BEREA, Ky. — It’s almost impossible not to want to make something when you visit Berea, the so-called “Folk Arts & Crafts Capital of Kentucky.” Located about 40 miles south of Lexington, this small town has been a magnet for artisans since the late 19th century when the president of Berea College began efforts to support Appalachian craftspeople by introducing their work to a national audience. Creativity flourished in such a supportive environment, and today the town is full of shops and studios where you can buy a traditional wooden-handled broom or a piece of avant garde jewelry. After feeling the nubby weave of a blanket and the smooth surface of a ceramic vase, my fingers wanted to get busy on a project of their own.
Fortunately, the good folks of Berea have a solution for that. Now in its fourth year, the Festival of LearnShops (this year July 11-27) features a smorgasbord of classes offered by local artists and craftspeople, as well as musicians, writers, and storytellers. Workshops range from woodturning and introductory blacksmithing to making a corn shuck doll or a gourd birdhouse. Many of the offerings focus on glass, and my friends Patti and Verna and I decided to start by making a stained-glass suncatcher.
We figured it would be easy as we settled into our work stations in instructor Diane Gilliam’s shop — that is, until she warned us about the dangers of molten solder dripping between our toes. “You have to be James Bond to take this class,” she said with a laugh. “You can die from lead poisoning, electrocute yourself, or get acid in your eye.”
But Gilliam proved to be a patient teacher as well as a bit of a joker. And with only five students, she could keep a watchful eye over us. It was almost more difficult to select just one square from Gilliam’s rainbow array of glass than it was to trace and cut the shape of a sun from metal foil. Gilliam quickly corrected my technique when I had trouble soldering the sun outline to the glass. Two hours after we started, I etched my name onto my completed piece. My fingers and I felt a real sense of accomplishment.
Between classes, I squeezed in a walking tour of the bucolic campus of Berea College, which was founded in 1855. “It was the first college in the South to educate black and white men and women together,” said guide Husam Nasser, a physics and math major. Nasser is from Yemen, but the majority of students hail from Kentucky and the southern Appalachian region. All students receive the equivalent of a full-tuition scholarship and must participate in a work program. About 100 students a year choose to work in the school’s crafts programs, which include broom-making, woodworking, ceramics, weaving, and jewelry.
Student Crafts on the Square is one of several galleries in town that feature Berea College handcrafts. It also has demonstration spaces where visitors might encounter students at work. “Every item in here was touched by a student as they created it,” said Steve Davis-Rosenbaum, who coordinates the space. Youngsters are drawn to the Skittles table game — a foosball alternative with spinning tops and pins — that the college has been producing since 1929.
Visitors can also stop in the weaving studio where students and instructors work on large hand looms. The school does a big mail-order business and, according to instructor Amy Judd, orders for woven throws, baby blankets, and other items often back up. “I tell people we’re not Walmart,” she said. “If you buy here, you have the story behind the piece, you’re not just buying a product.”
Perhaps the only thing better than buying a handcrafted item is making it yourself. Fresh off our triumph with the suncatchers, Patti, Verna, and I were ready to tackle a plain weave market basket. I feared that my attention might wane in the full-day class, but at least I knew the only danger I faced was getting a bit wet working with reeds that had to be soaked in water to make them pliable. We had chosen a basket with a wooden handle, which, instructor Dianne Simpson told us, was a little more difficult than a beginner’s basket. But she was quick to reassure us that we were up to the task. “I’ve done basket weaving with first-graders,” she said. “You’ll do fine. It’s not chemistry. Nothing is going to blow up.”
The springy reeds were not the most cooperative, but Simpson told us to persevere. “The first three rows are the most difficult,” she said. “You have to convince it that it wants to be a basket.” Sure enough, as I muttered “over, under, over, under,” the form began to take shape and then worked up fairly quickly. We studied each others’ baskets and had fun debating what color reeds we should select to accent their neutral tones. Even with a long lunch break, we left with baskets on our arms by midafternoon. By now, my fingers were feeling really smart.
We were tempted by other classes in soap-making and glassblowing, but decided instead to spend our last afternoon and night at Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill in nearby Harrodsburg. The community was founded in 1805 and at its peak boasted almost 500 people who farmed about 4,500 acres. Of the original 260 buildings, 34 have been preserved. Some are open for overnight guests, offering a rare opportunity to experience a Shaker village in the quiet after-hours. Although self-denial was a tenet of the Shaker faith, they didn’t deny themselves at the dinner table. The village serves hearty meals using produce in season from its own garden. Such traditional dishes as fried chicken, pan-fried catfish, and corn pudding taste even better when eaten by candlelight.
Like all Shaker communities, the folks at Pleasant Hill were skilled at crafts. Their baskets (including brightly colored “fancy baskets,” which other communities declared “a dishonor to the gospel”) were sold throughout Kentucky and as far away as St. Louis and New Orleans. After breakfast the next morning, I met basket-maker Vivian Yeast, who often gives demonstrations at the village. Yeast was modest about her beautiful baskets, which I picked up to study the tight weaving and intricate patterns. I turned them over gently to get the feel of the elegant shapes.
My fingers had been getting a little smug. But now we know that we still have work to do.