Crafty Peddlers
Published Mar/Apr 2005

Pockets of folk art scattered throughout the south
are the focus of interesting getaways.
By George Oxford Miller

olk art in the South dates back to the first settlers who carved their life out of the wilderness. Everything from farming implements and household necessities to clothes and toys had to be handmade from available resources.

Today, traditional and folk art centers and festivals in Kentucky, Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi offer high-quality crafts, living-history demonstrations and weekend workshops.

Carve out a
Kentucky getaway

A drive from Lexington through eastern Kentucky covers some of the best art centers in the state. Berea, 40 miles south of Lexington, is known as the Folk Arts and Crafts Capital of Kentucky. With more than 40 shops and galleries and the Kentucky Artisan Center, the historic town showcases contemporary and traditional crafts in glass, pottery, wood and more.

The art on exhibit at the Kentucky Folk Art Center in Morehead, about 65 miles east of Lexington, is about as far from traditional handicrafts as the South is from SoHo in New York. A hog that looks like the messenger of doom guards the entrance, and a rooster with three-foot legs and Shaquille O’Neal-size feet overlooks the gift shop.

“This is a museum for self-taught artists,” Adrian Swain, the museum curator, says. “Our role is to foster an appreciation and understanding of folk art in Kentucky. The work we collect relates to traditional life, but not to traditional handicrafts.”

The museum has more than 900 pieces with about 100 on display.

“Folk art really blossomed in the 1970s and 80s,” Swain says. “The traditional rural lifestyle gave way to a more generic, city-oriented way of life. People had the skills and the inherent need to make things, but no longer the necessity. So, instead of creating objects for everyday use, they turned to art, especially the older folks.”

In Hindman, 145 miles southeast of Lexington, the Kentucky Appalachian Artisan Center features pottery, baskets, dolls, ironwork, jewelry, and paintings from dozens of artisans. “Our mission is to preserve our heritage and help the artists from a 49-county area market their wares,” says Carla Robinson, director. Down the street, the Marie Stewart Craft Cabin sells exquisite quilts, baskets, pottery, and weavings.

The adjacent Kentucky School of Crafts, a branch of Hazard Community & Technical College, keeps the tradition of artisan training alive. Students enrolled in wood/furniture and jewelry/metals programs create furniture, jewelry and one-of-a-kind objects. Necessary business skills also are taught.

Folk art in Arkansas

To help preserve the rich heritage of traditional crafts in the Ozark region, Arkansas established the Ozark Folk Center State Park near Mountain View in 1973. The park, dedicated to traditional crafts and music of the 19th and early 20th centuries, features a crafts village with 24 shops. Artisans demonstrate the homestead crafts and pioneer skills essential to the early settlers.

From May through October, the center offers craft and music workshops with one-on-one instruction by the artisans.

The Arkansas Craft Guild Gallery, located on Main Street in Mountain View, was organized in 1960 as a cooperative to help revive traditional crafts in the Ozarks.

“We represent more than 200 of the best artists in the region,” says Joy Harp, the store manager. “We have pottery, wood working, jewelry, glass, leather, quilts, baskets, weaving, toys, candles, paintings and hook rugs.”

Each year on the first weekend in December, the guild sponsors a Christmas Show at the Little Rock Convention Center.

Traditional arts are alive
in Louisiana

Since 1980, the Natchitoches/Northwestern State University Folk Festival (July 15 and 16) has developed into one of the major festivals in the South. Each year, 40 artisans display their arts as a major component of the festival. Traditional music is played on three stages. Stories and food demonstrations also are offered.

The Louisiana Folklife Festival, held in early September in Monroe, is considered the state's premier folk festival. From crafts to cooking and music, the festival focuses on living traditions. More than 35 artisans display crafts that range from African-American walking sticks and Cajun Mardi Gras masks to baskets and boats.

“The festival provides a unique opportunity to listen, learn, taste, and see the best of Louisiana's traditional culture,” Mike Luster, festival director, says.

Mississippi's folk heritage

Mississippi celebrates its traditional and folk art heritage with museums, galleries and festivals across the state. The Mississippi Crafts Center, located on the Natchez Trace Parkway in Ridgeland, and the Chimneyville Crafts Gallery in Jackson feature crafts by artisans from the Craftsmen's Guild of Mississippi. The galleries sell woodcarvings, pottery, Choctaw cane baskets, quilting and jewelry in traditional and contemporary styles.

The Chimneyville Crafts Gallery offers Saturday demonstrations from March through October and a craft festival the first weekend in December. More than 150 booths showcase the finest talent in the region. The Mississippi Crafts Center sponsors the Pioneer and Indian Festival on the last Saturday in October in Ridgeland.

Each April, the Double Decker Arts Festival in Oxford brings together more than 100 artists from around the region to display and demonstrate their creative wares. This year, the festival will be April 30.

Abundant small shops

The best arts and crafts aren't limited to galleries or craft shows. In many private shops across the region, artisan crafts blend in with the décor. The Courthouse Café in Whitesburg, Ky., decorates its walls with elaborate quilts. Homer Young drinks coffee at a booth under one of his quilts.

“I helped my mother quilt when I was a boy,” he says. “I've had three heart attacks. Quilting is my passion. It keeps me alive.”

The Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art, Inc. music store in Clarksdale, Miss., features an eclectic collection of art and blues. Roger and Jennifer Stolle, originally from St. Louis, moved to Clarksdale in 2002 and started the business. The store offers blues CDs, videos, books and a mix of Southern folk art.

“It’s kind of like shopping in a juke joint,” Roger says, describing the building's rustic interior. “We sell honest art by living artists. It's the kind of store we always dreamed of finding in our Delta travels but never did.”

With a strong heritage in folk and traditional arts, Kentucky, Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi offer crafts with an authenticity missing from shopping center merchandise.

“Come back to Morehead the first Saturday in June,” Swain says as we leave the Kentucky Folk Art Center. “That's our Folk Art Show with more than 50 artists, and the Appalachian Arts and Craft Fair. It's also the Bluegrass Festival weekend.”

That sounds like a triple-hitter that shouldn't be missed.

George Miller is a new contributor from Clarksboro, N.J.

Above: Charlie Whitaker, a dulcimer maker since 1965, shares his skills at weekend workshops at the Kentucky School of Crafts in Hindman.

Below: A potter at the Ozark Folk Center State Park in Mountain View.
George Oxford Miller photos

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