Fine Craft Right Here in Chattanooga

Mixed media by Alexa Lett on exhibit at Tennessee Craft Handmade Here

A famous playwright once asked, “What’s in a name?”

ℹ️ Colleen Williams, member of the ℹ️ Southeast Chapter of Tennessee Craft, finds herself struggling with that same question.

“I don’t identify myself as a ‘craft’ artist,” said Williams. “I’m an artist who works in ceramic medium.”

Identity angst is a common sentiment among many members of the newly formed Tennessee Craft—Southeast Chapter. This is the newest of seven chapters of the statewide nonprofit organization, ℹ️ Tennessee Craft, which is based in Nashville and tasked with connecting the public with artists working in the fine craft tradition.

ℹ️ Alexa Lett, President of the Southeast Chapter, aims to change locals’ perceptions of what it means to be a craft artist. “We want to enlighten the community that there are traditional methods of artistry that should be saluted and celebrated,” said Lett.

Marjorie Langston, a glass artist for more than 35 years and vice president of the Southeast Chapter, emphasizes there is a difference between “fine crafts” and “crafts.” Langston’s art, historically called lampworking, takes years to learn and master. In addition to working as a full-time artist, Langston teaches her medium everywhere from the ℹ️ John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, North Carolina, to the University of Miami and in Ireland.

Sculpture by Colleen Williams

Ensuring that fine craft artistry continues into the next generation is a heartfelt mission of this artist group. ℹ️ Lolly Durant, a textile and ceramic artist and secretary of the Southeast chapter, stresses the importance of fine craft education and mentorship. “There’s a difference between teaching and mentoring,” said Durant. She stresses that because the skills are often so difficult to master, it’s important to learn from someone who is actually working as a professional artist.

Originally founded in 1965 as the Tennessee Association of Craft Artists, Tennessee Craft offers members scholarships for continuing education and professional development. They also produce fine arts craft fairs across the state in addition to hosting their largest annual event, ℹ️ Tennessee Craft Week, each October.

Chattanooga served as the host city for the 2016 Tennessee Craft Week, months after the new Southeast Chapter formed. Thousands of tourists had the opportunity to watch live demonstrations of local craft artists at all of the Welcome Centers across the state, including those close to Chattanooga.

“Lolly was sewing her hand dyed fabrics,” said Lett of last October’s Craft Week event. “Marjorie was making her handcrafted glass beads. There were weavers, wood craftsmen, and silversmithing. The public stopped and watched; everyone thoroughly enjoyed it.”

This year’s Tennessee Craft Week runs from October 6–15. The Southeast Chapter will host an opening night reception on Friday, October 6 at ℹ️ Chattanooga Workspace. The weeklong event’s goal is to highlight the collective impact of craft artists on the state’s economy.

And there is no doubt the arts play a significant role in Tennessee’s economic development. According to a study recently released from Americans for the Arts, the annual economic impact of the nonprofit arts and cultural industry in Tennessee exceeds $1 billion. In the greater Chattanooga area, the annual impact is $183 million.

Jewelry designed and crafted by Marjorie Langston

“Arts and culture drive activity and add value to Tennessee communities—promoting and increasing quality of life, inclusion, economic development, tourism and provide a more balanced education for our children,” said Tennessee Arts Commission Executive Director Anne B. Pope. “The arts are a vital tool for attraction and retention of businesses and help build stronger communities by enhancing the distinctive character of Tennessee places.”

Since the Southeast Chapter’s inception, Chattanooga WorkSpace has served as its home base. Located at 302 West Sixth Street, across from the downtown YMCA, Chattanooga Workspace opened in 2013 and currently has 35 local artists who rent studio space in the building.

“When we started this chapter I went to Kathy Lennon (Director of Chattanooga WorkSpace) because I thought this would be a good hub—a home port for Tennessee Craft Southeast—because it’s such an artful community,” said Lett. The space has more than fulfilled Lett’s expectations. The Tennessee Craft—Southeast Chapter, which includes Bledsoe, Bradley, Hamilton, McMinn, Meigs, Polk, Rhea and Sequatchie counties, now boasts 50 active members.

In May 2017 the chapter hosted Handmade Here, a Tennessee Craft artist exhibit, at the Chattanooga WorkSpace gallery. The show was a huge success for the young chapter, with more than 20 local artists exhibiting their handmade work. Although many of the chapter’s members also have their studio at Chattanooga WorkSpace, anyone can join Tennessee Craft.

“You don’t have to be a professional artist to join,” said Williams. “It’s about learning.” Education, collaboration with fellow artists, and opportunities to share their work are just a few of the reasons why artists chose to join this 50-year-old organization.

Although an artist for years, Colleen Williams was able to enter the 2016 Tennessee Craft Week fair as an emerging artist due to recently relocating to Chattanooga from the Berkshires in western Massachusetts. Not only was she able to network with hundreds of Tennessee artisans, Williams ended up taking home the Best Emerging Artist Award.

Original works by Charlie Pfitzer(pottery) and left to right Carrie Pendergrass (first three abstracts) and Lolly Durant.

Lett tells a similar story about her initial involvement with Tennessee Craft. Lolly Durant urged her to enter the 2015 Handmade Here exhibit when Knoxville hosted the annual event. Lett quickly joined the organization to be able to participate and pulled a piece of artwork off her studio wall to send with Durant to Knoxville. A few weeks later, Lett was awarded Best in Show for her piece. She was hooked.

Lett thinks this is a great time to be a craft artist in Tennessee and in Chattanooga. “It’s innate to our region,” said Lett. “I think our community as a whole is much more open to appreciate the artistry that goes with craftsmanship on this level.”

Williams, the most recent transplant to Chattanooga, agrees. “It’s a real pleasure to come into a state that has an actual state-run organization because you can feel the support. That sense of camaraderie and feeling of support from your peers and the organization, that’s pretty great.”

Although the public perception of fine craft art has evolved, these artists believe a certain stigma associated with being a craft artist will be an ongoing challenge for the Southeast chapter to tackle. Lett suggests one key to overcoming this hurdle is more collaboration—something that doesn’t necessarily come naturally to different art groups.

“I think a more fluid integration of Tennessee Craft trying to be a part of the broader arts community—all of us helping each other as opposed to just being individual entities,” said Lett. “I know that’s difficult at times, but it can be done.”

For these Southeast Tennessee craft artists, the goal is to bring the community together by sharing their work, and their love for fine craft, with as many people as possible. So no matter what it’s called, these artists are here to stay and to ensure their craftsmanship lives on for the next generations to enjoy and appreciate.

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Photography by Steven Llorca

This story was originally published in Chattanooga Magazine.

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