Making crafts of the past come alive
In order to have a clear vision of the future, one must cherish the traditions of the past.
“Southern Appalachian traditions are our heritage,” said Beth Woody. “They made us what we are today. To know who we are now, we need to know who and what we came from.”
An acclaimed woodcrafter from Canton, Woody will be one of the featured artists at the Village of Yesteryear — a live demonstration showcasing the storied craft history of North Carolina. In conjunction with the Museum of North Carolina Handicrafts, the village will be displayed at the Shelton House in Waynesville on May 11 as part of its annual membership drive and patron appreciation day.
The event will feature craftspeople dressed in period clothing. They will demonstrate their traditional activities, many of which are talents and skills passed down through several generations.
“Preserving these traditions will provide a richness and texture to our lives that cannot be found anywhere else,” Woody said.
Artisans create an educational atmosphere where attendees can ask questions and learn the history of what they are witnessing.
“The knowledge and wisdom of our forefathers will help us to grow and progress,” Woody said. “If we don’t teach our young people these traditions and values, they when they become our leaders, they will have no foundation for making appropriate decisions.”
In connection with the North Carolina Department of Agriculture, the Village of Yesteryear was created in 1951 for the state fair. It was designed to cultivate and nurture heritage crafts, serving as a working artist community — one that educated the public about the production of handmade items. Haywood County resident Mary Cornwell was the first director of the fair’s Village of Yesteryear. Cornwell later founded the handicraft museum in 1977, which was placed in the Shelton House. She wanted a place where the ideals and traditions from the village would grow and flourish.
“Mary envisioned the Shelton House museum as a place to house crafts from all over the state and, in particular, to serve as a permanent repository of the Village of Yesteryear art pieces,” said Evelyn Coltman, who serves on the Shelton House board.
Alongside Woody, other crafters include whittler Cary Pace, rug maker Mary Ann Silvey (the niece of famed Haywood County rug maker Virginia Boone), and ceramicist June Wiggins of Dogwood Crafters in Dillsboro.
“It’s important to know where you come from in order to have a clear idea of where you’re going. History is always important, even crafting history,” Pace said. “It’s about sharing the skills with the world, and especially the children because they are the one who will carry it to the next generation.”
A resident of Saluda, Pace has always held an interest in art. While in the Navy, he was stationed in Japan and learned how to watercolor. It was something to not only pass the time, but also put his soul at ease during wartime. Whittling since he was 11, Cary got more involved in the craft after returning home from Vietnam.
“[Whittling] became my nerve tonic,” he said. “I’m always carving, I can never just sit without doing something with my hands, and I like to say I always have something to show for my time.”
A woodcrafter of a different sort, Woody specializes in marquetry, which is known as “painting with wood.” The art form involves using the natural colors and grain of a variety of woods to piece together into a picture. Introduced to the craft some 40 years ago, Woody was fascinated by all the things so could create with different species of wood.
“Every piece of veneer is different and, like people, every piece is beautiful,” she said. “It’s very satisfying to find the right piece of veneer to use in pictures so that they compliment each other.”
Reflecting on the current craft scene in Southern Appalachia, Woody feels the traditions are thriving and spreading across the globe.
“People are always looking for the unique, the different, the beautiful, and our craftsmen today are providing that,” she said. “The future is wide open for anyone willing to learn a craft and then use their imagination to take it as far as they can.”