On a crisp October morning, the Folk Art Center near Asheville was packed with visitors, something that wasn’t surprising considering it’s leaf season and the popularity of Southern art.

The Folk Art Center is located off Milepost 382 on the Blue Ridge Parkway, and is home to the oldest craft organization in the country — the Southern Highland Craft Guild, which officially organized around 1930.

The 900-member organization doesn’t accept all applicants — only those who clear a juried process certifying their work meets both quality and excellence standards.

The array of art produced by Guild members covers every genre imaginable, and for the casual art observer, likely some techniques they’ve never heard of.

The art isn’t just for exhibition, either. The Folk Art Center is one of four locations where Guild members’ work can be purchased. In addition, the Guild offers two craft fairs a year, and is holding its fall event Oct. 14-17 at Harrah’s Cherokee Center in Asheville.

In addition to the store, the Folk Art center includes an extensive library of craft history and literature, three exhibition spaces and an auditorium for special events.

Catch a Live Demonstration

One perk of being a member of the Southern Appalachian Craft Guild is the chance for artists to demonstrate their work and sell it.

Demonstration opportunities are available not only at the Folk Art Center, but at three other store locations — Asheville’s Biltmore Village, the Moses Cone Manor in Blowing Rock, and at 930 Tunnel Road in Asheville, the original stone cottage where the guild was first headquartered.

The two artists featured at the Folk Art Center on Oct. 7 demonstrated felting, the oldest type of textile art that dates back to prehistoric times, and wheat weaving, an ancient art dating back to early agrarian societies.

One of the demonstrators, Lorraine Cathey of Hendersonville, created framable art through a dry felting process. The artist described it as a relatively new craft developed about 50-75 years ago.

During her demonstration, Cathey used a sponge surface, a piece of felt, various colors of yarn and a variety of needles to create art pieces of different sizes. The yarn colors and designs are infinite, and the art produced is as varied as any photograph or painting.

Cathey cut her teeth as an artist in the watercolor genre, but once she discovered felting, she decided it was a craft she wanted to learn more about.

“It’s something others weren’t doing,” she said, “plus watercolorists are a dime a dozen.”

While there are a multitude of hooked needles that can be used, Cathey favors two, one using a single needle to create intricate designs, and another two-needle tool she refers to as her “work horse.”

As a 15-year veteran of the craft, Cathey worked deftly as she explained what she was doing to curious onlookers.

She appreciates the opportunity to explain how art is made during the demonstration opportunities offered at the Guild’s stores. It dovetails with the organization’s mission, she said, which is to “cultivate the crafts and makers of the Southern Highlands for the purpose of shared resources, education, marketing and conservation.”

“It’s a feather in your cap to be accepted to the Guild, because it is juried,” she said. “And it’s a great opportunity for us to sell our products.”

Weaving Wheat

Katherine Caldwell took a circuitous route to wheat weaving, something that captivated her the first time she saw her eventual mentor, Jan Morris, in action.

Ironically, Caldwell was working in a public relations job at the Folk Art Center 30 years ago when she first encountered Morris, who was the demonstrator of the day.

“I thought what she was doing was the coolest thing I’d ever seen,” Caldwell said.

After she started working with Morris, she went from “pretty awful to pretty good,” but other life pressures got in the way and she forgot about the craft for 25 years.

“About five years ago, there was a series of deaths in my family, and I was desperate to do something with my hands, so I called Jan, and she had a bad year, too,” Caldwell said. “We got together, and I got real serious about wheat weaving again.”

Caldwell’s business card reads, “Spirit of the Grain,” a phrase that refers to the early pagan beliefs that making a wheat weaving out of the last grain harvested would mean the spirit of the grain would ensure a good harvest the following year.

The weavings would not only use wheat straws, she said, but the heads that had bits of wheat, which were intended to fall out as the weaving dried, yielding a bit of wheat that could be relied upon should times turn tough.

While wheat is brittle and easily broken, wheat weavers first soak the straws, making them pliable enough to twist into a variety of patterns.

“I call it yoga for wheat,” Caldwell said. “Once it dries, it wants to stay in that position forever. I’ve found wheat weavings in churches in England that are 500 years old.”

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