Community and Creativity Meet at the Appalachian Arts Craft Center

The Appalachian Arts Craft Center is situated on Andersonville Highway, right across the street from where its original shack stood and just down the road from the Museum of Appalachia. Step inside the green wooden building with an inviting white-columned porch to find jury-selected crafts that span the distance between homespun and high art. The wares include everything from hand-woven textiles to museum-quality pottery pieces to origami earrings. The gift shop, though, would be empty if it weren't for the 30 to 40 workshops held each year down on the AACC's lower floor—the AACC quite literally goes deeper than its gift shop might imply.

It started out as a grassroots Appalachian development project, and though it's now more a gathering place for hobbyists than a community outreach, the AACC's volunteer-based operations and commitment to promoting the work of local crafters demonstrate that it has done more to improve on the original vision for the craft center than to diverge from it. Since it depends so heavily on its members for support, individuals involved with the AACC develop an intimate relationship with the place.

Thirty-nine years ago, Grace Foster and Sara Starr founded the Community Craft Co-Op in Clinton, hoping to provide a little extra income for crafters in an economically depressed area. Foster had previously worked with the Peace Corps, aiding Central American women in starting their own sewing businesses, and hoped to use her experience for the benefit of those in her hometown. The Community Co-Op's headquarters, opened in 1972, was little more than a shack with no running water or electricity. It served as a storefront for selling the wares of local artists and housed studios for potters and other craftspeople, though the potters had to bring in their own water for wheel-thrown work. Nearly 40 years later, a revised and revamped version of the original Co-Op exists as the Appalachian Arts Craft Center.

Many of the classes offered today are more sophisticated in terms of the materials used and techniques taught; the original Co-Op members pursued crafts that had been passed down through their families, making functional items and practicing the "folk arts." Though it doesn't label itself a folk school or purport to teach and sell folk crafts, the AACC still maintains characteristic Appalachian arts such as quilting, braided rug-making, and hand-sewing as ongoing weekly or monthly classes.

"Passing on the crafts to the next generation—that's a big part of it," says Director Liz McGeachy. The AACC also participates in local festivals and crafting events with children's activity booths, introducing young crafters to straw weaving and pottery.

Weaving instructor Carol Pritcher, an AACC member since 1980, confirms that the founders' hopes for the Center are still being carried out. "We're weaving to sell our items to make some money to expand the center...part of what we're weaving will be [sold] to go to the building fund to double the size of the building someday," she explains. Appalachian Arts Center crafters are no longer selling their work purely for subsistence, but choose to donate their time and artistry for the benefit of the AACC itself.

For Pritcher, who has spent each of her Tuesdays for the past several years at the AACC, weaving "isn't just a hobby. It's a way of life. We all do other crafts as well, but weaving is at the core. There's something very therapeutic about throwing the shuttle back and forth and watching the pattern develop as you go."

Up to a dozen people show up for the weekly weaving group, three of whom are men. Most of the people attending classes and working the gift shop are female, but Pritcher believes that weaving is an all-inclusive art. "You don't have to be a patient person, or a mathematician, or anything except someone who is willing to try something new and take it all one step at a time," she says.

A large downstairs room is packed with weaving looms; the wooden apparatuses are jammed in wall-to-wall and hold weaving projects in every state of completion. A hulking 200-year-old loom on loan from Museum of Appalachia founder John Rice Irwin takes up the entire corner of the weaving area. Shelves of books, crafting guides, and a hobby shop's worth of crafting materials line the walls. The AACC is well-equipped for pottery workshops as well, with eight electric wheels, two full-size kilns, and all the materials needed to make its own pottery glazes. Racks are heavy with unfired pieces, bisque-fired works awaiting their glazing, and plenty of finished projects that show the work of individuals at every skill level. Creative freedom is in the air at the AACC, and it is nurtured by the community aspect of the membership system.

"Other than our manager and bookkeeper, we're a totally volunteer effort. [People] getting involved is what keeps us going," Pritcher says. Though the AACC is not strictly a membership organization, it has 250 members who pay a yearly fee ($40 per individual) and in return receive discounts off classes, the right to submit their work to the jury who chooses what is sold in the shop, and open access to the AACC's studios whenever they please. This membership tradition is directly based on the AACC founders' original vision in which the Co-Op functioned as a sort of guild: Only members could sell their work and were in turn expected to help the Co-Op operate. That system is still very much in use, as members have a monthly quota of hours they must fill working the gift shop desk each month. (Visit appalachianarts.net for schedules, registration, and membership information.)

It's worth making the picturesque drive out to Clinton, about 30 minutes from downtown Knoxville, to have a look around the AACC store. The amicable meeting of old-timey pride in one's work with gift-worthy contemporary crafts provides a unique shopping experience—next time you're in the market for a hand-knitted scarf or new set of mugs, remember the Appalachian Arts Craft Center.

"It's worth it to see our students learning and customers happy when they buy something that they really love that we made downstairs," Pritcher says.