It’s not often that the little guy gets a big break. Artists often struggle to get their work to stand out, to be seen, to get a chance to rise to the top, to be known for what and who they are. They are, after all, very small businesses. In rural Southwest Virginia, that is exactly what one foundation has sought to do. No compromises, no shortcomings, no disappointments, no big stuffy boards that oversee a project and have their OWN ideas about how the arts are best served, all without really understanding what’s really needed. Someone was able to bring a vision to full fruition. Now that vision needs everyone’s support to help push it forward in its search for becoming self-sufficient, and is one reason why this blog entry fits in so well with the purpose of this blog overall, which is to highlight great design wherever, and whenever it happens.
Over the last five years or so, there has been an initiative on the part of Todd Christianson to develop a “family” of organizations that will help bring the artist and artisan to the attention of a wider public. By being the driving force behind this effort, he was able to garner the state money and grants needed to get this lofty concept off the ground. He also brought into being several organizations that all help to serve cultural tourism in the region of Southwestern Virginia. These organizations include The Crooked Road, and ‘Round The Mountain (home to Heartwood Artisan Center). The former organization promotes the roots of country music in the region of Southwest Virginia by developing and promoting trails that lead to some of the best kept secrets of the music industry, and also some heavy hitters, too. Who knew that you could travel back into time and find fiddlers gathering on porches and in barns to perform like they did way back in the day, untroubled by the hype and commercialism of modern capitalist attitudes that so often destroy and wreck a good old thing? Not so in our neck of the woods; The Crooked Road has been met with fabulous success and has helped to push forward his efforts for ‘Round the Mountain. People sign on and travel its windy roads to reach the homes of musicians now rising in popularity. Ralph Stanley himself is associated with this wonderful piece of culture and history, along with a host of up and coming musicians now making names for themselves.
At the heart of all of this lies the jewel in the crown of Southwestern Virginia culture; Heartwood Artisan Center, which is located in Abingdon, Virginia. Part of an ambitious 17 million dollar project, the Center sits along interstate I-81 in a town known for other great cultural institutions such as the Barter Theater. The artisan center is a 30,000 square foot structure with a cool and regional theme that is an eclectic blend of sensibilities: the building looks like a barn split down its middle with a silo to help add to the effect. Very simply, it’s a remarkable building to be in. It blends a feeling of the barn with a feeling of some of the most up to date technology. All around there are kiosks with video monitors showing images of artists at work, musicians in concert, and pictures of the sweeping panorama’s that this region offers. The floors have wood planking that were made locally. The stone for the building was quarried just miles away. The entire building is stocked with the work of artisans from the 19 county region that the organization ‘Round The Mountain serves. From inexpensive jewelry to locally made produce, music cd’s and a rocking chair that fetched over $4,000.00 for its maker there, there is something for everyone. All artisans who have juried and have been accepted into the individual artisan trails that are part of the overall vision of “Round The Mountain, are able to exhibit at Heartwood. Think of it as the outlet for all the artisan trails that the organization helped foster and build. It’s a testament to collaboration and community that this facility was able to get off the ground in the way that it did.
The building, designed by local SpectrumDesign, the engineer and architect for the building project, has a number of other regional projects that show a similar sensitivity to the building and identity of the organizations and businesses that operate there. It boasts a commercial kitchen for special events as well as an eatery all under one roof. To get an idea for what the building looks like, a picture is worth a thousand words. When you first see the structure, it’s so funky-cool that its exciting to actually approach and go inside. Once inside, though, the view is open, airy, cathedral-like even. It’s an inspiring and exciting space to be in for the interesting sense of design that draws on many different sensibilities yet never becomes maudlin or steeped in stereotypes. This is an interesting space, no doubt about it, and its drawing visitors on a daily basis to see what all the fuss is about. While there is a barnsy look, and while there is even a lofty look to the interior, you have to understand that a barn is a country cathedral. If you think you know what a barn is like on the inside I ask you; have you ever been in a barn so beautifully put together? Below and to the left, you will see an example of how the architectural design has helped to bring about a fusion of many different sensibilities all under one roof. This is remarkable. Gifted with plenty of space, storage, meeting rooms, offices, kitchens and display space, this is a wonderful achievement. The building is divided into two main wings with a central desk that serves to check out customers and guide visitors into the building. There is room for a permanent exhibit that helps to tell the story of fine craft in this part of the country. Beyond the main desk is an open area where visitors can rest, eat a meal from locally grown produce at their own eatery, and a second wing that hosts musical instruments, music cd’s of local musicians that are part of the Crooked Road. While embracing the design sensibilities of fine craft, there is a broad range of work at the Center.
Towards the back, or is that the front?…. The building is so light and airy that its open all around to the outside, a feature that gives it a four corners effect. But the space is soaring and open, rich and alive, cool and warm all at once. The lighting in the photo to the left was made by a member of the Floyd County Artisan Trail of ‘Round The Mountain (RTM) Crenshaw Lighting. With similar building techniques as employed in barns and even cathedrals, the resulting effect is inspiring.
Display areas are in the two wings of the building. This one, near the front of the Center, includes some story boards that explain a little about the history and culture of the region. There is a little something for everyone…from educational information, the opportunity to meet artisans during demonstration weekends, and listen to live music. The displays are laid out so that its easy to move through the spaces. It’s a great design and easy to navigate. When design is both intuitive and well thought out, it creates an affirming and enjoyable experience for visitors.
The eatery, located more in the center of the building, provides those who are sitting down to have a bite, with a view of both wings, and the opportunity to consider where to go next.
For my money, this is a great facility. It’s a great home for the regional artisans. It helps to bring their work to the public in a high-profile way. It finally honors the role that the arts play in our community. In the town of Blacksburg, which is a few hours west, the local University has been busy building an arts center. It turns out that this center will allow for programming to take place, but no room for artists, no consideration for their work or workshops. Its been the result of a very real disconnect between a very corporate kind of entity (albeit a state-run one) and the community it is supposed to serve. I contacted its director and asked what I had to do to locate my studio in their facility. There was never any consideration for such a thing. My calls were never answered. I wasn’t worth the time, or consideration, or perhaps it wasn’t something that occurred to its board which oversaw the conceptualization of the project. Its okay, though, because the arts begin at home, and whooo what a home RTM has made for itself and for the artists that they serve! This is an example of how big business can serve the little guy and gal, celebrating our culture, boosting cultural tourism, as well as the business of every artisan associated with it!
For more information on ‘Round the Mountain, The Crooked Road, Heartwood Artisan Center and the people who make it happen, you can visit these sites for additional information:
For a story about Heartwood and its recent opening, see this article (which also has a picture of a piece of glass made by yours truly). It includes an interview with Todd Christianson and other artisans.
If you who would like to learn more about the artisan trails that are part of this regional effort and the opportunities they offer to visitors all across our region, go here.
Support your local artist, artisan, and designer; its all local and made in America!