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Off the interstate in Kentucky, folk arts and crafts are king

Email|Print| Text size + By Jan Shepherd
Globe Correspondent / October 13, 2004

BEREA, Ky. -- Regional differences appeal to travelers. Who wants to go hundreds or thousands of miles from home to find the same old, same old? Nothing beats finding clothing, baskets, pottery, weavings, or paintings made by people who may never sell their work outside their hometown or across a state border.

In some places, it may be hard to find regional originals. Not in Kentucky. The state's "folk arts and crafts capital" of Berea has been a resource since the 1890s, when Berea College initiated a work-study curriculum and began selling student-made crafts near and far. Berea, filled with galleries and studios, also is the home of the Kentucky Guild of Artists & Craftspeople, a 43-year-old nonprofit group that accepts members whose work is approved by a standards committee.

In 1981, the state launched the Craft Marketing Program to promote "Made in Kentucky." A jurying process permits only qualified Kentucky artisans to sell their work with that label. Two years ago, the state expanded its support and built the first and only Kentucky Artisan Center at Berea. A collaboration with the Berea arts community, the center opened last year on 10 acres just off Interstate 75, the north-south highway that slices through the center of the state.

"The center's mission is selling artisans' work and educating the public about what goes into making the crafts, and stimulating interest in the rest of the state," said director Victoria Faoro in a telephone interview. "It's bringing art and business together. In our first year, we've exceeded expectations and counted more than 140,000 visitors."

The 20,000-square-foot center, designed by Charles Jolly and Carol Myers of Myers Jolly Architects of Lexington, Ky., is itself a work of art. "It was designed to exemplify the quality of artisans in Kentucky," Faoro said. "It's made with Kentucky limestone, and six to nine area stone masons worked on the project."

The building has a handsome slate and copper roof; the interior is a pleasing blend of slate, wood, and glass. Towering windows allow natural light to flow in and over the spaces for exhibits of contemporary work and archival crafts and art, a retail gallery, demonstration areas, a restaurant, and a travelers' information center.

The spacious retail gallery displays the work of some 430 two-dimensional artists and craftspeople working in fiber, clay, glass, wood, jewelry, basketry, furniture, and metal. The center also sells other Kentucky originals, among them recordings, books, and food items such as the Modjeska, a delicious caramel-and-marshmallow confection made by Bauer's Candies Inc. of Lawrenceburg. Throughout the year, the center schedules crafts demonstrations.

"Here, there's a huge differential in prices for fine crafts when compared with what buyers would pay in other states," said Wayne Bates, a nationally known potter who shows work at the center. "The displays are great and Vicki has a good eye for moving things around. It's like she's making a quilt, taking all the pieces and making them into a whole."

This is not the place for corncob pipes. Most of the artists are professionals who earned the stamp of approval from the guild and/or the state program.

"Too many people have the wrong idea about what Kentucky is like," Faoro said. "Even Kentuckians are bowled over by the diversity and quality of the work here. In reviewing what we would exhibit and sell, we found new products, and what we have is just the tip of the iceberg of what's being made in the state. We're always introducing new people to the marketplace."

Bates, who moved to Kentucky in 1978, also sells work in Gallery 121 at his Murray studio. His porcelain dinnerware, platters, bowls, jars, and vases are riffs on bold patterns in striking color combinations. The wheel-thrown pieces are airbrushed with colored clay slips that Bates carves away to create patterns and expose the white clay underneath. He creates production pieces and limited-edition and one-of-a-kind pottery for collectors. He views the center as a sign that the state finally is paying as much attention to crafts as it does to agriculture.

"They've done what most mom-and-pop stores couldn't do. It's a $5 million enterprise and the land sits right off the interstate," Bates said during a phone interview.

He's confident Faoro won't let the retail gallery become more giftware than fine crafts.

"Vicki believes in craft and directs it in a commercial environment," he said. "You can have both in order to survive, although you don't want the gift thing becoming low-end, making it a place where tourists look for a souvenir from hillbilly country. Thankfully, painted rocks don't get in."

Silk artist Judy Kushner of Georgetown, Ky., would agree; she has been pleased with the results at the center. A graphic artist, she fashions hand-painted scarves and ties and embellishes them with fine-line drawings of racehorses. She begins with white silk that she paints in vivid colors -- shades of pinks and blues are striking -- and adds the images that capture the illusion of horses in motion.

"The center has been a very good customer for me," Kushner said in a phone interview. "I keep sending more scarves, although I haven't convinced Vicki to carry the ties. The center's location is in a prime place off a heavily traveled interstate, and Berea is known for its craftspeople. The fact that it's in Berea means buyers expect it to be filled with Kentucky flair and high quality. The center draws in people who otherwise wouldn't stop."

For travelers, the hunt ends here.

Jan Shepherd is a freelance writer in Boston.

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