Appalachian Innovation at Work


Sometimes, creating industry means crafting a work of art. In 1993, community leaders in Asheville, North Carolina were planning a revitalization of the Asheville area.
Thinking outside of traditional economic protocols, they realized their community’s strength lay not in its ability to recruit new business, but in fostering the resources it already had, the most viable of which was a thriving arts community. And so HandMade in America was born.

HandMade in America, a non-profit organization promoting handmade art, has positioned Western North Carolina as the national epicenter of handicrafts. The Asheville based organization has outgrown the western region of its home state and has expanded to serve artists throughout the southeast.

Western North Carolina alone is home to more than 4,000 artisans whose work contributes over $122 million to the local economy each year. These artisans include hobbyists and professional craftspeople. From the outset, HandMade dedicated itself to being an inclusive organization fostering community togetherness and viability.

Just as HandMade artists, who now number in the thousands, create beauty from stone, wood, oil, metal and glass, HandMade in America crafts projects that maintain the heritage of the Blue Ridge Mountains and simultaneously create a sustainable economy. HandMade’s director of development, Betty Hurst, explained, “We are focused on long term solutions. All of our projects are self-sustaining and are done in partnership with communities that define their own needs.”

Over the eleven years that HandMade has been in existence, the organization’s craftspeople have seen a 10-15% increase in income and in excess of $11 million in investments poured into several of the region’s smallest communities.

HandMade’s innovative projects have attracted the attention of heritage organizations nationwide. Interested organizations are often invited to see HandMade’s impact first hand. Hurst said, “This past December we had visits from a group in North Florida, a group from Wisconsin and a group from Cumberland Gap, Tennessee. They were interested in how to do heritage tourism in their area. We took them into the communities where we work and let them talk directly to people affected by what we do.”

In addition to opening its community projects to visitors, HandMade also hosts regular institutes and workshops for artists and arts organizations. The next such opportunity will be an Arts Business Boot Camp presented in partnership with The Arts Business Institute during March 26-28th.

The HandMade mission “to celebrate the hand and the handmade, to nurture the creation of traditional and contemporary craft, to revere and protect our resources, and to preserve and enrich the spiritual, cultural, and community life of our region” is addressed in each and every project the organization undertakes.

In their 20-year plan, HandMade hopes to foster an academic base to promote and create learning opportunities, implement environmentally sustainable economic strategies for its home region that emphasize the handmade industry, to enhance artisan opportunities and to actively encourage all business sectors of the economy to develop independent and interdependent ways to build the handmade industry regionally.

A few ways HandMade is working towards these goals are the organization’s active development and participation in a Small Town Revitalization program, The Energy Xchange, HandMade Holidays and the publication of two Western North Carolina guidebooks featuring the areas’ handicrafts and agritourism attractions.

Small Town Revitalization

Since 1996, HandMade has focused on making some of Western North Carolina’s smallest communities exude some of the largest spirits. With the Small Town Revitalization program, HandMade is fostering the creative efforts of communities that are improving their towns’ and public spaces and local arts scene.

The increasingly bustling town of West Jefferson, as well as Bryson City, Crossnore, Hot Springs, Bakersville, Andrews, Chimney Rock, Mars Hill, Marshall, Todd, Hayesville and outlying Clay County are towns that are benefiting from a multi-dimensional program that employs local resources, volunteer enthusiasm, leadership training and mentoring to craft communities that are relearning the functional art of civic engagement.

Energy Xchange

The story of Jon Ellenbogen’s experience of getting his truck stuck on a drive up to a six-acre dump in Western North Carolina has been told repeatedly, most notably to a reporter from The New York Times. Why is it of such national interest? Well, the dump later became a state of the art studio in which Ellenbogen, a potter, crafted fine ware for a burgeoning craft market. Since May 2001, the former Mitchell-Yancey dump has provided an ecologically sound learning ground and studio space for working artists.

The site, called The Energy Xchange, is home to a mini-power plant which utilizes methane gas, a pollutant by-product of decomposing trash, to fuel furnaces for glass blowing, firing pottery and welding metals.

It is estimated that, during the 12-20 years in which the gas is expected to last, local artists will have saved $1 million in energy costs while saving the ecologically rich region from being exposed to the noxious fumes that were, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, previously emitting the equivalent of 21,002 car exhaust pipes every 10 years.

HandMade Holidays

HandMade has been instrumental in creating special interest tours, getaways and learning weekends have been created to offer travelers a new way to experience vacationing in North Carolina’s mountains. HandMade Holidays are a way to expose yourself to experiences that are artistically and heritage driven.

Activities, depending on the time of the year, include studio tours, quilting parties, organic farming classes, hikes and garden-to-table cooking weekends. HandMade holidays offer unique artistic and heritage-driven experiences.

The HandMade Guidebooks

HandMade publishes two guidebooks covering the Western region of North Carolina: The Craft Heritage Trails of Western North Carolina, now in its third edition, and Farms, Gardens & Countryside Trails of Western North Carolina.

Both publications offer adventures through the wealth of talent and beauty that inspired HandMade’s founding. The guides are vibrantly illustrated and each one offers readers ample direction toward the best handicrafts and natural wonders in the region while interweaving relevant historical information and colorful trivia.

The guides are an invaluable resource to anyone visiting the area, as well as locals interested in expanding their view of the magnificently textured grouping of artisans that make their home in Western North Carolina.

The guides include maps with suggested paths for delightful meanders and will let you know how to locate ideal accommodations, dining experiences, well-known galleries and intimate showrooms.

All in all, HandMade’s guides are inspiring. What else could be expected from an organization that has taken traditional arts and created a modern-day master plan.To learn more about the innovative programs undertaken by HandMade in America, or to order one of the HandMade guidebooks, visit


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