This week, I want to let you in on a little secret: The corner of Virginia that I live in, the one with rolling mountains and gorgeous sunsets and dozens of shades of green, well, it boasts some incredible artisans as well. I’m talking time-honored blacksmiths and renowned potters, award-winning brewers, cutting-edge vintners. Yes, and remarkable painters and jewelers and bakers and farmers. So much creativity and talent lives and works here.
But here — most of Virginia, really — is not New York City or Los Angeles or Chicago, where there are fashion districts and Chelsea Markets and hives of buzz that harbor cell upon cell of creators who feed off each other’s energy and connect with an audience in a very public way.
No, here, art is often tucked away and around the bend and smack dab in the woods. And that is part of its beauty.
But it’s also why a person might need a little help to encounter it.
Which is the impulse behind a bright new concept sweeping through Virginia right now, a concept called the Artisan Trail Network.
An Artisan Trail works something like this: Say you’re planning a trip to Charlottesville. Even if you’ve been before and are familiar with the University of Virginia’s campus and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, even if you’ve tracked down a few restaurants you like, you’re certain there’s much more to see. But you can’t know how to find what you don’t know is there.
That’s why the Artisans Center of Virginia has found it for you. This nonprofit works with artists and community development folks in each area where a trail is established to identify amazing studios and galleries, farm and museums, restaurants and distillers and event locations that can point a visitor in the direction of — not only interesting stop — but sometimes a truly moving experience.
On one trail visit, I happened to be touring during one of acclaimed potter Kevin Crowe’s twice-a-year firings. It was dusk as we approached and he, his family and a team of students and fellow potters were down the hill from his deep-in-the-woods studio keeping a 24-hour, 8-day watch on a kiln he had made by hand that was burning wood he’d spent weeks splitting and moving and stacking.
As we watched the blaze burn, Crowe talked of his art and his methods — this way of slow firing thousands of pots at once is an ancient Japanese technique. Tenders of the flame stoked the fire; it would reach 2450°F before they were done. While the thousands of pots stacked inside were fashioned by Crowe and other potters, the finish would be created by the fire in an incredible act of releasing creative control.
“That’s what potters do,” Crowe said as the last breaths of daylight leaked away. “We make ritual objects for the condition of just being human. That’s pretty profound. We have an effect on people’s lives and we don’t even realize it.”
Earlier that same day, our trail had brought us off a busy road and into a garage, a place we’d never have found on our own. But inside, it was magic. Again, a fire, this one stoked hot enough to melt metal. Here, hammer clashed with anvil, motors thumped a song. Blacksmith Dale Morse bent and brushed, shaped and spun steel into a delicate, shining leaf.
Over the course of two different trips criss-crossing Western Virginia, I encountered hops growers and vintners, glass artists and quilters. I even visited a survivalist who runs a research farm dedicated to self-sufficiency (but also offers a camp for contestants on TV reality shows) called the Sustainable Homestead Institute.
One of my favorite discoveries was an eclectic collection of animals called Infinity Acres Ranch. Here, goats and tortoises, llamas and peacocks are available for interactive educational tours and summer camps, but also are included in programs that teach life skills and healing to children and adult with disabilities.
These stops were windows into the most amazing worlds.
And the road connecting them all was the Artisan Trail Network.
Next week: What is it that makes fall’s flavors some of our favorites?