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About three miles from Gatlinburg’s bustling main drag known as “the Parkway,” there’s a quiet arts and crafts community that is filled with as many beautiful creations as it is creative minds. From porcelain and pottery to hand-dipped candles and wood-carved creations, there’s no shortage of artistry percolating in this popular mountain town, and still, many aren’t even aware that the Great Smoky Arts & Crafts Community exists. Indeed, it’s easy to be lured to the Smokies by the outdoor adventures, the aforementioned Parkway, and the shopping, but there’s still more to explore. Whether you simply carve out time on your Gatlinburg vacation exploring the Great Smoky Arts & Crafts Community, or you make it the reason you travel to this most stunning Southern region, here’s what you can expect from this special community and the cast of characters who have made it their happy place.

THE HISTORY

Local makers who were dedicated to keeping the Appalachian craft culture alive created the Great Smoky Arts & Crafts Community 80 years ago. To get a lay of the land, the community is an 8-mile loop dotted with various restaurants, accommodations, gift shops and galleries. In fact, there are 100 makers and craftspeople with stops on the loop, making the community the largest group of independent artists in the United States. There you will find leatherworkers, knife-makers, weavers, potters, glass-blowers, soapmakers and so many more. Perhaps the most compelling reason to travel the loop — aside from the beautiful items you’ll find — is that, more often than not, you’ll have the benefit of actually meeting and speaking with the artists themselves.

Find a complete list of artists located in the community HERE, but for now, here are a few of the warm, welcoming and extremely talented makers we met during our early spring visit.

The Great Smoky Arts & Crafts Community is an 8-mile loop located just three miles from the Parkway in Gatlinburg. You’ll find 100 makers and artisans working and selling their one-of-a-kind works.

Sparky’s Glass Blowing

Each year, Hands On Gatlinburg draws people from all over the world to the Arts & Crafts Community. This annual event, which was underway during our visit, allows visitors the opportunity to take classes and workshops from the local talent. Whether you want to try your hand at working a loom or glassblowing, there are plenty of activities to fill your time. We started at Sparky’s Glass Blowing, where we had our first experience blowing glass and were taught by the man himself, Sparky!

Tucked in a quiet village of shops with living spaces above, Sparky’s Glass Blowing is helmed by Sparky and his wife, Marsha, who is his high school sweetheart and to whom he’s been married for 45 years. They moved to Gatlinburg 30 years ago. “A ’68 half-ton Chevy pick-up and a trailer,” is Sparky’s response when asked what brought him to town. His quick-wittedness is just a small part of his charm. Originally from Delphos, Ohio, Sparky says that he and Marsha needed a break from their workaholic lifestyle. “We were going to move to Michigan and be lake tenders. My brothers and sisters (of which there are 9!) said it was a mid-life crisis,” he says, “but my best friend Rick Baker sent me down here. We stayed in the mountains before we were going to move to Michigan, and we fell in love with it. We bought a place before we left to go home, and then we moved down here.”

These days, Sparky works more than ever — eight hours a day, seven days a week, to be exact. But as we all know, it’s different when you’re doing something you love. “I love to teach the classes to keep the arts alive,” he says. He offers workshops year-round, first showing his students how it’s done before letting them work with the hollow tubes and the 2,100-degree flame. “People love glass — it’s addicting,” he says.

As we watched Sparky demonstrate what we would actually be doing, we quickly learned that in order to partake, we needed to completely trust him. So we did. And we walked away with beautiful items that we proudly showed off when we returned home. “They will leave here with items that they made that are sometimes better than mine,” Sparky says of his customers. “Theirs may have more character than mine — and my mom always told me character’s good. Always use something positive — if you say it’s a mistake, you’re sad. If you say, ‘no it just has too much character,’ they smile. It’s so rewarding.”

Stop in and see Sparky at 517 Glades Rd, Gatlinburg, TN 37738. He’s open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week. Learn more at (865) 412-1116.

Sparky has climbed the Matterhorn, served in the military, and he’s a big fan of the racing circuit. He’s friends with Tony Stewart and Dale Jr.!

From hollow tubes to hummingbirds, each piece Sparky creates is a work of art.

When it was my turn, I couldn’t stop smiling! Glassblowing really is fun!

Firefly Glass Studio

After we bid Sparky adieu, we headed down the road to visit a glass artisan of a different sort. Nancy Huff, who owns Firefly Glass Studio, actually grew up in Gatlinburg, and her business is located in the home where her father grew up. Nancy went away to college and then spent 15 years as a loan officer in Richmond, VA, but when the market crashed in 2007, and as her parents were getting older, she decided to return to Gatlinburg and make a fresh start. “When you move from Richmond to Gatlinburg, you realize there’s not a lot to do,” she says. “So I got a small kiln because I wanted to mess with glass, and I started making little tiles at night.”

Nancy recalls how when she was growing up, she often thought how neat it would be to be an artist, and today, getting to do what she loves while enhancing others’ lives is what brings her the most joy. “The biggest pinch-me moment is doing what I love, getting out of the hustle and bustle, and meeting people from all over the world,” she shares. “And then since the fires [in late 2016], I have been letting people make their own art out there, which is so rewarding to give back.”

“Out there” is the studio behind Nancy’s shop, where she hosts people of all ages, skill levels, and group sizes. She offers a quick rundown of the equipment and the glass pieces and offers pointers that will help guide the creative process, and then she turns them loose to get lost in their work. “People want to make their own things — that creates a memory more than buying my stuff,” Nancy says. “So they create memories — they go hike in the park and then create glass memories to take home.”

Stop in to Firefly Glass Studio, and you can shop any of Nancy’s creations — all fairly and affordably priced — or you can create your own work, which she will fire and ship to you, typically within two weeks. “I want people to enjoy art, and I don’t think it has to be expensive,” she says. “I want them to take a piece home and enjoy it.”

Firefly Glass Studio is located at 830 Moyers Dr, Gatlinburg, TN 37738. Learn more at (865) 206-6083.

Nancy Huff, owner of Firefly Glass Studio, shows off some of her creations, available for purchase in her store.

Tools of the trade: Glass sheets are neatly organized in Nancy’s studio.

These creations are waiting to be fired in the kiln. Once finished, Nancy will ship them to their rightful owners.

Colorful creations at affordable prices — that’s all part of Nancy’s plan.

Cliff Dwellers Gallery

Our last stop on the loop was at Cliff Dwellers Gallery, a multi-discipline facility that hosts classes and workshops upstairs with a gift shop below. “We carry work from more than 50 different artists,” says Louise Bales, one-fourth owner of Cliff Dwellers. “A lot of them are people who are retired, and they have a hobby that got out of hand.”

The history of the Cliff Dwellers building is as interesting as the works housed within. The building was originally owned by artist Louis E. Jones. It was also originally located six miles away in the heart of Gatlinburg, where Jones built it in 1933. His gallery was downstairs, and his living quarters up. Having been relocated (ever-so-delicately in four different pieces) to the Arts & Crafts Community in 1995, today’s Cliff Dwellers is owned by Louise along with Pat Thomas, Winnie Utterback and Sherry Mummert.

“We’ve been in business for 24 years,” says Louise, who had a 40-year restaurant business career and raised three kids prior to becoming part-owner of Cliff Dwellers. “It’s like a mini workforce, but it works. We’re all different — we like different things.”

Indeed each woman has her specialty: Louise does watercolors and gourd painting, Sherry does weaving, Winnie does pottery, and Pat creates marbled papers and scarves. “I first saw it in Williamsburg 30 years ago,” shares Pat of the marbling technique. “I’ve been doing it ever since.”

It’s that same passion that Pat and the other women hope to inject in the people who take classes at Cliff Dwellers as well as any other place in the Arts & Crafts Community. “Relief carving, flint mapping, fused jewelry, Jan Peitso’s painting, Rocky Flats soap, baskets, marbling, weaving on looms …,” Louise says, offering up just a handful of the options available for guests to try. “Anyone can teach, too, and all the money from class signups goes to the teacher.

“It’s a great opportunity for anyone who wants to try their hand at something,” Louise concludes. “Classes are typically $50 or less, and you don’t have to bring anything.”

Stop by Cliff Dwellers Gallery, located at 668 Glades Road, Gatlinburg, TN 37738. Learn more at (865) 436-6921.

The original Cliff Dwellers sign is still found on the building today, having been lovingly restored.

Local artist Pat Thomas shows off her marbling work at Cliff Dwellers during Hands On Gatlinburg weekend.

The upstairs at Cliff Dwellers serves as a workshop, where everything from weaving to basket making is taught.

Louise Bales paints tiny gourds with the most amazing detail work.

Ole Smoky Distillery

We’d be remiss to not acknowledge the rich makers’ community that exists closer to the Parkway. In fact, that’s actually where the arts and crafts community originated. “When I grew up, most of the arts and crafts were in downtown Gatlinburg,” Louise shares. Indeed in downtown, you’ll find makers of a different sort.

Ole Smoky is giving moonshine a much-needed image overhaul. Not only is it the first distillery to legally make and sell moonshine in the state of Tennessee, but it’s also credited with giving birth to the Tennessee Whiskey Trail, which runs from Memphis to Gatlinburg. “It was illegal because it was untaxed because of Prohibition,” explained our distillery tour guide, referring to the imposed whiskey tax of 1791 courtesy of Alexander Hamilton. Not only that but this unaged whiskey was hard to make, and the result was often a potent blend of odor and taste adding to its air of rebellion. Fast forward to 2010, and the first legal jar of moonshine was sold in Gatlinburg, a move that many locals say honors the liquor’s important role in Appalachian history.

Ole Smoky’s selection of moonshine flavors runs the gamut, from sour apple to butter pecan, and their products are distributed in all 50 states, more than 50 countries and all military bases.

SB TIP: In addition to Ole Smoky, there are many other local distilleries, breweries and wineries located in Gatlinburg that are worthy of a visit. Find a complete list HERE

Ole Smoky’s distillery is located next door to the retail and tasting space.

The craft of distilling: Alcohol has to sit and age. Here, the wheat, corn, barley and water ferment for a few days before it goes to the still.

This group of fellas sidled up and enjoyed an entertaining tasting at Ole Smoky.

There are so many different ways to explore Gatlinburg’s rich makers’ community — whether via experiencing the craft for yourself, supporting the artists by purchasing their goods or simply enjoying a glass of wine or a moonshine tasting. Gatlinburg has all of these experiences and more, making it a wonderful destination this fall — or anytime!

To learn more about Gatlinburg’s creative community and to start planning your visit, check out gatlinburg.com

This article is sponsored by the Gatlinburg Convention & Visitors Bureau. All photography by Leila Grossman.