Four years ago, Annah Bible-Sullivan found her fate in a spoon.
She was a junior at Asheville High School, looking for an elective to fill her schedule. On a whim, she signed up for a woodworking class and was soon instructed to transform a block of maple into a usable utensil — something worthy of soup and cereal.
As she mastered the motions of carving, Bible-Sullivan had an epiphany. With tendrils of hardwood at her feet, the teenager realized her destiny wasn’t waiting in some temperature-controlled cubicle. No — her destiny was in a sawdust-glazed workshop with humming drills and oil-stained benches.
“I just fell in love with wood as a medium,” says Bible-Sullivan, noting that her woodworking teacher, Christopher Randall, also helped to kindle the flame. “I knew then that I wanted a degree in woodworking.”
So, when Bible-Sullivan graduated from high school in 2020, she didn’t follow her peers to big-name universities. Instead, she enrolled in the Professional Crafts Program at Haywood Community College (HCC) — a two-year plan of study unlike any other in the region. (The school is located in Clyde, near Waynesville, about 25 miles west of Asheville.)
According to Brian Wurst, a wood instructor at the college, the program started in 1977 thanks to Mary Cornwell, an “unsung hero” of the mountain crafts scene.
After serving as a demonstration agent for Cherokee and Haywood counties, Cornwell organized the Village of Yesteryear at the N.C. State Fair and later founded the Museum of North Carolina Handicrafts. “She recognized that craft was a vital part of the region and that a dedicated [college] program would keep it alive and vibrant,” says Wurst.
Originally, HCC offered a degree in “Production Crafts.” But within a few years, the program’s title and curriculum changed to reflect that throwing pots and weaving quilts could be a profession — not just an avocation.
“It’s tempting for many to view craft as a hobby or sideline, but it’s a viable career at the individual level and a huge economic driver at the regional scale,” says Wurst. “We try to help students not just make crafts, but make a living.”
The plan of study packs all the intensive work of a four-year degree into a few semesters. During their time at HCC, students take studio courses in clay, fiber, jewelry, and wood, but also more traditional classes in craft history, marketing and business planning, and object photography. They are also encouraged to find their own distinctive design voice.
For Bible-Sullivan, that voice is straightforward yet eye-catching — a style very much inspired by Mid Century Modern motifs, yet still hers alone. “I lean into heavy, sharp lines while keeping my designs fairly simple,” she explains.
Bible-Sullivan’s style is best represented by three pieces she crafted before graduating. One is a cherry- and wormy-maple lounge chair with funky angles. Another is a more traditional bookcase made from the same wood. The third is a sprawling cherry and ash desk. “I was inspired by a Mid Century Modern desk that my grandfather had,” she says.
All three pieces will be on view through Wednesday, September 7, as part of the 2022 Graduate Show. Hosted in the Southern Highland Craft Guild’s main gallery at the Folk Art Center, the exhibit features the work of a dozen recent HCC grads.
According to Wurst, the show is a way for makers to make a name for themselves. “Tens of thousands of people pass through the Folk Art Center,” he explains, “so the exposure is marvelous.”
That it is. Bible-Sullivan has already secured an apprenticeship with Brian Brace, a fine furniture maker based in Black Mountain. She has also started to redefine what it means to be a craftsperson.
The notion of “traditional Appalachian crafts” tends to conjure an image of a gray-haired women spinning yarn or a ruddy-faced man whittling tchotchkes. But, having graduated at 19, Bible-Sullivan is one of the youngest people to matriculate through HCC’s program. Of the 50-plus students currently enrolled, most are exploring a second or even third career. “It’s unusual to find craft as early as I did,” she acknowledges.
Bible-Sullivan thinks her age affords a unique perspective. “Traditional craft will always be ingrained in the culture of this region,” the maker notes. “But I’m adding my own touch by blending newer, more modern trends with styles from different eras.”
The 2022 Graduate Show will feature work from 12 graduates of Haywood Community College’s Professional Crafts Program. The exhibit will be on view until Wednesday, Sept. 7, on the second floor of the Folk Art Center (Milepost 382 on the Blue Ridge Parkway). Free. For more information and hours, visit southernhighlandguild.org. For more on Annah Bible-Sullivan, find her on Instagram: @bugcatcrafts