The arts and crafts heritage is alive and well in the Smokies

  • Written by and photos by Deborah Stone

IMG 2347It takes Pastor Jimmy Morrow about three hours to make one of his famous kudzu baskets. Watching him wind this tough and stringy plant’s vine over and around countless times is a hypnotic experience. Listening to him tell tales of Appalachia, on the other hand, is an insightful journey into one of the most fascinating regions in our country. Morrow is a multitalented man – an author, historian, artisan and snake-handling pastor – who is a well-known figure in the Smoky Mountains. His family dates back to the Civil War era with roots in Morgan Gap, deep in the heart of East Tennessee. Pastor Morrow’s primitive art paintings tell both historical and religious stories, and his folk art dolls of corn husk are portrayed as characters within these accounts. He’s one of many residents in the Smokies doing their part to keep the Appalachian arts and crafts heritage alive.

IMG 2309Maria Holloway, of Holloway’s Country Home Quilts in Cosby, is another. Though not originally from this area of the country, Holloway has lived in the bucolic backyard of the Smokies for many years. She is committed to perpetuating the art of quilt-making; a traditional craft she claims is slowly dying as the number of custom handmade commercial quilters continues to dwindle. Her store is now the only one of its kind in Cocke County that sells authentic American quilts exemplifying centuries of rural tradition. She also offers classes for those interested in learning or advancing their skills in this art form. Holloway carries a large variety of quilts and has a notable vintage collection. Styles range from Log Cabin and Double Wedding Ring to Postage Stamp, Courthouse Step and Old World Floral Hand Applique, among others. Visitors interested in viewing the quilts are treated to an amazing showcase as Holloway and her staff lift up spread after spread from atop a bed piled high with sumptuous quilts. Each one is more colorful and intricate than the other, providing a sumptuous visual array.

IMG 2370Nearby at Five Arts Studio, Marianna Arensbak Shaffer and her husband Ted Shaffer are busy at work in their expansive quarters making trolls of all shapes, sizes and characteristics. The trolls are created from natural materials such as acorn caps, pine cones, seeds, nuts, berries, gourds, jute and sisal. Hundreds of these whimsical pieces line the shelves, displaying their various traits, from the bookworm and computer whiz to the hippie, biker and trail guide. There are teacher and police trolls, along with troll nurses and doctors, firefighters and even grape stompers. The selection is extensive with a troll for every person or personality. It all began with Arensbak Shaffer’s parents, Ken and Neta Arensbak, who came to the U.S. from war torn Denmark in 1949. They brought with them scores of adventurous stories involving Scandinavian trolls. The couple wanted their children to grow up with these legends, but the telling of these tales raised the question as to a troll’s appearance. To bring his stories to life, Ken made a troll out of found objects. Neta and her children decided to make more trolls using Ken’s design to give as presents to friends and neighbors who enjoyed the stories. Forty years later, the tradition continues with Marianna and Ted.

IMG 2392Also in Cosby is Carver’s Orchard, a seventh generation family business that boasts more than 40,000 apple trees and over 100 varieties of the fruit. Growing the best apples is an art in itself, which the Carvers have perfected since the 1940s. Everything is picked by hand and either sold at the farmer’s market or loaded onto trucks to be shipped out across the country. Then there are the apples that are used to make apple butter, apple cider, apple fritters and the Carver’s specialty, fried apple pie, which visitors can purchase at the onsite shop and restaurant. The pies are true works of art and after eating one of these swoon-worthy creations, you’ll soon be dreaming of the next time you’re in Cosby.

For more local flavor, head to the Great Smoky Arts & Crafts Community just outside of Gatlinburg. Established in 1937, the historic Arts & Crafts Community comprises an 8.5 mile loop that makes up a portion of the officially designated Tennessee Heritage Arts and Crafts Trail. This area encompasses the largest enclave of independent artists and crafters in the country. There are over 100 shops and galleries on the loop, offering everything from functional stoneware pottery and natural soy candles to handmade soaps, chainsaw creations, handcrafted leather goods, unique jewelry, scenic landscape watercolor and oil paintings, fused glass and more. At Ogle’s Broom Shop for example, third generation broom makers create brooms, hiking sticks and walking canes with custom carvings. And over at Smoky Mountain Dulcimers, you’ll discover an exquisite collection of handcrafted, hammered dulcimers. If you’re interested in the lives and stories of real mountain folk, make a beeline for Paul Murray Gallery. There you’ll find paintings from Appalachia and “Mtn Red” regaling visitors with old time tales. Also check out Earthworks Rock Candles with its selection of oil lamps made from natural slate found in the Great Smoky Mountains. Each candle is split and chiseled to bring out the natural texture and character of the stone and when lit, gives a stunning illusion. At many of the shops and studios, you can watch artisans at work, allowing for personal, up-close interaction with those engaged in perpetuating the arts.

The Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts in downtown Gatlinburg is also worth a visit. This national art education center offers workshops for the beginner to advanced artist, taught by national and international practicing studio artists and university faculty. Course selection includes everything from ceramics and woodworking to fiber, metals/jewelry, photography, painting and more. The public is welcome year-round to visit the 14-acre campus and view artwork in the school’s five galleries, attend special presentations and take a peek at the studios of Artists-in Residence.

IMG 2103While in Gatlinburg, make sure you make your way to Ole Smoky Moonshine Holler for a different type of craft experience. For the last two hundred year, generations of local families have been making moonshine in the mountains, perfecting their recipes for this famous Tennessee libation. During a tour of the distillery, visitors can see the grains converted into clear corn liquor and learn about the process in detail from distiller, Bruce Whaley. The company makes 1200-1500 gallons of moonshine a day, seven days a week, and sells its product all over the U.S. and Canada. Whaley began making moonshine when he was thirteen years old. With the death of his father, he had to help support his mother, five sisters and one brother. At that time, making moonshine was illegal in Tennessee. It was finally legalized in the state in 2010.

IMG 2112After viewing the distillery, you’ll have the opportunity to taste the various flavors of moonshine that the company produces. These include such concoctions as Sweet Tea, Apple Pie, Pumpkin Pie, Peach, Blackberry, Big Orange, Pineapple, White Lightnin’, Moonshine Cherries, Charred, Original Corn and others. The most popular flavor is Apple Pie with Blackberry a close second. Pace yourself as some of the flavors are 100+ proof and pack a strong wallop!

Authenticity is the name of the game in the Smokies when it comes to the region’s arts and crafts heritage. It’s also a quality that can be applied to the people who make their homes in this very special part of the country.

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