With sweltering temperatures sweeping across the Great Smoky Mountains, many found solace under the large shaded tent behind the arts and craft cooperative in downtown Cherokee.
“It gives the tourists and guests a chance to meet and talk with the artists,” said Vicki Cruz, manager of Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual. “The artists get to interact with each other. It’s a great energy.”
Dozens of tables offered up the finest in Cherokee creative talents, which ranged from stone carving to wood burning, beadwork to basket weaving, among other trades.
The Qualla Arts and Crafts gallery in Cherokee, the oldest Native American craft cooperative in the nation, showcases the work of more than 60 artists year-round, offering craftspeople a chance to display and sell their wares, learn from one another and pass on their traditional ways. But on this day once a year, the artists come together to share their culture through art and put a face on their work.
“What we love about this is that some people may be demonstrating, and some may be storytelling, but it’s a good example of culture and history in this social community,” said Cruz.
Piecing together a small basket with the utmost precision and patience, crafter Maidena Welch Wildcatt learned how to weave the smooth strips of peeled wood into basket bottoms as a little girl. She learned from her mother and in turn, passed the trade along to her own children. Wildcatt has been making baskets as a member of the Qualla Arts and Craft Mutual since the 1970s.
With her daughter weaving a basket nearby, Wildcatt likes the tradition involved with the sacred art.
“I love that I can do this and teach my daughters how to do it as well,” she said.
The market gives artists a chance to mingle and meet other artists as well as visitors, something Wildcatt enjoys. Meanwhile, the actual process of making a basket is relaxing.
“It can take two to three weeks, from start to finish, to do a large basket and maybe a day or two for the smaller ones,” Wildcatt said. “The hardest part is scraping the wood for the pieces, which we dye with walnut root and bloodroot.”
Further back in the tent, stone carver John Grant holds a razor-sharp knife in one hand, a small piece of rock in the other. He first found an interest in the tradition when his mother encouraged him to find something to do to pass the time when he was in the military.
He recalled a visit from his mother while stationed in California. The two went fishing and started a conversation about stone carving.
“We were talking about what I would use to carve to start with, which was soapstone,” he said. “I asked, ‘Where in the heck would I be able to get soap stone?’ She said, ‘You’re standing right on it.’ The entire lake bed beneath us was soapstone.”
Starting small and working his way up, he began selling pieces to people he served with. Using everything from alabaster to soapstone and limestone, Grant has molded, like the stones he works with, his hobby into a unique and detailed career.
Beginning with the traditional styles, he has branched into more contemporary works that involve wires and chains, which are used to wrap and decorate the stone. For those interested in trying it out for themselves, he recommends to start with a bar of soap and a butter knife.
“I haven’t found anything hard about doing this. It’s just knowing the stone,” he said. “I feel they talk to me. I walk around a ton of stone and when I walk around, they say to me, ‘I’m this, and I’m that’. I’ll be working on 10 or 15 pieces at one time, picking up and working on a piece when the interest comes back to me.”
Since its inception in 1946, the Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual gives craftspeople an outlet not only to share their skill but also keep the traditions alive for future generations.
To join the cooperative, craftspeople and artists must go through a juried process, where a board of 11 skilled craftspeople, from a variety of categories, study and determine if the artist has enough qualified talent to enter the program.