Nine Female Southern Highland Craft Guild Makers Reunite at Exhibition
By Frances Figart
In 1975, Bernie Rowell was a young mother living in the Knoxville area. “I was making batik wall pieces and soft toys when I met Annie Hughes, Gina Anderson, Jimmie Benedict and Judi Gaston at a local craft show,” she recalls. “They encouraged me to apply to the Southern Highland Craft Guild. I did and have been a member ever since.”
By the late ’70s, the women had formed their own regional artist support group with fiber artist Ann Hughes as the spearhead. They met informally several times a year, often in her Friendsville, Tennessee farmhouse, to share accomplishments and struggles and combat the isolation of working alone in the studio.
“In the early days of our group, the Guild brought us together through shows, committee work and annual meetings,” says another fiber artist, Diane Tunkel Hanson. “Having so much in common drew us together and we, in many ways, became sisters.”
Ten years later, Hughes moved to California, others left the area for various reasons and only five remained in the region. “Then, 35 years later, I see our picture on the studio wall late one night,” Hughes says. A realization struck: “We were magic; we’re still all alive and most still involved in the arts. We should have a show, a reunion, and tell our story!”
As a result, a Southern Highland Craft Guild (SHCG) exhibition titled Roots in the Guild: Nine Women Artists Today opened in February at the Folk Art Center’s Focus Gallery. On Saturday, April 15, from 1–3 p.m., the nine female makers will host a free reception for the public at the gallery during which they will share their work and discuss the influence of Guild membership on their creative journeys.
The artists—Benedict, Gaston, Hanson, Hughes and Rowell working in fiber; and Anderson, Ellen Crandall, Pat Herzog and Rosa Kennedy working in clay—all joined the Guild in the 1970s when styles and designs were transitioning from traditional to modern and contemporary in craft.
“The life of an artist is a bit like a fish swimming upstream,” says Rowell. “It helps if there are other fish swimming with you. This network of supportive creative women was important to all of us as we explored creatively, shared new skills and grew our craft businesses. We had fun while sharing travel expenses for out-of-town events, or gathering for potlucks to plan group exhibits or share goals.”
Today, some of the group members have continued to work in their original media while others changed to new forms of artistic expression. Rowell’s own work has evolved to ‘painted quilts,’ a hybrid of paint on canvas with layered stitched and collaged imagery. Some even went on to work in art administration. Whatever the path, they all agree those gatherings in that drafty Friendsville farmhouse, heated by space heaters and friendship in the late ’70s, set their careers in motion.
“We were like sponges,” says Hughes, “taking up every opportunity that came our way and fortunate to have very good mentors in our lives. They prepared and nurtured us for our challenges and celebrations. They sent us on our way to do shows, workshops and exhibitions in the area, the state, region, country and the world. Now we are ‘coming home’ and bringing home the boon (treasures and stories) of our travels.”
SHCG is a nonprofit, educational organization established in 1930 to cultivate the crafts and makers of the Southern Highlands for the purpose of shared resources, education, marketing and conservation. “Craft guilds of this magnitude are rare,” says Hannah Barry, communications director. “The Guild offers history, administration, education, sales opportunities, national status, fraternity and an enormous opportunity to participate.”
The Folk Art Center is located at Milepost 382 of the Blue Ridge Parkway, just north of the Highway 70 entrance in east Asheville, NC. Hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day. Learn more at craftguild.org.