BY ELIZABETH DUNLOP RICHTER
Was your New Year’s celebration filled with festive city crowds in black tie and sequins, big bands, cases of champagne, and silver-festooned ballrooms? A great time, to be sure, but another year, try a mountain alternative: the community of Spruce Pine, to be exact. With a population of 2,175, Spruce Pine is in Mitchell County in northwestern North Carolina, which rivals Santa Fe for its high percentage of resident artists. Our recent road trip to visit my husband’s brother and sister-in-law at their mountain home was the perfect antidote to our busy Chicago lives.
Leaving the interstate about an hour from our destination, we drove on winding mountain roads through such picturesque communities as Loafer’s Glory, an unincorporated hamlet that doesn’t bother to count its population. We’d fortunately just missed a huge rainstorm and as we drove, marveled at numerous mini waterfalls pouring down the rocky walls of the narrow cuts into this section of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Our road followed rushing creeks that sometimes spilled onto the pavement and gave this passenger pause as we drove carefully along the curving edge of steep ravines. The unusually warm weather (up to the high 50s) guaranteed no snow-blocked mountain passes, a frequent risk.
Abundant natural resources enable a flourishing art scene. Gemstones abound in a 25-mile area including Mitchell and adjacent Yancey and Avery counties, called the Spruce Pine Mining District. The movement of tectonic plates hundreds of millions of years ago created tremendous pressure and temperatures that enabled crystallization of minerals in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Unlike the relatively young Rockies, these ancient mountains are eroding (the highest point, Mt. Mitchell, is just half the height of Pike’s Peak), making their treasures more accessible in outcroppings and surface mines. Emeralds, sapphires, rubies, and a variety of semi-precious stones fill local shops and offer jewelry makers the materials they need for stunning creations.
Among the most valuable minerals in the region is quartz, producing the world’s purest silicon, the critical ingredient in glass. More importantly, the quartz is so pure that virtually every computer manufacturer uses Spruce Pine quartz for its silicon chips. You can thank Spruce Pine for your cellphone!
The vibrant artistic community in Mitchell County is largely attributable to the internationally acclaimed Penland School of Crafts, founded in 1929 by Lucy Morgan. Her goal was to develop the economy of the region; six years earlier she had established the Penland Weavers to provide impoverished rural women with looms, materials, and a way to sell their work.
Chicago gets a nod on the Penland campus today at the reconstructed Travelog, Lucy Morgan’s ingenious traveling marketing initiative. In 1932, encouraged by a meeting about selling handcrafts with the National Park District in Washington, DC, she built a small log cabin, loaded it onto a pick-up truck and called it her “Travelog.”
Covered in examples of the fine handcrafts from Appalachia, the Travelog put Penland on the national artisanal map when Morgan drove it to the Chicago World’s Fair of 1933, the Century of Progress. In her memoir, she reported, “The supreme effort was a success. Thirty-one women were busy at their looms all through the summer; stacks of finished materials, which for long had lain idle on the shelves, were turned into cash. Penland was made known to many thousands of people.”
Over the past 20 years, Penland has grown its endowment from $2.1 million to $17 million, thanks to the astute leadership of Jean McLaughlin, recently retired after 20 years as executive director. Under McLaughlin’s stewardship, the school was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Mia Hall, the new executive director for the past year, stresses the critical role played by the school’s curriculum “in a society that puts increasing value and importance on science, technology, engineering, and math, promoting the hand skills, decision making, ingenuity, inventiveness, and analysis that are required to practice skilled making is not only necessary, but essential.”
Jean McLaughlin’s husband is artist Tom Spleth, whose work is in numerous museums, galleries, and private collections. Over the years Tom has excelled as a ceramic artist and a painter, continually incorporating new media. He’s now discovered that the iPad is the ideal tool to create complex drawings that can be printed in multiple formats. Searching printing options, he identified a source that uses a sublimation process to blow up and transfer his digital images to a stunning and permanent aluminum surface.
Exploring new artistic horizons is typical of the Penland community. Today over 1400 students from around the world annually attend classes and workshops in book and papermaking, clay, drawing and painting, glass, iron, metals, photography, printmaking and letterpress, textiles, wood, and other media. Such luminaries as glass artist Dale Chihuly, taught as a young man by iconic local glass artist Harvey Littleton, studied at Penland.
Penland’s classes and reputation have attracted over 500 painters, potters, glass blowers, and other artists to the region as full time area residents. The local Toe River Arts organization has built upon the Penland tradition and counts 100 members who open their studios in June and December for public tours. Benefitting the individual artists, Toe River Arts has substantially expanded and branded the community as an arts mecca.
Its exhibition this past summer, “Sphere of Influence,” highlighted the work of 61 western North Carolina glass artists whose impact is felt worldwide. Co-curator Robin Warden wrote that the artists represented ranged from pioneers of the 1960s to today’s younger generation creating “contemporary glass artwork, ranging from vessels and sculptures to jewelry and ornaments, created using multiple blowing, sculpting, casting, fusing, etching and flame working techniques.“
Water’s husband, award-winning artist Jim Waters, is a Toe River member. His medium is encaustic or hot wax painting, a technique found as early as 100 AD in the Fayum mummy portraits in Egypt and used by such diverse artists as Diego Rivera and Jasper Johns. In his studio on the lower level of the handsome home he built primarily himself, Waters explained the process of adding pigment to melted wax and then applying it to prepared wood. He takes his inspiration from nature and science and is currently exploring the collisions characteristic of quantum physics.
Jim writes on his website, “The paintings are many layered, incised, scraped, cut, painted over, fields of motion and color, hidden and revealed again, as an allegory for the underlying meaning and history of our world.”
The only problem facing a collector is choosing a new piece among the many studios, shops, and exhibits at Penland and museums in the region. Spruce Pine and nearby towns of Burnsville, Bakersville, and Celo have a plethora of galleries, including several artist-owned and run co-ops, highlighting local, national, and often international artists.
Italian-born Sylvia Ferrari-Palmer and her husband, Andy Palmer, a skilled potter and woodworker, were attracted to the rich creative vibe of the area. Palmer, who supervised the ceramics program at Cornell University for 16 years, teaches at the local community college and assists his wife who opened the In Tandem gallery in Bakersville, a year and a half ago. She curates ceramics, glass, and jewelry designed by a wide variety of artists from North Carolina and as far away as Montana and Canada.
Just across the street, an artists’ cooperative called Mica (named for the abundant mineral of the same name) includes textiles, ceramics, jewelry, and the opportunity to commission a complete set of handmade, one-of-a-kind pottery for its wedding registry.
Studio and gallery hopping are far from the only local pastimes. Hiking is a favorite sport of local residents, and one expects to see walking sticks propped against front doors. Wild turkeys, deer, and bear are frequently spotted. Virtually every homeowner has a bear story. My brother-in-law is no exception, having had a large black furry visitor on his deck one time too many. The full story is best told over a bottle of wine.
Over 200 species of trees cover the mountainsides, including half a dozen varieties of pine. Visitors throng to the Blue Ridge Parkway in spring to see dazzling displays of azalea, rhododendron, and dogwood. Even in winter shiny rhododendron blankets the hillsides with natural greenery. In winter the woods are mostly bare, allowing one to enjoy the richness of vines, fungus, and evergreens scattered through the thickets of oak, beech, and hickory.
But what of New Year’s Eve? We traded an Uber stuck in Chicago traffic for twisting mountain roads meandering through fog and mist. We toasted 2019 with a small group of friends who have chosen to immerse themselves in the world of mountains, art, and nature. As the midnight hour approached, we shared predictions for the coming year, having been asked to explain if we were optimistic or pessimistic. Not surprisingly, the responses were mixed, but we all agreed the North Carolina mountains are an ideal place to watch 2019 play out. And one Chicago tradition survived. Our New Year’s toast was not moonshine, but Tattinger Brut.
Luckily, those of us more comfortable navigating the blessedly logical Chicago street grid did not have to do the driving back to our welcome quilt-covered beds.