The people of Western North Carolina continue to maintain long held traditions of craft making and artistic achievement. From indigenous tribes, who populated the region long ago, to the present day, people have taken advantage of the natural materials around them to create, either out of need or desire. In this way, they've helped shape the culture around them.
Over the last two centuries, wood and other indigenous plants harvested from forests and open areas were used to produce furniture, tools, utensils, crates, frames, mantles, bowls, vessels, sculpture, musical instruments, and looms. Woodcarving, which was mostly done with a pocket knife, was an important source of income and successful carving centers developed in Cherokee, Asheville, Tryon, and Brasstown.
Basketry, often made with river cane, once an abundant plant in the southeast but now less so, was a highly profitable craft in Western North Carolina. Mostly attributed to Cherokee origins, this art form has remained a popular craft in the region. While white oak (or 'basket oak') and hickory, are the materials generally used in baskets , other usable native materials include ash, broom sedge, corn husks, corn stalks, wheat and rye straw, willow branches and twigs, rushes, honeysuckle vine,
hickory bark, and peeled willow bark. Metalwork, pottery, glasswork and textiles are also important crafts in the region.
During the Great Depression (1920s-1930s), many Western North Carolinians remained financially solvent by meeting continued demand for their work from outside the region. In Asheville and closely surrounding areas, in particular, the Vanderbilt family supported local artisans by either purchasing their hand made products to furnish the lavish Biltmore Estate or through Biltmore Industries, an innovative venture which provided education, guidance and support to local craftspeople.
Arts and Craft
Many past and present musicians, photographers, painters and other artists have found inspiration in the region's geographic and cultural diversity. Brought to the region by early immigrants of mostly Scotch, Irish and English descent, mountain music has always held center stage in community life. Ballads of homelands left behind, songs of the civil war, and religious songs were exchanged and combined to form a particular sound, pitch and feeling of connectedness. From the 1870's through the l940's, small medicine shows traveled throughout the region selling their home made remedies and drawing a crowd with music. Music retains a firm place in the ear of the region’s culture.
George Masa, a Japanese immigrant, settled in Asheville in 1915 and spent the rest of his life photographing the mountains in and around the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Appalachian Trail and what would become, with his untiring support, the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. His work is the largest and most complete collection of photographs of the region during the early 20th century.
Painter Robert Scott Duncanson (1821 -1872), an African American artist, came to Asheville in 1850. He frequented the area thereafter, and made numerous paintings, capturing the face of the region, not only in rural areas, but also in the city of Asheville.
Art and crafts have been prominent in Western North Carolina for over two centuries and these trades remain an ever growing and flourishing sector today. Several schools such as The Penland School of Craft in Yancey County and the John C. Campbell Folk School in Cherokee County, as well as numerous guilds, galleries, and festivals, support and grow this sector of the region’s economy. In 2007, a study done by Handmade In America covering the eighteen counties as well as Burke, Caldwell, McDowell, Polk, Rutherford, Surry, and Yadkin, found that the professional craft industry had an economic impact of $206 million, an increase from $122 million in 1995.
The beauty of Western North Carolina affects all who come here and its landscapes inspire a deep psychological reaction in most individuals. The Cherokee Indians, early inhabitants of the region, sought to protect and nurture their land, not only through personal and communal activities, but also by the way they applied the beliefs they hold about the land. Perhaps one of their most pervasive concepts is the belief that land is alive.
Cherokee land is traditionally held in common by the tribe allowing individual family groups to occupy it as needed. The tribe‘s connection with the land drives their responsibility for its conservation and protection. They depend on the land for food and herbs, materials for shelter, clothing and utensils, visual pleasure, artistic inspiration. Decisions are based on the concept of reciprocity - the knowledge that life is cyclical and actions have both short and long term consequences.
Another examination of human response to the natural environment was documented in a 1999 study which confirmed that spending time in natural areas, specifically wilderness, provides people with a rich array of visual, auditory, olfactory, and other cues that make them feel that the place has come ‘alive’, and hence, spiritually inspirational.
The beneficial aspects of wilderness recreation include not only the potential for physical and emotional growth, but moreover, the opportunity to grow spiritually. What’s more, once people are faced with questions about one’s own spirituality, and begin to contemplate and define their own conceptualization of ‘that which is spiritual’, they may find unique opportunities in their everyday lives of ways to enhance their spiritual growth.
Additionally, Western North Carolina is home to over 100 spiritual retreats, many located in forested areas. The mountains offer a respite from busy lives and an opportunity to experience the mysteries of the natural world.