On our way home from Destination Imagination Global Finals this year, we stopped in Berea, Kentucky to visit the Kentucky Artisan Center, which is not only a traveler’s oasis with its cafe and visitor information, but also a gift shop featuring Appalachian crafts, especially of local artisans. Officially, it is a state agency in the Tourism, Arts & Heritage Cabinet of the Commonwealth of Kentucky. We have visited Berea several times over the past seven years on our way to and from Knoxville, Tennessee, where the Destination Imagination competition is held. Berea is the folk arts and crafts capital of Kentucky, whose motto is “Where Art’s Alive.”

Kentucky Artisan Center (Berea, Kentucky)

I can promise you that each time you stop at the Kentucky Artisan Center it will be a fresh experience, since the displays change all the time. Once you visit the Kentucky Artisan Center, you’ll find yourself planning a return trip to the community, which includes the Old Town Artisan Village, the College Square and area studios. Since we are only there for a short time, we treat ourselves to a small part of Berea each year as we pass through this town that is about 40 miles south of Lexington off of Interstate 75. The first time we visited Berea, we explored the Artisan Center quite thoroughly.

The Kentucky Artisan Center includes a cafe, grill and gifts.
The Kentucky Artisan Center is divided into sections. This is a black and white gallery.
This photo does not do justice to the blown glass items in the cases.
The crafts in the Artisan Center reflect the Appalachian heritage of the region.

In the Old Town Artisan Village, we visited Gastineau Studio, where Ken and Sally Gastineau produce lead-free pewter metal work and sculpture. We met Ken, who explained that the Village is comprised of studio artists who share their creative process as their work schedule permits. Ken and his wife are among the founders of this group of artists. Ken, who has traveled widely in Europe and the American Southwest, is influenced by these travels in his designs. He melts bars of lead free pewter and pours this into molds to create jewelry, napkin rings and ornaments. The designs reflect regional culture, such as Shaker and horse motifs, and each piece comes with a description or a poem. Ken also makes lead-free pewter cups by spinning a pewter disc on a lathe.

Ken Gastineau shared with us a little bit about the history of the Village.

Although Ken designs mainly with lead free pewter, he also works with bronze, as shown in the photo of the pin below. The image of the bird is a symbol called “Sankofa,” which represents wisdom, knowledge and the people’s heritage. Sankofa comes from the Akan language of Ghana and means “go back and retrieve,” or “It is not taboo to return and fetch it when you forget. You can always undo your mistakes.”

Berea itself has a long history of handicrafts that precedes the 1700s, when other parts of the U.S. were being overrun by manufactured products of the Industrial Revolution. In 1892, when an educator named Dr. William Frost arrived from Oberlin, Ohio, he was impressed by coverlets woven locally. He wanted to preserve this handicraft tradition, so he offered an exchange of woven products for education, a policy known as “bartered for larnin’.” This policy has grown and expanded since then. In 1893 Dr. Frost founded Berea College, and Fireside Weaving was born. The college opened its doors to Appalachian students, including African Americans and women, offering them an education in exchange for an apprenticeship in a craft, which helped to preserve the handicraft tradition. Gradually, weaving expanded to other industries such as woodcraft, broomcraft, wrought iron and ceramics. Today Berea College Crafts offers a tuition-free education for 1,600 academically talented and economically challenged young men and women, mainly from Appalachia, in exchange for their working on campus and volunteering in the Appalachian community. The Berea College Crafts program continues to train students in handicrafts through various Student Crafts departments, including studio, sales and distribution areas. The college’s core principles are educating the whole student: head, heart, and hands.

One of the Berea College buildings

When we visited Berea this year, we stopped in the College Square, and visited the Berea College Log House Craft Gallery, where you’ll find items made and marketed by Berea College Crafts in the areas of wood, furniture, broom making, weaving and ceramics. The Log House Craft Gallery also features work by other regional artists. If you are interested in purchasing these handcrafted items, you can visit Berea College Crafts and download the catalog. On our next visit to Berea, we would like to visit Student Crafts on the Square, where you can see the students at work in their studios, weaving at the loom, making brooms, turning wood on a lathe, throwing pottery on a wheel, and crafting jewelry.

Berea College Log House Craft Gallery
If dollars were no object, I'd purchase this Shaker box for hankies for $200 (center box).

The wood program at Berea College took off in the early 1900s, producing wooden puzzles and games, benches and stools, candle holders, and what is now called the Berea Basket, shown below. The basket is woven from Appalachian walnut wood, harvested locally.

Berea Basket

As you walk around Berea, you will notice large, colorful sculptures of hands in various locations. In 2003, the Berea Arts Council selected 12 artists to design six-foot-tall fiberglass hands as part of a public art project called “Show of Hands.” I suspect that there is a relationship between these hands and Berea College’s head, heart and hands philosophy, although I could not find anything in print to support this idea.

These fiberglass hands are commissioned pieces of unique public art.

During our visits to Berea, we have begun to accumulate quite a collection of handcrafted items, which you’ll see in the photos below.

The “Button Wall Basket” on the left and the Key Basket on the right were woven by Lexington artisan Elizabeth Worley of “Handwoven Baskets by That Kentucky Lady.” She learned how to make basic market and egg baskets from her mother, but then began designing her own original baskets.

Handwoven Baskets by That Kentucky Lady (Elizabeth Worley)

The silver link bracelet was designed by Allen Jewell of Versailles, Kentucky. He originally traveled around the world as an engineer for 40 years, designing chemical plants. But one day in 1973, while working in South Africa, he began collecting agates that he found when sand was being sifted to make concrete. He joined a rock club in Johannesburg and learned to cut stones into cabochons, and began studying lapidary arts. After he returned to the U.S., he took silversmithing classes so that he could create settings for the stones he cut and polished. Later, he discovered that some of his early Kentucky relatives had been silversmiths. Currently he teaches silversmithing at the William Holland School of Lapidary Arts in Young Harris, Georgia, as well as in his studio in Versailles, Kentucky and in Lexington and Louisville.

Silver link bracelet by Allen Jewell

Jeannette Rowlett specializes in wire-wrapped jewelry made from thin strands of sterling silver and 14-carat gold-filled wire. She manipulates the wire in such a way that soldering is not necessary. Jeannette is currently the Executive Director of the Kentucky Guild of Artists and Craftsmen. She resides in Berea, and you can visit her studio in the Old Town section of Berea.

Pendant by Jeannette Rowley

The luminary shown below was made by Carolyn Zolman of Stonehaven Pottery. Her pottery is wheel thrown, unglazed and fired in an electric kiln. She cuts out an original design in all of her luminaries.

Luminary by Carolyn Zolman of Stonehaven Pottery

I have no idea who made the vase and straw flowers shown below, but you’ll find all kinds of beautiful straw flowers in the Kentucky Artisan Center whenever you visit. Since I have a black thumb, I truly appreciate flowers that will never wilt!

Vase and straw flowers, artist unknown

Finally, since I crochet and felt (“full”) wool to make flowers, purses, needle books, coasters and other items, I am drawn to similar items produced by other fiber artists. Vickie Cassady of WoolPurses.com designed the sweet felted purse shown below. “Knitting became therapy for me after my mother passed away,” says Vickie. “I had been caring for her for 10 years.”

If you are traveling through Kentucky, plan on spending a day or two in Berea. And while you’re there, see how many of the hand art sculptures you can find!

© 2012 Judy Nolan. All rights reserved.

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7 thoughts on “Where art is alive”

  1. What a treat for the eyes! All those wonderful hand-crafted items would be so amazing to see in person! I wish there was a center like that near me!
    I will definitely keep the Kentucky Artisan Center in mind if I ever travel that way.
    And those fiber glass hands are so cool!

  2. What an inspired place! It’s nice that you all stopped along the way to experience a place like this. I grew up in Virginia, very close to Appalachian territory and miss it so much. I’d love to some day experience the Southern portion of the mountain chain. Not to mention it’s people’s folk art:)

  3. Thank you for that amazing virtual tour of Berea College Crafts and the Kentucky Artisan Center. Incredible talent. Inspiring!

  4. Splendid Little Stars

    Oh! I’ve always wanted to stop there! It’s not terribly far from my home. But we’re always on the way to or from somewhere else.

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