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KEN BECK: Adore the wonder works at Appalachian Center for Craft

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The Appalachian Center for Crafts opened in 1979 on a peninsula surrounded by Center Hill Lake. It makes for a nice day trip for those who enjoy Tennessee’s natural beauty and the handiwork of more than 100 craftsmen across the Southeast. Photo courtesy of Ken Beck
Maia Stern, a summer intern visiting from Cleveland Institute of Art, and Sam Meketon, who is pursuing bachelor of fine arts degrees at Tennessee Tech University, team on a project in the glassblowing studio at the Appalachian Center for Craft. Photo courtesy of Ken Beck
This marvelous dolls, for sale in the fine craft gallery, were envisioned, stitched, stuffed and embellished by Charlie Patricolo of Murphy, N.C. Photo courtesy of Ken Beck
These handmade hats, crafted by Eva Berg of Everich Farm in Christiana, Tenn., would suit Olivia Walton from the Depression-Era TV series “The Waltons” just fine, but look equally stylish today. Photo courtesy of Ken Beck
This handsome elk rocking horse was made by hand by craftsman Russ Jacobsohn of Sparta, Tenn. Photo courtesy of Ken Beck

A half-day excursion into the heart of rural Middle Tennessee not only offers the scenic beauty of the state’s forests, farms, fields, hills, rivers and lakes, but also, in the case of the Appalachian Center for Craft, presents some remarkably handsome handiwork made by the region’s professional craft artists.

Located several miles east of Smithville, the center offers world-class exhibitions of functional and sculptural fine craft throughout the year, and its retail craft gallery proves an ideal shop wherein to find unique items perfect as gifts or to brighten the décor of your home or add a perk to your wardrobe.

Nashvillian Jesse Mayo has made about 20 excursions to the center over the years, noting, “Every time I drive by on the interstate I try to stop, and I always buy something. It’s hard to resist.

“The artists’ works are placed where you can see all the different media types. Here you can buy something handmade for $8 compared to something for $5 machine made. Wouldn’t you rather receive something like this,” he asks as he holds up a greeting card created by a local artist. “This is so much more special.”

The Appalachian Center for Craft Center sits on a 500-acre wooded peninsula surrounded by Center Hill Lake near Hurricane Bridge. A satellite campus of Tennessee Tech University, the creative “factory” features spacious studios, a library, administrative offices, student housing and meeting/audio visual rooms, while for day trippers the main points of interest will be the its fine craft gallery, three exhibition galleries, a café and several hiking trails.

To top it off, the center is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, and admission is free.

The craft gallery features the work of about 100 artists from the Appalachian region. Across the seasons visitors from Maine to Montana and from California to Florida drop by to be astonished at the amazing variety of items that includes jewelry, ceramics, quilts, paintings, photography, blown and forged glass and fiber wool wearables such as scarves, blouses, skirts and cardigans. Also on sale are creations made by blacksmiths and woodworkers.

“All the work here is handmade. It exposes people to an array of fine crafts that you can’t see in other venues,” said gallery manager Jenn Cole. “You’re going to find one-of-a-kind objects. We specialize in local and regional artists.

“I’m looking for high-caliber crafts, insightfully made with attention to detail -- eye-catching. Something I know my customers are going to be interested in,” Cole said of the fetching pieces here that range in price from $3 to $3,000.

“In the gallery they do a good job of telling what we’re about,” said exhibitions-programs manager Lindsey Maestri, noting that the center opened 35 years ago after the late Representative Joe L. Evins secured a $5-million federal grant to fund the campus.

The center offers bachelor of fine arts degree concentrations in clay, fibers, glass, metals and wood. Also available are non-degree craft certificate programs in the five craft media. The academic programs are enhanced by an artist-in-residence program which allows emerging professional craft artists to live and work here.

During the fall and spring semesters as many as 50 college students attend classes here and some reside here in quad units. Currently about 30 are participating in four workshops.

The center boasts three galleries which annually host 20 rotating exhibitions of work by local and national artists.

Maestri suggests visitors begin in the first exhibition room and then move into the gallery before checking out the other two exhibition spaces. She also encourages guests to dine in the café for lunch and try one of the four hiking trails, including a half-mile trail that leads to a gazebo with a scenic overlook of the lake.

Chef Steve Ford recently took over the Craft Café, which seats 50 and serves breakfast and lunch. He says the best sellers are his brie apple sandwich and roast chicken on salad with smoked pepper.

While the Appalachian Center for Craft offers a feast for the eyes, it also gives budding crafters the opportunity to get a taste of the various media in workshops that run from half a week to half a day.

Hands-on craft workshops in blacksmithing, clay, fibers, glass, metals, and wood are open to craft beginners, “do-it-yourselfers” and professional artists, who will receive instructions in expertly-equipped studios. Advanced reservations are required.

A “craft academy” is held two Saturdays a month and prove to be family friendly as these four-hour workshops are suited for ages 5 and older at a modest fee of $5.

The Craft Center offers 45-minute tours for groups of up to 25 with advanced reservations. Because this is a school with studio classrooms, the studios are not open to the public on a walk-in basis due to academic classes and workshop schedules. Call (615) 597-6801 or (931) 372-3051 to arrange a tour.

The Appalachian Center for Craft:
The Appalachian Center for Craft is an 87,000-square-foot facility located on more than 500 wooded acres overlooking Center Hill Lake several miles outside of Smithville. A satellite campus of Tennessee Tech University, the center includes spacious studios, a retail gallery, exhibition galleries, administrative offices, a library, a cafe, student housing and meeting/audio visual rooms. Though the Craft Center’s primary focus is the Bachelor of Fine Arts degree (with concentrations in clay, fibers, glass metals and wood) and non-degree programs, there are opportunities for all to enjoy the inspiring, craft-education facility.

A 2,700-square-foot contemporary fine craft gallery features hand-blown glass, jewelry, functional and sculptural ceramics and woodturning, original designed textiles, blacksmithing, custom knives and furniture and is open daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Visitors may also view world-class exhibitions of functional and sculptural fine craft throughout the year. Admission is free.

The Craft Center offers more than 50 hands-on craft workshops in its five studios with classes for all skill levels, from the beginner to studio professionals. For more info, call (931) 372-3051 or go online to tntech.edu/craftcenter/

Directions from Woodbury: Take Highway 53 north. Turn right on Highway 70 toward Smithville. Turn north on Highway 56 and turn right at Craft Center sign just before Hurricane Bridge over Center Hill Lake.

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