Heritage Visual Arts

Old Fort Photography Exhibit Captures a Unique Craft

Photography of William A. Barnhill

Photo by Rob Beverly

An exhibit titled Appalachia a Century Ago, Craft Through the Lens of William A. Barnhill, will run through July 30, 2017, at the Mountain Gateway Museum in Old Fort. The traveling exhibit, developed by the Southern Appalachian Archives and the Liston B. Ramsey Center for Regional Studies at Mars Hill University, showcases the work of photographer William Barnhill, who captured the process of making baskets from the bark of young poplar trees. Barnhill’s photographs, taken in the early 20th century, are presented alongside bark baskets dating from that period as well as the tools used to make them.

“Barnhill loved taking photographs of mountain people and landscapes, but where he really excelled was in capturing images of mountaineers in the act of creating, whether it was a bark basket, a woven coverlet or a piece of pottery,” says RoAnn Bishop, director of the Mountain Gateway Museum. “For Barnhill, the beauty was in the process.”

Exhibit viewers will learn about the photographer, whose images have been printed for the Library of Congress and the New York Public Library, as well as about the lives of Western North Carolina residents. A video stars naturalist, herbalist, storyteller and basket maker Doug Elliott demonstrating bark basket making. Objects on display include a basket made and given to Barnhill by Confederate veteran David H. Penland.

“The exhibit gives viewers an opportunity to look through the lens and feel like time stood still,” says Bill Alexander, a bark basket maker and collector based in Knoxville, TN, who donated funds and items to create the exhibition. “The addition of artifacts reinforces the idea that viewers are standing at Barnhill’s shoulder.”

The Mountain Gateway Museum uses artifacts, exhibitions, educational programs, living history demonstrations and special events to teach people about the history and cultural heritage of the state’s mountain region, from its original inhabitants through early settlement and into the 20th century. “We thought bark baskets would be a bit unusual to most folks,” says Bishop, “that they might slow down and study how they’re put together and for what purpose. And once you get visitors to slow their pace and really look at something, then you know you’ve made an impact.”

The Mountain Gateway Museum is at 24 Water Street in Old Fort. Hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 9 A.M. to 5 P.M., Sunday, 2–5 P.M., and Monday, noon to 5 P.M. It is open year-round and admission is free. Learn more at mountaingatewaymuseum.org.

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