Heartwood Gallery owner Shelley DeKay arrived in Saluda in the fall of 1984. She and her husband, a journeyman carpenter, had been traveling and working around Colorado’s ski towns when the recession hit. “We’d had our first child and decided to relocate to the Appalachians with the hope of buying some land and starting our own businesses,” says DeKay. Both graduates of Virginia Tech (she had her sights set on becoming a social worker), they were already familiar with our region’s mountains and felt they could create a good life here. And so they settled on this picturesque Polk County place — once the site of the steepest active railroad in North America.
At the time, the town, which had been slowly going dormant, was beginning to experience a slow rebirth, a resurgence created partly by the makers who’d begun opening studios in the area’s mostly vacant buildings. “Saluda, in the late 1980s,” she explains, “still had the two original general stores, a bakery, and a barbecue. The other retail spaces were occupied by working craftspeople: a potter, several woodworkers, a blacksmith, a glass artist, rug makers, a seamstress, and an upholsterer.” It was a perfect environment for DeKay, a self-taught hobby weaver.
She took a birthday check she’d received from her mother-in-law, and, in the spring of 1985, rented a space in the back of Saluda’s City Hall — for $100 a month. “I introduced myself as a weaver, hung up a sign [Heartwood Hammocks and Crafts], and was warmly welcomed by the other artists,” she recalls. She was weaving and selling scarves, other wearables, and colorful hammocks she made by “spranging,” a technique that forms an open meshwork.
She says her original intent was to sell yarns and other materials to fiber artists. “But Heartwood took its own direction, and I followed. As I met other artists, I began to purchase a diversity of regional craft using the profits from sales of my own work.” For the next 20 years, she continued to sell her own woven pieces while also selling items created by others. “Selling my own works kept me busy in the slow times, and kept the rent paid.” Eventually, though, she quit selling her own stuff; today, she prefers to weave items only for herself and to give as gifts.
After a year behind City Hall, she moved to a retail space on Main Street. “About four years later, the space next door became available and I rented that space, too. My husband opened a hole in the wall and connected the two.”
She also took on a business partner, Barbara Seiler. “While she wasn’t a craftsperson, she was my best customer and a collector of American craft. She matched in money what I had built in equity and we rebranded as Heartwood Gallery,” DeKay relates. DeKay and Seiler expanded Heartwood’s inventory to include works by artisans from across the country. (Seiler retired in 2010 after 20 years with Heartwood Gallery.)
At only 1,200 square feet, the gallery requires constant creative attention to its displays in order to best showcase the work of its more than 160 artists. “I always have to balance the inventory between mediums and price points,” she notes.
Nevertheless, no genre has been sacrificed. In addition to home furnishings, clothing, ceramics, fiber, wood, glass, metal, prints, candles, jewelry, pottery, and garden art, DeKay has brought in “quite a few glass artists making functional blown pieces.”
Nearly all the items are made in the U.S. in small studios (some are from Canadian artists), she says. About 25% of the exhibited artists live in Western North Carolina. DeKay seeks makers who exhibit a deep knowledge of the materials they’re using, and that intimacy seems to be a natural extension of Saluda itself.
“All the businesses here are locally owned, independent endeavors. There are no franchises or chain stores,” she points out. These days, most of the other art studios are gone. While downtown retains its antique general stores — both more than 100 years old — it is more a center for boutique restaurants and, increasingly, outdoor-adventure operations. But it’s the feeling that prevails — “a sweet, simple experience that also has depth. I think intact, vibrant Main Streets that reflect a sense of place are vital to our quality of life.”
Heartwood Gallery (heartwoodsaluda.com) is located at 21 East Main St. in Saluda. Gallery hours are 10am-5pm Monday through Thursday, 10am-6pm Friday and Saturday, and 11am-4 pm Sunday. To contact the gallery, call 828-749-9365 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.