town long enough, don’t worry, you can also purchase some wonderful items at the gift shop!)
In downtown Hendersonville, WoodLands Gallery stages homey, domestic installations to showcase pottery, landscapes, furniture, and other handcrafted pieces. Shop a variety of handicrafts at A Walk in the Woods, and stop into the Carolina Mountain Artists Guild to see work by 30 local juried artists.
Flat Rock, NC
Galleries abound in Flat Rock. Visit The Gallery at Flat Rock for everything from paintings to thrown pots, and stop by Firefly Gallery for work from artists who hail from the mountains region. Plus, you can pop into Melinda Lawton’s Sweet Magnolia Gallery for handcrafted jewelry that is glamorous, artful, and elegant.
Roughly an hour northeast of Asheville is the historic Penland School of Craft, originated in 1929 by Lucy Morgan. Lucy formed the Penland Weavers after learning the craft at Berea College, which provided local women with looms and materials and helped them market their hand-woven items. The school attracts national and international students, and the campus has grown sizably over the years. During the summer, you can find more than 100 workshops in everything from clay and glass to photography and printmaking.
In Asheville, the 19th-century construction of the Biltmore Estate attracted many diverse craftspeople to Western North Carolina. Be sure to visit the one-room Biltmore Industries Homespun Museum, and add the Southern Highland Craft Guild’s 75th annual Craft Fair of the Southern Highlands to your calendar. It’s a biannual event held in July and October at Asheville’s Harrah’s Cherokee Center.
While in Asheville, explore several downtown galleries such as Noir Collective, located in Asheville’s historic Black business district. Its mission includes “Bringing Black to the Block” by curating original items from local Black makers and entrepreneurs. Blue Spiral 1 is a three-story gallery space with 25 annual shows, and it’s also home to the work of Southern Modernist Will Henry Stevens. Be sure to wander down to the River Arts District, where you can find the contemporary Asheville Art Museum, the Center for Craft, the Folk Art Center, and more than 200 artists working in galleries and studios.
RELATED: Explore 30 Miles of Handmade Pottery
Ashe County has the highest average elevation of any county in North Carolina. In the West Jefferson area, home to some of the tallest peaks in the Blue Ridge area, you can stop into Red Salamander, High Meadows, and Grassy Creek potteries. In the historic downtown arts district, visit the gallery and grounds of the Florence Thomas Art School, founded in 2007. It was named for painter Florence Young Thomas, who, per the trails, created work “characterized by softness and light, allowing the viewer to enter a scene uncluttered by excessive detail.” Make time for photos of the many striking murals painted on downtown buildings.
In Sparta, it’s all about co-ops and collectives. Take, for example, Three Crows Metalworks — a family operation focused on handmade jewelry. There’s also Little River Gallery, Mangum-Cater on Main (a gallery and workspace helmed by two families), and Alleghany Arts & Crafts, a co-op comprised of roughly 30 members sharing a variety of handicrafts. Carolina Farm Table has evolved over two generations; John and Penny Ulery began with small decorative pieces. Their son Devin, and his wife, Anna, now helm a unique operation collaborating with clients to create custom tables and other furniture.
Visit the studio of James Garrett, who creates paintings and wall art with Venetian plaster, a process where 40 to 50 layers of pigmented plaster are applied to a surface, each layer sanded and the surface layer burnished to shine. At Hughes Glass Studio, Ronnie Hughes creates “sculpted, lamp-worked wildflowers,” working freeform to impart movement and depth.
North Wilkesboro, NC
In Wilkes County, the Northwest North Carolina Visitor Center showcases abundant art from the region. Sunset Fiberworks, overlooking the Yadkin Valley, is run by Mary and John Freas. (John’s great-aunt happens to be Lucy Morgan, founder of the Penland School of Craft, and Mary now weaves and teaches on a loom that accompanied Lucy to the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair!) Wilkes Art Gallery exhibitions feature more than 100 Southern artists working in a mixture of mediums in a historic old post office building. There are also daily classes and workshops.
In Elkin, The John Furches Gallery is home to the work of John and Shirley Furches, who craft custom furniture together. John began as a watercolorist, later pivoting to etching, printmaking, and, recently, knife making. Shirley crafts jewelry by hand from leather, copper, and stone.
In Historic Elkin, northeast of Asheville, visit the Yadkin Valley Fiber Center. It’s located within the Foothills Arts Center (also on the trail), and you can learn about felting, weaving, spinning, and fiber-based sculpture. A variety of classes are available, as is a Master Weaver certification program. Also on Main Street in Elkin, enjoy a sweet treat at The November Room, an indoor artisan market with coffee, tea, desserts, and art classes for all ages.
The Blue Ridge National Heritage Area spans 11,000 square miles. That’s a lot of ground to cover, so get ready to get crafty!
Photography courtesy of Blue Ridge Craft Trails.
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