March 2014 Roadtrip Report: Crafty Encounters, Part 2
3.30.2014. (continued from Part 1) I had in my head the idea that we'd "do folk art" on a meandering trip back home from St. Louis. I researched the likely hubs, but also had hopes of finding little "undiscovered" shops along the backroads. On the way to St. Louis, we listened to the first 50 chapters (they are short) of "Blue Highways: A Journey Into America" by William Least Heat-Moon (1982). He too started out in Missouri and meandered his way across Kentucky and Tennessee to North Carolina. But Heat-Moon was a lonely camper and found ways of talking to people that revealed deep insights. Jim and I have each other, our Volvo, and our chain motels, so we are way shallower.
On Tuesday, 3/25, we mosied out of St. Louis, heading for Paducah on the secondary roads. There is nothing scenic here. The big river is hidden behind massive levees. But we just like looking at the little houses and barns and fields. Jim marks the map with his green highlighter and we don't think much of anything.
We did finally see the Ohio River, which had a lot of barge traffic and was a sight to behold.
On Wednesday, we visited the National Quilt Museum, which seems to be the beating heart of old Paducah. The exhibit included both antique and contemporary quilts. It was inspirational to the point of being nearly overwhelming. Could I ever dare to be so good? Jim (the old textile collector and neophyte quilter) was also intrigued. Our tastes were the same: we preferred traditional and stylized/abstract designs better than the representational/pictorial ones that tried to reproduce a scene or still life. The pictorial ones seemed less "quilty" to us, even though the craftsmanship was masterful.
It was all downhill from there. We found a couple well-known quilting shops but frankly they didn't offer anything over our local ones. I was after inspiration not fabric. The rest of the town seemed "closed till quilt week," which is next month. I do like the fact that Paducah has an artist relocation program that essentially gives old houses to artists to help generate an art district. However, most are still only open by appointment.... and during quilt week.
Our idea to ramble along the backroads of Kentucky was foiled when it turned out that there really weren't any decent east-west byways. Our choice was either to spend forever tacking northeast and southeast or hop on the interstate. On Thursday, we gave up trying to fiddle our way along routes 68 and 80 and gave into the the dull interstate in order to get to the artisan center of Berea. (We had already decided to save a visit to Asheville NC for another trip.)
Berea is a lovely little town and home of the Kentucky Artisan Center and Berea College, a liberal arts college that specializes in preserving the traditional regional crafts (and if you work 10 hours a week for the college, tuition is free). The Artisan Center is basically a shop, bringing together work of students and regional craftspeople. Very good stuff at boutique prices. I took some photos for inspiration, but we didn't purchase anything. There were lots of other little shops specializing in craft items, so we browsed till Jim's feet protested.
Then we zipped up to Morehead, Kentucky, another college town and home of the small Kentucky Folk Art Center. Whereas Berea seems to specialize in the MFA boutique-oriented artisan, KFAC is oriented toward the backwoodsy, self-trained outsider. The introduction to this art on their website says:
...Upon viewing folk art for the first time, many are attracted to its whimsical attributes, and we should take joy in these works as the artists intended. But in many instances, the art that you see on the walls at KFAC was born out of hard times. The works displayed here stand as a document of and testament to the concerns, courage, and convictions of the common man.
On the museum wall it goes on to say that folk art "smiles in the face of a callous world" and is a force for optimism. That sums it up well.
After Morehead, we felt the pull to go home. We pushed on to Parkersburg WV for another motel night, then up I-77 home.