Insider perspective: Artists open studio doors during TRAC weekend

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A handmade piece of artwork, whether it’s a ceramic mug or a one-of-a-kind painting, is an insight into the personal narrative of the artist. Buying directly from an artist’s studio is a chance for the collector to connect to that artist’s process in a way they wouldn’t be able to otherwise. Denise Cook, executive director of Toe River Arts Council, says, “Just seeing where they work, and some of the tools, and what they’re looking at: It’s really revealing.”

TRAC has hosted its semiannual driving tour, in June and December, for the past 20 years. The winter event, naturally, tends to focus on holiday shopping. Suited to both curious explorers and focused collectors, the three-day tour begins on Friday, Dec. 6, at noon. A reception follows that evening at the Spruce Pine TRAC Gallery, where each artist on the tour will display work. Participating studios and galleries open again on Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 7 and 8.

The route meanders through the mountains northeast of Asheville where so many artists have decided to settle, build studios and participate in the thriving creative community. Studios in such rural locales receive less traffic than their counterparts in more populated areas, so the community collaborates on events to attract visitors. The tour includes about 100 participating artists and galleries. Works cover the full range from traditional crafts to contemporary fine art. Up to five makers are permitted to show their wares at a single studio location. That’s helpful to visitors who want to see multiple works at one stop, and it’s necessary for artists with, as Cook says, “a studio that is in a very remote place or is not really conducive for public traffic.”

Bakersville ceramicist Jenny Lou Sherburne says that guests drop by “simply to see the artists in their native habitat and to then learn more about the creative process and history of the artist.” Her brightly colored sculptural pottery pieces are inspired by such visionaries as Spanish architect and modernist Antoni Gaudí and children’s book author/illustrator Dr. Seuss.

“When I welcome folks to my studio during the tours, they are generally there because they have specifically sought me out,” Sherburne says. In the studio setting, “our interaction is much more personal and relaxed.”

Perhaps visitors meet an artist’s dog and see the connection between the pet and the imagery in the work. Or maybe they see the mountain view from the studio windows and understand how that inspiration comes through in the pieces. The connection between place and handmade objects even shows up in “the color palettes that are reflective of this region,” Cook says.

She adds, “It’s about a drive as well as visiting studios. It’s so different from an urban experience. You’ve got these interesting roads that are twisty and turny here in our mountains, and you pass some really gorgeous scenery.”

“I am always touched by the fact that people come to where I work and live, and the effort they make to get here,” says basketmaker Billie Ruth Sudduth. Her baskets are both rooted in the Appalachian tradition and innovative in their use of mathematical patterns. The Fibonacci sequence is well-known for its relationship to naturally occurring spirals like those in seashells and pine cones. Sudduth uses this mathematical pattern and others to inform her “numbers, ratios and measurements to make rhythmic, naturally flowing designs,” she says, an approach that has helped her gain significant notice for her work.

“On the road, I can tell people about my process, but when they come to my studio, they can see where I work, carve on my shavehorse using a drawknife, dye my materials and weave my baskets surrounded by a studio of already-completed baskets,” says Sudduth.

According to Cook, the TRAC tour is a chance to connect with local artists who may exhibit at some of the bigger trade shows in Chicago or New York, or may be represented internationally in Germany or Japan, but still live and work in rural Appalachia. “I’ve equated it to a treasure hunt — map in hand, [you can] navigate your way through these little mountain communities,” she says.

what: Toe River holiday studio tour,
where: Mitchell and Yancey counties
when: Friday, Dec. 6, noon-4 p.m.; Saturday, Dec. 7 and Sunday, Dec. 8, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
Reception on Friday, Dec. 6, 5-7 p.m. at TRAC Gallery

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