By Melissa Reardon | Charleston magazine | May 2022
Photo by Michael Tracey
It’s true, there’s an art gallery on most every block in downtown Asheville. And that’s not counting the 200-plus artists with studios down the hill in the River Arts District, or the thousands of potters, painters, weavers, woodworkers, and other artisans scattered across Western North Carolina. The entire region is a fine arts and crafts mecca, and there’s never been a better time to tap into this creative nexus. That’s because the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area just announced the completion of its craft trails this spring, offering a road map to artist studios—many previously inaccessible to the public—as well as galleries and other cultural points of interest across the 25-county region.
Since Buncombe County marks the completion of the trail, and Asheville is the hub of this giant creative wheel, it’s a fitting place to begin an exploration of the Blue Ridge Craft Trails. The best way to approach this art-filled journey is kind of like the creative process—essentially, go with the flow, because there’s plenty of great places to eat, sip, and savor along the way.
A Perfect Day in Art Central
The ASHEVILLE ART MUSEUM, located in the city’s main square, is a beacon of creativity, both literally and figuratively. The modern exterior glows at night, with LED lights shining through a matrix-like pattern. Inside, half of the museum’s collection of 7,000 objects is devoted to preserving and highlighting art from this region, while the rest, mostly 20th- and 21st-century American works, provide context to this area’s importance and influence in the art world.
Holdings include a significant number of pieces by artists who studied or taught at the legendary BLACK MOUNTAIN COLLEGE in nearby Black Mountain. (Though short-lived, from 1933 to ’57, the experimental school gave rise to some of the most influential avant-garde artists of the 20th century, such as Willem de Kooning, Robert Rauschenberg, and composer John Cage. A deeper dive into that history can also be had at the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center in town.) Many internationally recognized artisans are also represented at the Asheville Art Museum, including Harvey Littleton (1922-2013), who’s revered as the father of the studio glass movement. His work pushed the medium beyond function in the early 1960s and paved the way for world-renowned glass schools and famed glassblowers like Dale Chihuly. Spend a morning exploring the region’s artistic achievements. You can even fuel up at the museum’s rooftop cafe while soaking up mountain views from the terrace.
From here, it’s easy to set off in almost any direction to discover the city’s creative side. Not only are there many showrooms to shop for handmade pieces, but there’s a lot of variety on offer. Places like MOUNTAIN MADE and APPALACHIAN CRAFT CENTERare go-tos for regional handicrafts (think functional pottery, wooden bowls, and spoons). NEW MORNING GALLERY in Biltmore Village, just two miles south of downtown, is perfect for handmade items for the home. Other galleries have a specialty focus, such as handcrafted jewelry at MORA, wearable art at BELLAGIO, and the Black-owned NOIR COLLECTIVE featuring the work of Black artists and entrepreneurs. There are even spaces that invite visitors to experience the creative process, including the NORTH CAROLINA GLASS CENTER, which offers short hands-on workshops as well as multi-week courses in glass. It’s a lot to take in.
A good place to start is two blocks north on Biltmore Avenue, at MOMENTUM GALLERY, one of the city’s most thought-provoking spaces highlighting the intersection of fine art and craft. Behind wall-sized windows spanning the front of the newly renovated century-old building, a curated display of contemporary works that defy categorization beckons. Across two floors, paintings and sculptures—traditional mediums that fit the mold of fine art—blend with nonfunctional pieces in clay, wood, metal, glass, and textiles. It feels more like a museum, and the vast majority of artwork begs the question, “How in the world was this made and of what material?”
“Much of the work we show covers material-based traditions celebrated in this area,” says gallery director and owner Jordan Ahlers. But he doesn’t represent artists solely from this region; about half are local. His goal is to “raise the bar and elevate the city and entire region as an arts destination,” he says, and he’s achieving this by showcasing local creators alongside noteworthy and emerging artists from across the country.
Across the street, the CENTER FOR CRAFT is focused on the future. The organization awards millions of dollars to makers, scholars, and curators pushing the field forward. Because it is linked to such a large national network of artists, “we can see the emerging trends,” explains executive director Stephanie Moore. “We can see where craft is intersecting with other fields, such as technology.” For visitors to the center, which is free, it’s an opportunity to discover what that future looks like. For example, on display in the gallery through early June, an exhibit of intricate Cherokee baskets demonstrates how contemporary artisans are pushing the boundaries of this traditional art form through scale and materials. The center also offers themed craft workshops and shows craft-centered films monthly.
No doubt you’ll want to spend the rest of your afternoon shopping for something special to take home. WOOLWORTH WALK on Haywood Street has one of the largest selections to choose from and at price points that fit any budget. About 170 local artists working in virtually every medium are represented. There’s even an old-timey soda fountain inside, perfect for enjoying a milkshake while you browse. Another satisfying shopping experience is at EAST FORK on Walnut Street, which sells the sophisticated pottery of local maker Alex Matisse, as well as other handsome handcrafted glassware, flatware, and home goods for the kitchen and table. LEXINGTON GLASSWORKS on South Lexington is a showroom and working studio where you can shop for blown-glass barware, vases, and lighting while you watch the artists at work. And back toward the art museum, ARIEL and BLUE SPIRAL 1 galleries house an exquisite collection of works by top-tier regional artisans.
To round out your day, sip a glass of wine while examining the captivating and highly collected photography at BENJAMIN WALLS GALLERY and wine bar before taking a patio seat at a restaurant in Pack Square. Posana, Rhubarb, and Bargello at Hotel Arras are all excellent choices, and a reservation is recommended. In any case, you’ll have a prime seat to take in the buzzing activity that happens nightly in the square and a spectacular view of the Asheville Art Museum in all its glowing glory.
Day Trip: Hit the Road
It’s hard to pull away from the vibrancy of Asheville, but it doesn’t take long to find a slower pace with an off-the-beaten-path road trip to the Toe River Valley and Penland School of Craft. Located about an hour’s drive north, the area is named for the pristine waterway that branches and flows in the shadow of the Black Mountains, the highest range in the eastern United States. It’s home to one of the highest concentrations of crafts artists in the country. The BLUE RIDGE CRAFT TRAILS website has suggested itineraries for exploration, but it’s easy and fun to create your own.
Pack a picnic and start early at the FOLK ART CENTER, just east of downtown Asheville on the Blue Ridge Parkway, which houses the headquarters for the venerable Southern Highland Craft Guild and Allanstand Craft Shop, the oldest craft shop in America. The juried guild includes more than 800 craftspeople from across nine Appalachian states working in most every medium. The upstairs showcases permanent and rotating exhibits, while the shop downstairs contains a kaleidoscope of handmade masterpieces—woven scarves, statement jewelry, handsome wood-turned bowls, ceramic vases and serving pieces, beeswax candles, and more.
The guild’s origin story is not unlike that of the Blue Ridge Craft Trails. During the rise of mass industrialization in the late 1800s, Frances Louisa Goodrich sought to preserve old-time craft traditions while creating a reliable source of income for makers in this impoverished area of Southern Appalachia. Other cottage industries such as this were cropping up in the region around the same time, all led by women. John C. Campbell Folk School, Penland School of Craft, Crossnore School, and Berea College—some of the nation’s most recognized craft institutions came out of the revival that flourished here, and all were created to preserve a cultural tradition while improving the lives of makers and their local economies. Those are the very same reasons the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area and Craft Trails exist today.
From the Folk Art Center, meander north along the Blue Ridge Parkway 38 miles to hop on NC 80 at milepost 344. Along the way, don’t miss the opportunity to drive up to Mount Mitchell, the highest peak in the Eastern US. Allow for ample time to walk around and enjoy the 360-degree views, and be aware that at 6,684 feet, it can be quite chilly even in summer.
Highway 80 is a scenic, winding mountain road that cuts through the unincorporated community of Celo, which is populated with an astounding number of working artists, so you’ll have to pick and choose. At KENNY PIEPER’Smassive warehouse of a hot shop, you can watch as he gathers globs of molten glass and blows and shapes it into mesmerizing vessels and goblets. At the small pottery studio of PETE MCWHIRTER, when he isn’t at the wheel or mixing up a new batch of red clay, he’s happy to talk about his work and life, like how his mother apprenticed under the only potter in the valley and passed on her knowledge to him. There’s a genuine warmth and appreciation that comes with getting to meet the artists in their studios. At OOAK ART GALLERY, which is full of quirk and character in an old general store, you can get a sense of the creative energy generated in this breathtaking and remote region.
Further north, a visit to PENLAND SCHOOL OF CRAFT is a must. Its instructors and alumni are counted among the most widely collected and revered craft artists living in America today. While the school’s residencies are reserved for emerging and professional artists, anyone can sign up for Penland’s two-week classes, which include room, board, and a fully immersive craft experience. Otherwise, visitors can take a self-guided tour of the grounds, though Penland’s gallery is the easiest access point to experience the work that happens here. It’s full of collectable museum-worthy pieces that retail in the thousands, but there’s also edgy jewelry, glass-blown barware, and ceramic vases, bowls, and other more accessible items. Gallery director Kathryn Gremley explains that about 50 percent of artists in the community do not have open studios, but “you can find and shop their work here.”
Almost within walking distance is the studio of CYNTHIA BRINGLE, one of the school’s most beloved instructors and the unofficial mayor of Penland. She’s in her early 80s but spry as ever and eager to talk about pottery and show patrons around. Her studio is enormous, filled with shelves of glazes, stacks of books, pots in various stages of firing, and myriad other supplies, since she paints and dabbles in other mediums. Bringle’s been teaching classes at Penland since 1970 and has taken many courses there, she explains, pointing out an elegant wooden chair she made in one of them. A small gallery room at the far end is neatly curated with her pottery and paintings and woven works by her twin sister, Edwina, who’s equally skilled in her craft. It’s a heartening experience to see the culmination of a lifetime devoted to a creative pursuit.
By this point, no doubt the day is fading, and perhaps you are, too. Returning to Asheville via US 19, make a last stop in Burnsville, an adorable town worth exploring and a great place to grab a meal. Fill up on Southern Appalachian fare at SECOND HOME and a pint of local brew next door at HOMEPLACE BREWERY, and toast to an art-filled journey along the Blue Ridge Craft Trails.
Day Trip Itinerary: Meander through Burnsville, Bakersville, and Penland
139 Red Clay Rd., Burnsville
(828) 675-4559; MCWHIRTERPOTTERY.COM
OOAK Art Gallery:
573 Micaville Loop, Burnsville
(828) 675-0690; OOAKARTGALLERY.COM
(by appointment only)
2778 Halls Chapel Rd., Burnsville
(828) 675-1113; PIEPERGLASS.COM
Toe River Arts Council: 102 W. Main St.,
Burnsville; (828) 765-0502; TOERIVERARTS.ORG
Penland School of Craft:
67 Doras Trail, Bakersville
(828) 765-6211 (gallery); PENLAND.ORG
Cynthia Bringle Pottery:
160 Lucy Morgan Ln., Penland
(828) 765-0204; CYNTHIABRINGLEPOTTERY.COM
It’s RAD – Spend a day in the River Arts District
In Asheville’s mile-long River Arts District, aka the “RAD,” 23 industrial warehouses along the French Broad River have been transformed into studios and galleries for more than 200 artists. It’s worth devoting an entire day to this area alone. You can find a list of artists, a map, and information on workshops and special events at RIVERARTSDISTRICT.COM. There are no official hours, but you’ll find open studios almost any time of day. The best approach is to pick an area to park and walk, before moving on to the next space.
Throughout the district are many places to rest, play, and refuel. ULTRA COFFEEBAR is fantastic for breakfast or lunch. One of the city’s most beloved barbecue joints, 12 BONES SMOKEHOUSE, is here and only open for lunch. For drinks, WEDGE BREWING COMPANY has two locations in the RAD, often with food trucks nearby. HI-WIRE BREWING has its third location here, and NEW BELGIUM is just across the river. PLĒB is an urban winery, and great bars that are always lively include BOTTLE RIOT and OLDE LONDON ROAD, a European-style soccer pub. Dinner brings plentiful options as well. VIVIAN, ROSABEES, THE BULL AND BEGGAR, and SMOKY PARK SUPPER CLUB all offer fine dining experiences that won’t disappoint. ALL SOULS PIZZA is a local favorite serving artisan pies. And when day rolls into night and musical entertainment is what you seek, two of the city’s great music venues are in the RAD: THE GREY EAGLE and SALVAGE STATION.
Asheville: Plan Your Visit
Ready to go? Here’s a list of the museums and galleries toured to plot your course. Some artist studios are only open by appointment, so do plan ahead. For tons more information to inspire an art-filled trip, including a robust list of galleries and other arts offerings, visit EXPLOREASHEVILLE.COM.
Appalachian Craft Center:
10 N. Spruce St., Ste. 210, (828) 253-8499,
Ariel Gallery: 19 Biltmore Ave.,
(828) 236-2660, AERIALCRAFTGALLERY.COM
Asheville Art Museum:
2 S. Pack Square, (828) 253-3227,
Bellagio Art to Wear: 5 Biltmore Plaza
in Historic Biltmore Village, (828) 277-8100,
Black Mountain College Museum +
Art Center: 120 College St., (828) 350-8484,
Benjamin Walls Gallery: 38 Broadway St.,
Ste. 1, (877) 989-2557, BENJAMINWALLS.COM
Blue Spiral 1: 38 Biltmore Ave.,
(828) 251-0202, BLUESPIRAL1.COM
Center for Craft: 67 Broadway St.,
(828) 785-1357, CENTERFORCRAFT.ORG
East Fork: 15 W. Walnut St.,
(828) 575-2150, EASTFORK.COM
Folk Art Center:
382 Blue Ridge Pkwy., (828) 298-7928,
Lexington Glassworks: 81 S. Lexington
Ave., (828) 348-8427, LEXINGTONGLASSWORKS.COM
Momentum Gallery: 52 Broadway St.,
(828) 505-8550, MOMENTUMGALLERY.COM
Explore the Blue Ridge Craft Trails at BLUERIDGEHERITAGE.COM. The site offers suggested itineraries, or you can build your own. Search by region or area of interest and add stops to create a map and itinerary, which you can share with your mobile device for easy navigation.