Archived Arts & Entertainment

Over the hills and far away: Folk School bridges the essence of humanity

art frTaking a left off U.S. 64 onto Settawig Road in rural Clay County, the busy commercial thoroughfare transforms into lush farmland. The mountain air gets sweeter, soothing late spring sunshine spilling into the open windows of your vehicle. 

A few miles down the winding road, you enter the tiny community of Brasstown, with its one gas station and handful of buildings. You take another left and cross a bridge into Cherokee County. And though that bridge may just seemingly provide transport over the waters of Brasstown Creek, one will soon understand that the threshold is more than meets the eye.

You immediately find yourself in an enormous meadow, one you may remember from childhood, from a time before housing developments and big box store takeovers of such properties. Your eyes scan the whimsical landscape, soon landing on a handful of structures in the distance along the tree line. It’s the John C. Campbell Folk School. And though you may be in the middle of nowhere in Western North Carolina, you’re actually at the center of the universe.

“There is nothing like this on earth,” said Pam East. “This place opens up, sparks and reawakens people.”

A metal jewelry/clay instructor at the Folk School, East recently strolled the picturesque 300-acre campus, with a smile ear-to-ear when asked about what makes this place so special, and why she keeps coming back to teach, even 12 years after her first class here.

“You’re in this beautiful setting, you’re not in the thick of life, you’re away from all the things that distract you,” she said. “You let your mind calm down and you immerse yourself in an experience you’ll never forget. Being with people is important, connecting with people is important, and here, you do that.”

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A playground for adults

Entering the Keith House (the central hub of the campus), one is greeted by Keather Gougler, marketing manager for the Folk School. Having previously lived in Seattle for years, Gougler has been at the folk school for the last 13 years. With that, she finds herself more occupied than she could have ever imagined back in Washington. 

“I lived in the middle of Seattle, and I’m busier here than I ever was out there,” she laughed. “Here, it’s about the people and the community. There’s always something going on, which you really wouldn’t expect from such a small, rural town.”

Specializing in an array of year-round weeklong courses, the Folk School attracts people from every corner of the globe. Housed on campus, the students (around 150 at a given time) spend their days immersed in their chosen course, which reads like a “Pick Your Own Adventure” book when one can pick blacksmithing or broom making, mandolin or pottery, wood-burning or jewelry. Pupils don’t dip their toe into the artistic traditions, they jump right in, ready to create and discover what they’re made of. 

“The Folk School is a restorative thing, it balances you out and makes you feel human,” Gougler said. “We’re curious by nature and these folks coming here are curious about themselves and their creative potential. In many ways, you’ll have a very diverse classroom of people, from all backgrounds, but they all want to learn, they want to create, they want to make things.”


Preservation, perpetuation

The Folk School gets its namesake from John C. Campbell, born in Indiana in 1867, raised in Wisconsin, educated in New England. At the turn of the century, he and his wife Olive, headed for Southern Appalachia, a region at the time teaming with opportunities for education and social causes. John studied the farming, artisan and musical traditions of the mountain folk he and Olive encountered. The couple not only wanted to preserve these techniques and traditions, they also wanted to perpetuate and grow them. 

Following John’s death in 1919, Olive traveled around Europe, eventually discovering the idea of the “folkehojskole” (or “folk school”) in Denmark. There, the culture took the creative arts very seriously, in that they believed society evolved when these traditions were nurtured and shared. Bringing that sentiment back to Western North Carolina, the Folk School was launched in Brasstown in 1925, which celebrates its 90th anniversary this year.

“We’re a school that really teaches people how to do things, but we do it in a way that’s fun,” said Jan Davidson, director of the Folk School. “There are no grades or competition here, which makes it a lot of fun for the students and the teachers.”

Davidson notes that the learning process at the Folk School is a two-way street, one where both sides of the instruction are taking something intrinsic and artistic away from their experiences. Though some attend for specific reasons, to learn more about their craft or to simply get away from it all, others find themselves here for reasons unknown initially, but the answers will be found in due time. It’s a “Fields of Dreams” type of atmosphere, a magnetic place where all will make sense once you arrive.

“We all have a built-in memory of how to do these skills, how to use our hands to create,” Davidson said. “Humans have been doing these things for so long, and we’ve also been separated from these things for so long, too, so when you get in touch with it again, it’s in your soul, your intuition of being a human.”


Finding yourself

The classroom buildings and cabins are scattered throughout the forest campus. Stepping into one, a wood-burning course is nearing the end of their morning session. At a nearby table, student Jim Davis is working on an owl design. Hailing from Louisiana, Davis figured he’s taken over 50 weeklong courses at the Folk School since first coming to Brasstown in 1992. 

“I’ve taken cooking classes, basket weaving, rock hunting,” he said. “What’s not to like about this place? It’s as close to heaven as I’ll ever get.”

“If you can’t find something you like here, you lack imagination,” added a student at another table, to which the rest of room agreed in unison.

Davis now attends the Folk School with his wife, who also have take numerous courses at the campus. The couple comes up around four to six times a year. They encourage any and all to give it a go themselves. Look into the programs and see what you’d like to do. It’s about realizing that childlike wonder is actually a lifelong journey.

“Maybe you have some skills you’d like to develop or maybe you tried something once and it didn’t work. Well, here, your teachers are the people who wrote the instructional books, here people discover their inner self,” he said. “People need to understand that they can learn no matter what their age is, they can meet new people. This is a place that’ll remind you that playing, having fun and learning something new isn’t just for kids.”

Suddenly, a loud bell echoes from somewhere outside. The class puts down their tools and heads for the door. It can only mean one thing — lunchtime. Heading for the cafeteria, East exits her classroom and walks with her students. An artist in Atlanta, East has a studio down there, as well as a full life, but it’s coming to the Folk School where she finds the most enjoyment.

“It was love at first sight when I came here in 2003. Every time I drive on campus, I can feel my soul relax — it’s my home away from home,” she said. “Your experience here can be anything you want it to be. I love that face-to-face interaction with a student, when the light bulb goes on in their head, and that happens all over here.”

After a delicious made-from-scratch farm-to-table meal (with many ingredients from their onsite garden and farm), it’ll be an afternoon class session, followed by an evening of activities, perhaps some live music or a poetry reading. Who knows? The possibilities are as endless as the imaginative minds surrounding you.

Sitting down to eat, the cafeteria is abuzz with jovial folks, all sharing their experiences today with others at their table, many of which were just strangers a couple days ago. The room is as sunny and bright as the landscape right outside the bay windows. Looking around the vibrant cafeteria, Davidson points out the ultimate purpose of the Folk School. 

“The secret underlying mission of this place is that it brings folks together, where it opens a window into a world if everyone was kind to each other,” he said. “It’s about that magic dust that’s here, and how it rubs off on you when you return to your daily life.”

Passing the fresh salad and bread down his table, Davidson is already working on what’s next for the Folk School. For him, it’s about always keeping one foot firm in tradition, one in the progressive evolution and creative spirit that embodies the institution.

“We’re going to built a walk-in silo kaleidoscope. To tell you the truth, we don’t yet know how it will exactly work, but we’re going to build it,” he confidently chuckled.


Want to know more?

For information on the John C. Campbell Folk School, class schedules, tours, weekly community concerts, and more, click on or call 800.365.5724.

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