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Berea: Folk Art and Crafts Capital of Kentucky

Tater_Knob_10The expression “college town” is certainly appropriate for describing Berea, Kentucky. Berea College, founded in 1855, was the first interracial and coeducational college in the South and was operating long before the community around it was established. Today, the liberal arts school (approximately 6,000 students) continues to have a significant influence on life here. Just off Interstate 75 only 40 minutes south of Lexington, Berea has been named a “favorite small towns in America,” by Southern Living Magazine among the “Nation’s Top 25 Arts Destinations” by AmericanStyle.

The community’s long tradition in crafts began in 1890 when Berea College’s second president, William Goodell Frost, started a crafts production program to enable students to pay for their education. Since its founding, all students here receive full scholarships and work 10 to 15 hours a week, at various jobs on campus and in the community, in return. Visitors can see students in the crafts program at work and purchase items they have made in the college’s Log House Gallery and at Student Crafts On The Square, a gallery with live and video demonstrations.

“Students in our crafts program (about 40 each year) become skilled in various craft media such as fiber, wood, or clay. While most will go on to other pursuits following graduation, a few will become career craft artists.” said Tim Glotzbach, Crafts Program Director.

Over the years Berea has become a center for many working artisans and those who sell artisan works. Visitors to Berea can meet with some of its 40 plus craft artists or gallery owners in the friendly atmosphere of their studios or shops. Crafts tour maps are available at the Kentucky Artisan Center.

The Kentucky Artisan Center is a state owned and operated facility opened in 2003. The impressive stone building, near an Interstate 75 exit, features a wide range of quality Kentucky crafts and other products. There are whimsical garden sculptures, hand-woven shawls, silver jewelry, hand-carved canes, handsome pottery, authentic honeysuckle baskets, and much more.

Live demonstrations by craft artists are held regularly and there is a large gallery space devoted to changing exhibits of works by local artists. There is also an excellent cafeteria restaurant and award winning (no kidding) restrooms.

Many craft artists call Berea home. Sarah Culbreth and Jeff Enge (both Berea College alumni) live on a small farm just outside of town where they operate a functional pottery business. Tater Knob Pottery offers high quality hand thrown items including place settings, pitchers, vases, lamps, and “Spoonbread Bakers” used to prepare a traditional Kentucky delicacy. Its served at Berea’s Boone Tavern Hotel.

Warren May is a woodworker/cabinetmaker who makes hand carved traditional mountain dulcimers from walnut and birch he has carefully selected for its exceptional beauty and tonal quality. May has made more than 13,000 traditional Appalachian dulcimers and his commitment to authentic design and playing style has earned him a national reputation. He also build exquisite handmade wooden furniture such as dining room tables and bedroom dressers. His gallery is located “On The Square” in downtown Berea.

Ken and Sally Gastineau, who moved here from Santa Fe more than 20 years ago, create jewelry and mugs of pewter, bronze, and Sterling silver. Its possible for visitors to watch Ken at work in a small metal shop next their sales gallery where Sally is in charge. Their building (once a distressed property) has been fully renovated and restored. Its located near several of other craft studios and galleries in the “Old Town” arts district.

Nearby is the Top Drawer Gallery. Founded in 2003 by Terry Fields, a native Kentuckian woodworker/cabinet maker, its also in a rehabilitated building, but you might not know it. The gallery interior is a work of art in itself.
Fields has used his skill with fine grain woods to build beautiful display units, columns, service counter, floors and ceiling. His handcrafted furniture (displayed throughout the gallery) is handsome as well as functional.

Other local craft artists who welcome visitors to their studios or galleries include glass bead worker Jimmy Lou Jackson, doll artist Lindy Evans, weavers Neil and Nancy Colmer. glass blower Michelle Weston, chair maker Brian Boggs, and silversmith R. C. Thompson

The Berea Crafts Festival held every July attracts tens of thousands of visitors to the area. The three day juried event features about 120 crafts artists from Kentucky and two dozen other states. In addition to its crafts market, the festival includes craft demonstrations, live music, folk dancing, plenty of good food, and a free shuttle around town. The original “Home Spun Fair” was first held in 1896.

The Kentucky Guild of Artists & Craftsmen
holds highly successful festivals each fall and spring. Southeast Tourism Society has named it one its top visitor events. Founded in 1961 and headquartered in Berea, the Guild is comprised of many of Kentucky’s top artists and craftsmen and works to promote the state’s rich heritage and its future artistic growth. The Christmas holiday season brings two annual events, the Berea College Crafts Sale and the Home and Hearth Christmas Bazar. Both feature works by local craft artists and are held in November.

The Berea Crafts Guild holds an annual quilt exhibit and sale called Quilt Extravaganza. Held at the Berea Community School, the weekend event attracts over a thousand visitors from Kentucky, across the country, and abroad.  The event is sponsored by the Berea Crafts Council, a part of the statewide Kentucky Crafts Council.

Along with its arts and crafts, Berea is a community of dedicated volunteers who support a vibrant and diverse cultural scene including music, dance, theater, and written and spoken word. Its also an eco-friendly community, one of the nation’s first begun over two decades ago. Solar heating, water recycling, and other green technology are in wide use here.

There’s nothing shy about Berea, Kentucky, that proudly proclaims itself as the “Crafts Capital of the World.” And who is to say it isn’t so? Learn more at www.berea.com. Also see www.kentuckyartisancenter.ky.

About the Author

In 2000, following a long and successful career as head of his own public relations agency, Jim became a freelance travel writer. In 2003 he was named travel editor at New York Trend. Jim travels widely in North America and Europe and has also visited in Asia, Africa, and Central America. He enjoys writing stories that bring alive his travel experience and entice the reader to visit new destinations. Jim is a member of the International Association of Black Travel Writers.

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