Crafting a community: Dillsboro celebrates its artistic roots
Joe Frank McKee knows what Dillsboro is capable of. “It’s a fighting town,” he said. “There are more craftsmen involved here these days, which means if you’re making your product and selling your product, you have more of a reason to fight.”
Co-owner of Tree House Pottery on Front Street in downtown Dillsboro, McKee and his business partner, Travis Berning, have spent the last 11 years setting down roots and investing in what has become one of the premier pottery establishments in Southern Appalachia. And as the town itself celebrates its 125th birthday, many businesses within the community are reflecting on a storied past, an uncertain present, and a hopeful future.
“The big difference between what Dillsboro was and what it is now, is that before Dillsboro was the art gig for Jackson, Swain and Haywood counties, and now all those towns have built their own gallery scene,” McKee said. “But, the niche for us is that we have more professional craftspeople here, and with that, we hope to build the town back, bring back a steady customer base.”
Amid the numerous businesses in Dillsboro, the cultural and economic heart of the town lies in its numerous art galleries and studios. The SWNC Travel Guide caught up with Tree House Pottery, Oaks Gallery, Tunnel Mountain Crafts, and Dogwood Crafters. From decades-old locations to brand new operations, Dillsboro is an ever-evolving community, one with the drive and commitment to bring a beloved art haven into the 21st century.
Tree House Pottery
In 2003, McKee and Berning, both acclaimed potters from Texas and Kansas, respectively, decided to relocate to Western North Carolina.
“We knew the Asheville area, and it was known for its pottery, so we wanted to be somewhere in North Carolina, but outside of Asheville, and so we came across Dillsboro,” Berning said.
At that time, Dillsboro was a bustling artist community.
“It was hopping, it was extremely busy, where parking was hard to come by,” McKee said. “But, the economic downturn [of 2008] changed everything. But now, the stores seem to be going back to crafters, where they’re selling their work, so they’re more invested in the product.”
When they opened, McKee and Berning launched the WNC Pottery Festival. Now in its tenth year, the festival attracts thousands of artists, tourists and buyers from around the United States. Featuring 40 potters, this year’s event — taking place Nov. 1 — will also be cause for celebration. The festival recently was recognized as one of the “Top 20 Events” by the Southeast Tourism Society, an organization representing 12 states.
“The award is definitely justification,” McKee said. “When we started the show, we begged and scratched for potters to get out of their studios and get this thing running. Now, it’s a fine pottery show — the artists are top quality, they’re juried and coming from across the country.”
Tunnel Mountain Crafts
A few shops down Front Street from Tree House, Connie Hogan, owner of Tunnel Mountain Crafts, is all smiles as her business hit its one-year milestone last week. Relocating to Dillsboro from Florida five years ago, Hogan opened the company after feeling inspired by the geography and creativity of Western North Carolina.
“I came here and started making pottery again, which I haven’t done in many years — I felt so inspired by the Great Smoky Mountains,” she said. “So, I was living in Dillsboro, doing pottery, going to arts and crafts shows and farmer’s markets, then I decided maybe I should open my own shop, maybe help the local economy and do something I love.”
Filled with the works of over 60 local artisans, the shop aims to provide a welcoming, embracing spot for Southern Appalachian crafts — all traits of galleries around Dillsboro.
“It’s been a lot of work, but it has been enjoyable — I like having a place for crafters to display and sell their work,” Hogan said. “And I’m optimistic about the future of Dillsboro. I think with the town doing these shows — ColorFest, WNC Pottery Festival, 125th anniversary celebration, Lights & Luminaries — it will help bring people back here, and hopefully they will return.”
In it’s 38th year of operating, Dogwood Crafters on Webster Street is running strong. Crafting is a labor of love, one that can be seen on the numerous shelves in the store. Through the hard work and dedication of an all-volunteer workforce, the nonprofit co-op and its 90 members have held true to its original vision — a beacon of light shining at the center of Dillsboro.
“This place gives everyone a chance to sell their crafts, to supplement their income if need be,” said Brenda Anders, a mixed media artist and president of the co-op. “It’s important because if the crafters are able to sell their works here, then it brings in more people, which helps the local economy, making this community a better place for us all.”
And through numerous economic ups and downs, the organization has remained steadfast, always knowing that people would walk through the door in search of Appalachian artisan crafts.
“It’s so refreshing when the door opens and someone tells you how happy they are that Dogwood is still here,” Anders said. “We had someone recently who was brought here as a kid and now they’re bringing their children to come and explore the crafts.”
Perched atop a small hill overlooking downtown Dillsboro, the Oaks Gallery features the works of more than 125 artists from within a 100-mile radius. Owned by Bob and Susan Leveille, the shop, like the 400-year-old oak tree it’s positioned under, has stood tall in its mission of bringing quality art to consumers from near and far.
“We’ve always tried to offer professional craftspeople an opportunity here in this area to show their work in an environment that honors their work,” Susan said. “We want this place to be more like a gallery, and not like a grocery story — the artist’s work is valued here.”
Susan herself is no stranger to quality work. A renowned weaver, she was recently awarded the North Carolina Heritage Award for her unique talents and intricate work. And it’s that personal connection to the arts that also radiates into her business.
“We see all of our artists on a regular basis, we know what’s happening in their lives,” she said. “And with the downfall in the economy, it affected everybody around the circle, which breaks my heart because we can’t buy as much art as we used to.”
Though the economic crisis of 2008 drew a historical line in the sand for the artistic community of Dillsboro, there is hope in each and every gallery, studio and business that with enough determination, camaraderie and progressive foresight, the town will not only reclaim, but reinvent its successes in the future.
“You’ve got to keep going, because it’s going to get better,” Susan said. “Dillsboro keeps changing, and it’s a great place to live. It’s a labor of love running a gallery, but we’re all very hopeful, we all get up every morning and are hopeful — you just have to be.”
Visit the WNC Pottery Festival
Now in its tenth year, the WNC Pottery Festival in Dillsboro attracts thousands of artists, tourists and buyers from all over. Featuring 40 potters, this year’s event — taking place Nov. 1 — will also be cause for celebration. The festival recently was recognized as one of the “Top 20 Events” by the Southeast Tourism Society, an organization representing 12 states.