Established in 1930 to help boost employment, and thus income, during the Great Depression, the Southern Highland Craft Guild continues to thrive. By preserving and promoting the handmade wares 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 nation’s leading craft organizations.
“The Guild cultivated commerce for craftspeople in the Appalachian region, becoming an iconic figure of 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 retail showcase for the region’s deep talent. Located on the Blue Ridge Parkway, the venue operates as a partnership with the National Park Service (which administers the Parkway) and the Appalachian Regional Commission, as Tom Bailey, the Guild’s executive director, explains.
The 30,000-square-foot, two-story structure, situated on a 16-acre site with walking trails, houses Allanstand Craft Shop (founded in 1895 and moved to various regional locations over the years, it predates the Guild and is the nation’s oldest craft shop); three exhibition spaces; a library; the Guild’s archives; a 270-seat auditorium for special events; a bookstore; and an information desk.
It’s one of four Guild retail outlets — the others are in Asheville in Biltmore Village and on Tunnel Road, and at Moses Cone Manor in Blowing Rock. “Each retail location only sells works by Guild members,” notes Bailey. But with its unique location — accessible as well as beautiful — the Folk Art Center attracts more than a quarter-million visitors annually from around the world.
The Guild is strict, and getting in involves a two-level process. First, would-be 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 sell in our gift shops,” says Davis.
The Guild currently numbers more than 800 members working in 11 mediums: clay, fiber, glass, jewelry, leather, manmade materials, metal, mixed media, natural materials, paper, and wood.
Pieces available at the Center range from $5 to $5,000.
On the first floor, visitors will find baskets, sculpture, ceramic dinnerware, wood-turned bowls, stained glass, small toys, ornaments, woven and quilted textiles, apparel, leather goods, vases, prints, photography, and jewelry. Upstairs are more high-end pieces (furniture and other heirloom-level home-décor pieces). Also upstairs is the Craft Traditions Museum — curated items from the Guild’s 5,700-piece permanent collection of global craft relics. “Some date back to 800 AD,” says Davis.
Artist Debbie Littledeer, a long-time member who makes silkscreen prints of mountain landscapes and whimsical animal scenes, says, “The Guild gave me the ability to start making a living as a craftsperson. … It feels like a second family and home.”
Glass artist Greg Magruder has been with the Guild since the Folk Art Center was completed in 1980. After all these years, he is currently contemplating stepping away from his art, though he admits it’s “rather hard to retire as a craftsperson … my work has been my passion.”
The book/gift shop on the lower level carries titles ranging from children’s books to field guides. And Davis can’t help mentioning “the latest book that recounts the history of the Guild.”
Daily craft demonstrations by Guild members, plus targeted seasonal events — Glass & Metal Day in April, Fiber Day on Mother’s Day weekend (featuring sheep shearing and textile exhibits), and Wood Day in August — help sustain craft as a living enterprise.
Heritage Day in September is a celebration of Appalachian culture and always includes the annual World Gee Haw Whimmy Diddle Competition, a popular expo of the classic whittled mountain toy.
“I mean really,” says Davis. “Can you imagine missing this?”
The Southern Highland Craft Guild’s Folk Art Center is located at Milepost 382 on the Blue Ridge Parkway, open every day 10am-5pm. The Folk Art Center’s current exhibit shows work from the 2022 graduating class of Haywood Community College’s Professional Crafts Program (through Sept. 7). The Guild will host the summer edition of the 75th Annual Craft Fair of the Southern Highlands 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 on Saturday, Aug. 13 and Heritage Day on Saturday, Sept. 17. For more information, visit craftguild.org/folkartcenter or call 828-298-7928.