The American craftsperson is the quintessential small business — a small business still surviving in an era of mega-mergers, big-box stores, and distant assembly-line production. From pottery to wood to fiber, from glass to iron to stone, the nation’s craft industry supplies products that can honestly bear the labels “all natural,” “homegrown,” and “handmade.”
But it isn’t easy being small. Many craftspeople are hardly known outside their own neighborhoods, and lack the resources to reach a wider market. American Craft Week is the fifth outing for a nationally based annual marketing event created by Craft Retailers and Artists for Tomorrow — the trade group striving to bring the power of numbers to help the country’s craft artists make a living.
CRAFT’s original idea was a one-day event to be held on the same day nationwide. Five years on, it’s grown to a weeklong event held in all 50 states.
Participants in Western North Carolina include Heartwood Gallery in Saluda, which focuses this year on fiber: Jen Swearington of Asheville’s Jennythreads is the highlighted artist. “There’s always been a strong crafts market here in Asheville, but compared to 10 or 15 years ago, it’s growing all around,” says Swearington. “I’ve been in business now for 11 years, and there’s definitely a big difference.”
In Hendersonville, the county’s Arts Council is staging its “Art on Main” fine-art-and-craft street fair the opening weekend of American Craft Week, October 4 and 5, including demonstrations of crafts skills. Asheville’s Grovewood Gallery will host an opening reception the same weekend, with a nod to the city’s frankly explosive craft-brewing industry in its presentation of handmade steins, tankards, and mugs by 17 local crafters.
Grovewood was the first Asheville gallery to jump on the ACW bandwagon in 2010, thanks to Sherry Masters, the gallery’s chief buyer at the time, now the national co-chair for American Craft Week and a leader of local art tours.
“I joined ACW because I felt it would be a huge oversight if Asheville wasn’t part of this national focus on craft,” says Masters. Indeed, in a 2008 survey, the regional Center for Craft, Creativity & Design identified Western North Carolina as a key national market, contributing $122 million annually to the economy of 20 mountain counties. Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer comes from a craft-making family and speaks often about the economic benefits that craft-centered cultural tourism brings to the area.
For the first three years of American Craft Week, Asheville and its surrounding counties boasted the largest amount of participants — 36 — a number that included galleries, individual artists, and groups such as HandMade in America and the Southern Highland Craft Guild. (Vermont moved into first place in 2012, when the state’s tourism office became an official sponsor.) “We quickly became the poster child for ACW in those early years,” says Masters, “even though our artists aren’t formally affiliated with each other, outside of being in the craft industry in the same region. But we support each other and have become closer as a peer group.”
The variety of craft and the ingenuity in marketing it has grown along with the event. This year, a team of Asheville knitters and weavers, sponsored by NC Homecraft in the Grove Arcade, will take part in a national “Spinzilla” competition to see who can spin the most amount of yarn in a given time period. There’s also a rumor that yarn bombing — the trendy swaddling of streetside tree trunks, telephone poles, and other urban hallmarks in bright knits — will become part of American Craft Week.
Heartwood Gallery’s event slogan is “wrap yourself in American Craft.” The venue will feature the handmade scarves of five artists, joining Swearington’s mixed-media creations based on designs from her own sketchbook. (Swearington’s entire line of wearable art will be at Heartwood in a trunk show on October 11, the last Saturday of Craft Week.)
The event’s expansion parallels community awareness of, and demand for, locally grown food. Authentic craft in everyday use is similar to the yield of a garden. “There are so many craftspeople in this country working quietly to make the items that beautify and enrich our lives daily,” says Heartwood owner Shelley DeKay. “Supporting them supports communities and continues a great tradition.”
American Craft Week takes place October 3-12. For a list of participating galleries, studios, and workshops, plus events related to ACW, visit americancraftweek.com/wnc. Heartwood Gallery is hosting a trunk show of Jen Swearington’s line of fun fashion, Saturday October 11, 2-6pm, followed by an artist’s reception 6-7pm. Visit www.heartwoodsaluda.com or call 828-749-9365.