Established in 1930 to help boost employment, and therefore income, during the Great Depression, the Southern Highland Craft Guild continues to thrive. By preserving and promoting handmade products created by artisans in nine southeastern states (Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, North and South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia), the Guild is one of the country’s leading craft organizations.
“The Guild cultivated the trade for artisans in the Appalachian region, becoming an iconic figure in the craft revival movement,” says Millie Davis, director of marketing.
The Folk Art Center, which opened in 1980, is the Guild’s headquarters and a commercial showcase for the region’s top talent. Located on the Blue Ridge Parkway, the site operates in partnership with the National Park Service (which administers the parkway) and the Appalachian Regional Commission, as Tom Bailey, executive director of the Guild, explains.
The two-story, 30,000-square-foot structure, situated on a 16-acre site with walking paths, is home to Allanstand’s Craft Shop (founded in 1895 and moved to various regional locations over the years, predating at the Guild and is the nation’s oldest craft shop); three exhibition spaces; library; Guild records; a 270-seat auditorium for special events; a library; and an information desk.
It is one of four Guild outlets – the others are in Asheville in Biltmore Village and on Tunnel Road, and at Moses Cone Manor in Blowing Rock. “Each outlet only sells works by Guild members,” notes Bailey. But with its unique location – accessible and beautiful – the Folk Art Center attracts more than a quarter of a million visitors from all over the world each year.
The Guild is strict and entry involves a two-tier process. First, prospective members submit an application detailing their own process (items must be 100% handmade) and including five professional images of their work. If they pass this “image jury”, they are then asked to deliver five of their pieces for evaluation. “If approved, they are now official members of the Guild and can participate in our [bi]annual craft fairs, special educational events and sales at our gift shops,” says Davis.
The Guild currently has over 800 members working in 11 mediums: clay, fiber, glass, jewellery, leather, synthetic materials, metal, mixed media, natural materials, paper and wood.
Coins available at the Center range from $5 to $5,000.
On the first floor, visitors will find baskets, sculptures, ceramic tableware, wooden turned bowls, stained glass, small toys, ornaments, woven and quilted textiles, clothing, leather goods, vases, prints, photographs and jewelry. Upstairs are more upscale pieces (furniture and other heirloom level home decor pieces). Also upstairs is the Museum of Craft Traditions – curated items from the Guild’s permanent collection of 5,700 pieces of global craft relics. “Some date back to 800 AD,” says Davis.
Artist Debbie Littledeer, a long-time member who screenprints whimsical mountain landscapes and animal scenes, says, “The Guild gave me the opportunity to start making a living as a craftsman. … It’s like a second family and a second home.
Glass artist Greg Magruder has been with the Guild since the completion of the Folk Art Center in 1980. After all these years he is currently considering stepping away from his art, although he admits it is “rather difficult to retire as a craftsman…my work has been my passion.
The book/gift shop on the lower level offers titles ranging from children’s books to field guides. And Davis can’t resist mentioning “the last book that tells the story of the Guild”.
Daily craft demonstrations by Guild members, as well as targeted seasonal events – Glass and Metal Day in April, Fiber Day on Mother’s Day weekend (with sheep shearing and exhibitions of textiles) and Wood Day in August – help keep craftsmanship alive.
Heritage Day in September is a celebration of Appalachian culture and always includes the annual World Gee Haw Whimmy Diddle Contest, a popular display of the classic carved mountain toy.
“I mean really,” Davis says. “Can you imagine missing that?”
Southern Highland Craft Guild Folk Art Center is located at Milepost 382 on Blue Ridge Parkway, open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The Folk Art Center’s current exhibition features works from the 2022 class of Haywood Community College Professional Craft Program (until September 7). The Guild will host the summer edition of 75th Annual Southern Highlands Craft Fair July 21-24 at Harrah’s Cherokee Center—Asheville (87 Haywood St.). Other special events at the Folk Art Center this summer include wood day Saturday, August 13 and Heritage Day Saturday, September 17. For more information, visit craftguild.org/folkartcenter or call 828-298-7928.