Technology and tradition collide at local craft Guild

By Anna Frate – Contributor – afrate@unca.edu

Once a narrowly defined style of craft, the southern art industry faces changes influenced by economy and technology, according to the Southern Highland Craft Guild.

“We’ve faired very well compared to a lot of other industries. That said, we haven’t had a lot of growth. It seems like in the last couple of years we’re trying to gain some traction in that regard,” said April Nance, manager of public relations for the Southern Highland Craft Guild.

About five years ago marks the beginning of an economic decline in the United States, it also symbolizes the start of Nance’s career at the Craft Guild, according to Nance.

“It’s an interesting demographic that supports the arts, a lot of them didn’t stop. I think the economy probably hurt people who saw it as a luxury item,” Nance said.

According to Nance, a community of individuals who understand the value of investing in creation provide continued support of the art industry.

“We’re getting a lot of different styles and techniques introduced into the area,” Nance said. “The definition of southern Appalachian artist has changed with opportunities to relocate. In 1948 when it first started, southern Appalachia had a definition that was probably a little more narrow.”

Preservation efforts of the guild feel the effects of increased technology, according to Deborah Schillo, the Guild’s librarian.

“I keep thinking with the library, I’ve got a long list of books that I want to order. I think, ‘You know, a couple of years down the road am I just going to be selling this stuff off?’” Schillo said.

An archive room brimming with boxes of historical documents dedicates a small section of a shelf to recent CDs containing photographs.

“The technology changes,” Schillo said. “It’s easier accessibility wise, because I just pop it on the computer and anyone can see it. But I don’t know what’s going to happen in long term saving of these things. You can’t hold them up to the light.”

A previous archivist for the guild organized the current collection of documents into boxes and acid-free folders, according to Schillo.

“Once she left that became part of my job,” Schillo said. “We’ve got all the papers going back to the ‘30s, some before. We’ve got film strips and we’ve got reel-to-reel tapes, lots of photographs as well.”

Some of the oldest documents the archive contains are scrap books made by founders of the guild, according to Schillo.

“One of the things we are really proud of is the weaving drafts that Frances Goodrich did,” Schillo said. “She would take the pattern and draw it out on graph paper so that mountain women could see what exactly they were getting into.”

The Folk Art Center houses the guilds library, which contains around 10,000 titles pertaining to craft interests. Anyone can be a member but materials cannot leave the building, according to Schillo.

“We used to circulate to our members but we had too much stuff that was wandering off and it’s hard to replace,” she said.

According to Schillo, community and guild members donate most of the titles.

“A lot of the libraries don’t keep the back issues of craft things,” Schillo said. “I’m proud of it, I just wish more people used it.”

In an effort to provide a market for artists, the guild hosts the Southern Highland Craft Fair twice a year, according to Nance.

“There are a lot of fairs and it seems like every year there are more. The Craft Fair of the Southern Highlands sets itself apart through its history and its reputation for excellence,” Nance said.

The 66th Annual Craft Fair took place Oct. 17-20 at the U.S. Cellular Center in downtown Asheville. Sponsored by the Southern Highland Craft Guild, the fair featured artwork from more than 200 of its members.

“One thing that really defines the craft fair is how it has tradition and innovation. Traditional and contemporary artists and techniques are represented,” Nance said.

In addition to artists booths, attendees observed musical acts and artist demonstrations, according to Nance.

“It is very important to keep traditions alive,” said musician Martha Spencer.

Spencer’s band Whitetop Mountain performed at the fair for the second time this October, according to Spencer.

“We both sing, play banjo, guitar, fiddle and mandolin,” Spencer said. “We usually do a mix of old time and bluegrass up tempo instrumentals, country duet singing and high energy dancing.”

Turnout of the craft fair remains consistent despite an economic decline, according to Nance.

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