Snowbirds: Berea's just the place to rest your wings
Canadians and Midwesterners heading south this winter will likely spend long motoring hours on I-75, the North/South interstate weaving through Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee and Georgia before ending in Miami. If you're one of those thousands of snowbirds making this journey, you can make reaching your final destination pleasurable by braking at interesting towns along the way, say at one of this road's best hidden treasures: Berea, Kentucky. Considered the folk arts and crafts capital of Kentucky, it's just a half hour south of Lexington, but still in the Bluegrass Region. Give yourself some upright exercise by taking in local sights at Berea College and make time to shop for last minute gifts beautifully handcrafted items you might be surprised to discover in the heart of Appalachia.
Originally the college's weaving headquarters, the 1917 Log House (that doesn't look like a log house inside) provides contemporary retail space brimming with wooden games, baskets, hand-wrought iron, hand blown glass, silver jewelry, hand-woven throws, pottery, calligraphy, and prints. And furniture. Upstairs, the Wallace Nutting Furniture Museum gives shoppers a peek at the original Early American styles that Berea College students reproduce from local wild cherry and black walnut.
In addition to college crafters, the gallery juries regional artists selected for their Appalachian workmanship, quality and materials. The Boone Tavern Hotel Gift Shop down the street is sort of a branch of the gallery, stocking a smaller selection off the hotel's lobby. Even if you're expecting fine quality, you may still be surprised at some of the prices originals aren't cheap, you know.
Learning to create mountain crafts pottery, jewelry, weaving and spinning, basket weaving, broom making is nothing new at the college or in the Appalachian Mountains. It's a folk art passed down through generations, until places like Berea College elevated handmaking functional necessities and decorative crafts to an art form.
The crafts and college became synonymous soon after the college's founding in 1855 when Christian abolitionists began a tuition-free, open enrollment school designed to provide a quality education to students with financial need. "Their parents did chair caning, quiltmaking, weaving and woodworking and out of gratitude would send along a craft. William Frost, college president at that time, gathered up the donated items, took them to big cities and held fairs to raise money for the college while explaining its mission," explains Peggy Bergio, coordinator of the college's student crafts program. "
After realizing the talent of the Appalachian region, Berea College began teaching some of those crafts," she adds. Fireside Weavers began more than 100 years ago, with Woodcraft and Broomcraft added more recently.
Even today, 80 percent of the students come from the Appalachian regions of Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, North and South Carolina, Tennessee, Ohio, Georgia and Alabama. Attendees must meet academic and financial guidelines for admittance and all students put in 10-15 hours per week in a work/study program to defray their expenses, she explains. Because the area is lined with galleries, it feels like everyone is involved, but only some 200 of the 1500 students actively participate in the crafts portion of the four-year curriculum.
In true folk art fashion, instructor Lonnie Reed learned broom making from his father. (His parents taught the production craft at the college before they retired and Lonnie stepped in.) "You just can't find people out on the street who know how to do this," chimed in Ms. Bergio. "Lonnie takes students who don't know anything about broom making and trains them so they can keep quality up and meet the 24-hour turnaround deadlines we have," she continued, pointing to curved handled and intricately designed specimens of the rural craft.
Take the free craft tour and watch as students and masters work together. You'll stroll through broom factory, passing dying vats where natural shades of the broomcorn are transformed into vibrant jewel tones before Lonnie and his students roll and braid it into the 15,000 functional and decorative household brooms they sell each year. Not only are they sold here, they're shipped the world over.
Then peruse the independent shops located throughout the streets adjacent to the campus along Chestnut Street, in two clusters: the Old Town Artisan Village and College Square and of course, off country roads. You'll discover galleries set up by artists who graduated from Berea College or consider themselves "local" no matter how far away their roots began. "A lot of them migrate here because of the community and it's nice to be among other crafts people," explains Ms. Bergio.
Some of the more than 50 artists tucked away in the hills of this rural countryside are producing museum quality art pieces ones you'd find in fancy gallery shops and discriminating big-city gift stores throughout the country. I met many of the artists, as you will, when you visit and being a fan of museum shops, recognized the work of several artists who sell work to galleries. Unlike those shops, though, you can meet the artists here, like Ken Gastineau, whose silver jewelry stocks such shops. Watching him work and browsing the selection in the shop he and his wife operate - provide the human element that makes art creations such wonderful presents. The Gastineaus started their metalsmith business in Tesuque, just north of Santa Fe. "We were looking for an arts and crafts community we could afford to live in and this is closer to our family, but we could have picked anywhere in the United States," he says. "Of course, Santa Fe is a much larger city, but both are arts and crafts communities."
Their shop, featuring cast pewter, bronze and sterling silver fashion jewelry is among others in the Old Town Artisan Village on North Broadway. Nearby, the Berea Welcome Center, in the restored train depot, showcases samples from the shops and provides directions to studios along the Kentucky Artisan Heritage Trails.
Across the parking lot, Jimmy Lou Jackson, a glass beadmaker who set up shop in a corner of her sister's "The Honeysuckle Vine" could double as stand-up comedian. "I was in my fifties when I started this business so when you're working over a hot torch, having a hot flash - what else do you name your business, but 'Hot Flash Beads,'" she laughed, demonstrating her craft and joking with customers. She'll customize a pendant or bracelet for you while you chat. The rest of the shop stocks gift items and a year round Christmas collection as well as Bybee Pottery, a distinctive line of functional ware from the oldest existing pottery west of the Alleghenies.