For Norma Hendrix, it’s all about connecting the dots.
“I love working in a community of artists,” she said. “I really like pulling all of those dots together, where you create a sense of community with the energy of people working side-by-side.”
Pulling into a row of unimposing metal garage-sized storage units on Frazier Street in Waynesville, the sound of buzzing is heard.
You think maybe the truck heater is finally kicking on and combating the cold December morning, or it’s the usual hustle and bustle of traffic on the highway bypass. Yet, the source of the noise seems to be echoing from a slightly cracked garage bay at the end of the row.
Downtown Franklin is all sunshine, but it’s the calm before the storm.
Drifting through an array of stores and restaurants lining Main Street, the scene is quiet, but soon, with Thanksgiving falling into the rearview mirror, shoppers determined and curious will overtake the small town, in search of handmade items from regional artists. Strolling the sidewalk, one soon comes upon North Carolina Mountain Made.
Never tell people how to do things, said the indefatigable General George S. Patton. Instead, he said, tell them what to do, and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.
That viewpoint resonates clearly with Lori Anderson, and it’s why she’s working hard to keep old Appalachian traditions alive, remembering their creativity in an age where such resourcefulness is becoming increasingly harder to come by.
“The thing I rely on most about the past and history is their ingenuity. Here they were in the mountains and they had to figure it out themselves,” said Anderson. “I think that’s something that we’re losing, that if someone doesn’t show you how to do it or do it for you, you’re not going to do it.”
Anderson is a corn shuck artist, and her craft is not one that is practiced or passed down by many in the 21st century. She herself learned the art by self teaching and trial-and-error, before connecting with her mentor, Annie Lee Bryson, known regionally as the corn shuck doll lady.
Then she got plugged into the heritage and tradition that comes with corn shuck art, and when Bryson died last year, she shouldered the burden of keeping the Appalachian art alive.
Though most of what corn shucks are known for in the mountains is dolls, Anderson’s passion in the craft lies elsewhere.
“As I was apprenticing with her (Bryson), I could see the passion that she had for making her dolls. That was her joy,” said Anderson. “So, instead of grabbing a hold of her corn shuck joy, I found my own: corn shuck wildflowers.”
Her flowers are stunning replicas of the plants found here in the Smoky Mountains, and thanks to them, she was recently accepted into the prestigious Southern Highland Craft Guild.
In the absence of her friend and teacher, however, Anderson is now doing double duty, with one hand in the past, teaching and demonstrating the traditional corn shuck doll techniques that Bryson perfected and propagated, and the other moving forward, using the husks to make ever more unorthodox creations, stretching and redefining the boundaries of the craft.
But mostly, she’s trying to keep it alive. There are very few books around that teach the intricacies of corn shuck art — Anderson said that every time she comes across one, she snaps it up. And the human resources like Bryson who taught widely in the past are dwindling.
So Anderson goes into schools and fairs and places such as Western Carolina University’s annual Mountain Heritage Day to expose more people to an art that has roots in their communities.
“A lot of times the kids don’t even know what a corn shuck is,” said Anderson. “They think the corn comes frozen in the three-inch little cobs.”
It’s truths like that which keep Anderson pursuing the heritage art of corn husks, keeping up a steady education campaign and demonstrating regularly at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and elsewhere.
Technology, she said, is proving a bane to the ingenuity that birthed many of the Appalachian crafts that are, today, revered. Figuring out how to make something of what you have, said Anderson, is the crux of Appalachian heritage crafting, and it’s a skill she’s trying to keep alive and cultivate.
This, of course, hasn’t always been her livelihood. Anderson was born and raised in Florida, but spent summer vacations from childhood at Deep Creek in Swain County, instilling in her a deep love of the mountain community.
When an opportunity popped up for she and her husband to relocate to Bryson City in 1998, they leapt at the chance.
Crafting has always been a part of her life — she even bought a load of quilting supplies before the move, expecting to pick up the traditional mountain art — but it’s not until she got here that corn husk creating found her and she found Bryson.
“She had taught for all those years and, you know, some people were mildly interested in them,” said Anderson. But until she came along, there was no torchbearer. For her part, Anderson plans to be a little more vocal about passing on the art than her predecessor.
“I think I’m not going to be so quiet,” she laughs, when asked about where her replacement will come from. “Because I think it’s very important, to learn the old ways of doing things is very important.”
Even if you’re using the old ways to make new things.
John Gernandt loves the word tactile. It’s not so much the word, really, as the whole concept. People, he says, love to pet things. It is in our nature. We are, by default, a touchy species.
He is saying this as he sits on a low wooden stool, running his fingers along the pock-marked texture carved into the sides. See, he says, it’s tactile, human.
Gernandt is a master carpenter, a third-generation furniture maker, and the piece he’s sitting on is one of his own, on display in his downtown Waynesville gallery, Textures on Main.
His creations are dotted around the gallery, and though they’re all different, most are easy to pick out as being crafted by his hand. The workmanship is excellent and has built him a reputation in the world of custom furniture-making. His portfolio includes works done for millionaire clients, as well as some done for locals. He’s not an elitist in that sense, as evidenced by his belief that furniture – even art – should be touchable.
He’s a strong proponent of the handmade revolution, and speaks with passion about populating modern life with objects made by actual craftsmen. He counters what he sees as the myth that handmade or custom is necessarily more expensive.
“My furniture doesn’t cost a dime more than if you go to a nice furniture store, and it can’t, because that’s my market,” says Gernandt.
There is, he says, something to be said for having and using things that someone has poured time and thought and talent into.
“When you sit down at a table where there’s handmade dishes and glasses and chairs, it’s a good feeling,” he says. “And it’s heirloom furniture.”
And that’s what he’s in the business of building: heirloom furniture.
He has a workshop in the basement of his Main Street gallery where he uses only domestic woods to craft his works, 80 percent of which are commissions.
There are curving templates of every shape and size hanging on the walls of the workroom, which he proudly says are all what he calls human curves. They are all modeled after curves one might find on actual humans, none are made by protractors or compasses. “I think they’re just stale,” he says of such mechanical curves. And that’s part of what Gernandt says is appealing about his work. It’s human, tactile.
As an example, he points to a particular table back upstairs in the gallery. Its legs have a slight outward slant which, he says, came from the person who commissioned the piece. He had her lean forward as her husband traced the curve of her lean, and that is the curve of the table. There are examples of that everywhere, he says.
In terms of strict classifiers, his style is contemporary, and that is what he markets himself as. But he doesn’t see contemporary as a strict genre to which he must conform. He is adamant that contemporary is the culmination of all traditions that have come before, and he takes great pleasure in studying them then incorporating them into what he does today.
“I enjoy studying furniture history,” says Gernandt, pointing out a King Louis ankle wrap on a cabinet standing against the wall. That’s part of the fun, incorporating elements of history into new creations.
Gernandt’s own personal furniture-making history started early, age 9 to be precise. His grandfather was a furniture maker, and he loved working with the older man. As a young boy, he approached him with the notion that he, too, would like to make furniture for a living. His grandfather considered and pointed the young Gernandt to an unsanded chair.
“’There’s a chair down there, sand that,’” he said. “‘It’ll take you eight hours a day for five or six days.’” And when he completed the job, his grandfather awarded his stamp of approval, conceding that maybe his grandson had what it took to make it a career.
He did do a stint away from the craft for a while, getting a degree in education before returning to furniture artistry for good in his twenties.
Then he and his wife Suzanne, a textile artist, moved to Western North Carolina with their children because, he says, it’s at the heart of craftsman culture in America.
And business has been good for them, though, of course, not perfect.
He is hopeful that there will always be a market for quality crafted pieces like his, pieces that have a story and a history.
He’s very excited about the idea of apprenticeships to keep the craft alive, and hopes that what he’s able to pass on to future furniture makers is the idea that what makes them important and unique is their creativity.
He’s aware that, in terms of cost, he can’t compete with flat-pack factory furniture, but there is something more valuable, he says, about creativity and craft.
“I think people are starting to understand the importance of creativity in their life,” says Gernandt. “You feel better about your life, and there’s value in that. There’s real value in that.”
To see more of the work of John and Suzanne Gernandt, visit www.texturesonmain.com.