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Southern arts and crafts: Handmade and heartfelt

Courtesy Mississippi Craft Center

One of the best ways to get to know the soul of a place is to spend some time looking at its art and crafts. In the South, centuries of tradition and talent have created a cultural heritage that is unrivaled in other parts of the country.

Long before modern transportation made it possible to travel throughout the region, artisans in the Southern states were creating crafts that would come to define the area’s artistic style. And although many things have changed with the passing centuries, this artwork has become an essential part of the Southern experience. In places such as the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee or the Appalachian peaks of West Virginia, traditional handmade crafts are travelers’ favorite souvenirs.

Of course, art in the South has grown beyond traditional craft to encompass a wide range of modern media and styles. Today’s visitors will find a wide range of classic and contemporary art in Mississippi, South Carolina, Alabama and other great Southern destinations.Orange Beach Art Center

[ Orange Beach, Florida ]
You don’t often think about art when visiting traditional beach destinations, like Orange Beach on Alabama’s Gulf Coast. But tucked inside a 1923 building that originally served as the area’s first hotel, the Orange Beach Arts Center is a cultural reprieve from sunshine and sandcastles.

“We’re a city facility with the work of well over 100 artists from the area on display,” said coordinator Wanda Price. “We have handcrafted items in the gift shop for sale, and in the gallery, we have a regular exhibit with the work of our members, as well as special visiting artists.”

The artists whose work is on display come from within a 60-mile radius of Orange Beach, including cities such as Pensacola and Mobile, and much of their inspiration comes from the coastline and other aspects of the natural environment. Many are painters, although guests visiting the center will also find plenty of works in pottery, sculpture and art glass. Glass has become a specialty since 2009, when the center added a glassblowing studio called the Hot Sop.

“Our resident glass artists will do special demonstrations for groups,” Price said. “They [visitors] can watch a large piece of glass art being produced, or people can blow a piece of glass themselves with the help of the glass artist.”

Mississippi Craft Center
[ Ridgeland, Mississippi ]

The Craftsmen’s Guild of Mississippi represents some 400 artists from throughout the state, and some of their best work is on display at Ridgeland’s Mississippi Craft Center.

“We have our traditional crafts like quilting, blacksmithing and even digging Mississippi clay and making pottery,” said Julia Daily, the center’s executive director. “People are always surprised at the cutting-edge, sophisticated, contemporary crafts we have, too. You might see a beautiful sculpture or a mixed-media piece on a wall.”

The center’s permanent collection, on display in the front gallery, showcases handcrafted items donated by guild members. Other galleries at the center feature temporary exhibits that change monthly. Visitors can take a stroll to see some funky contemporary work in the outdoor sculpture garden or see crafters working firsthand in the center’s blacksmith shop or pottery studio.

One of the highlights of a group visit is the opportunity for travelers to try their skills at a number of traditional crafts.

“If they let us know in advance, we can set up demos or miniclasses,” Daily said. “We have craft samples, where people choose three or four different crafts to try. They do everything from blacksmithing to wire sculpture, wood carving, pottery, jewelry and leatherwork.”

[ Beckley, West Virginia ]

The pride of West Virginia is on display at Tamarack, an artisan center prominently placed on the interstate halfway between Kentucky and Virginia. When it opened 15 years ago, Tamarack was the first facility of its kind in the country.

“We’re a retail store selling juried handcrafts from West Virginia,” said marketing director Cindy Whitlock. “Everything you see, touch, taste and smell here is made in West Virginia. Crafters are juried into Tamarack by a panel of master craftsmen.”

Moving through the circular retail area, visitors will find jewelry and apparel, candles, furniture, metal art, wood glass and pottery, much of it made in traditional styles. There are five working studios where textile artists, glass artists, potters and a blacksmith demonstrate their crafts for the public. An on-site gallery hosts rotating exhibitions of juried art from throughout the state, and a theater features weekly traditional musical performances.

A restaurant at Tamarack offers seasonal menus of meat and produce from West Virginia farms. Groups can plan a meal in the restaurant or plan in advance to have a culinary class or a private artist demonstration. Each spring, the center also hosts a dinner theater event that is popular with groups as well.

South Carolina Artisans Center
[ Walterboro, South carolina]

In 1994, a group of businesswomen in Walterboro, a town not far from Charlotte, launched the South Carolina Artisans Center as a way to combine their knack for business with their love of local arts and crafts. The center quickly became well known throughout the state and was recognized as South Carolina’s official folk art and craft center in 2000.

Today, the center represents some 300 artisans from throughout South Carolina who create both traditional craft pieces and artwork inspired by new techniques. Fans of Lowcountry culture will recognize sweetgrass baskets, a remnant of the area’s Gullah heritage, that are a popular souvenir for visitors to Charleston. Face jugs, which are pottery sculpted with the facial features of African-Americans and other ethnic groups, give another example of some of the area’s local art traditions. Visitors will also find a wide array of contemporary products, including glass, metalwork, clay, wood and fiber.

The facility is set amidst a neighborhood of historic homes in downtown Walterboro. Outdoors, the Pass-along Garden features heritage plants that area artists have raised in their own home gardens.

[ Gatlinburg, Tennessee ]

Since it was settled in 1806, Gatlinburg has enjoyed a long tradition of Appalachian heritage. Today, the town is known for its location in the beautiful Smoky Mountains, as well as an enduring craft legacy that has become one of the area’s chief tourism attractions.

“We have the eight-mile Great Smoky Arts and Craft Community loop,” said Jim Davis, public relations coordinator for the Gatlinburg Department of Tourism. “It’s the largest independent group of craftsmen in the country. There are more than 100 shops. All of them have crafters in them, and many are second- or third-generation family members.”

Visitors can spend a whole day driving this mountain loop, where they’ll find such handmade items as pottery, blown glass, woodwork, spun wool and traditional woven baskets. Some of the crafters are also set up downtown at Carousel Gardens, where they sell dolls, leather products, jewelry, photography and paintings from their main studios.

For an interesting twist on the area’s art scene, groups can visit Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts, founded 99 years ago to educate area children on mountain culture. Today, the school offers a variety of workshops and classes for visitors. Groups can also arrange for hands-on sessions in some of Gatlinburg’s larger craft studios.

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.