It’s hard to believe, but the holiday season is upon us again. Already. It’s gifting time, and what better offering than one handmade by a talented artisan in the Folk Arts and Crafts Capital of Kentucky…or maybe even one made by you?—
Located an easy 39-mile-drive south of Lexington on I-75, that artsy-crafty destination is Berea, home since 1885 to Berea College, one of but a handful of tuition-free institutions of higher education in the country where students do supervised work in exchange for books, room and board. A hefty facet of that work is learning to make traditional crafts. And the town of 15,147 is rife with artisans and with shops and galleries filled with their gorgeous handmade creations, in several distinct areas of town.
Tucked in the middle of the Berea College campus, picturesque College Square is just that. Known for historic Boone Tavern Hotel and Dining Room with its towering white columns and wide porches with comfy rocking chairs, the hostelry was built as a guest house for the college in 1909 at the suggestion of Nellie Frost, wife of the then-president. In 2009, it became the first LEED-certified hotel in the state during an $11 million renovation. (The LEED certification requirements involve the use of recycled material, re-using existing material whenever possible to eliminate or greatly reduce waste, and using natural resources that have been attained without destroying any ecological balances.)
You’ll want to make a dinner reservation here ahead of time to try their signature dishes: spoonbread and “chicken flakes in a bird’s nest.” Once that’s done, hit the Square’s galleries!
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The oldest and largest craft gallery in Berea, Log House Craft Gallery, is the premiere showcase for Berea College student crafts. Current student studios are ceramics, woodworking, broom making and weaving, and the selection and quality of offerings here are simply amazing.
Be sure to pop in the shop of Warren A. May, woodworker and dulcimer maker. This remarkable man has made nearly a dulcimer a day for 46 years, and his instruments are exquisite, as is his handcrafted Kentucky furniture. We’re talking Southern sideboards, serpentine tables in walnut or cherry; large, classically constructed cabinets; “adventure” desks with artful, natural edges; trestle benches, tables and kitchen accessories. (And yes, though you’re shopping for others’ goodies, it’s okay to purchase something for your own home.)
Grab a casual, lighter-fare lunch or supper at Papa Leno’s and head to the next stop.
Once known as Old Town, Berea Artisan Village features shops and galleries, some with demos. Here you’ll find blown glass, wrought iron and metalsmithing, woodworking, jewelers, potters, weavers, a soap shop, candle shop, boutiques, gift shops with various enticements, Old Town Candy Kitchen and Fudge Factory (all sweets are handmade), and the recently opened Apollo’s Pizza, where you can munch on a Kentucky Hot Brown Pizza and sip craft beers.
Class offerings include glassmaking at Weston Glass Studio, polymer clay doll workshops at Images of Santa, three-hour copper and brass jewelry-making workshops at Gastineau Studio, knitting and crocheting at Fiber Frenzy, and sewing at Old Town Fabric.
You’ll want to step into the restored 1917 L&N train depot, home of the Berea Tourism and Welcome Center, for maps, brochures and recommendations of where to go, eat and stay.
Berea’s artisan incubator program is also in the Village, as is the renowned Kentucky Guild of Artists and Craftsmen (KGAC), whose gallery exhibits members’ work. The organization’s Art and Craft School is in this space as well (kyguild.org) and anyone can take their classes.
The other art-centric locality in Berea is a state agency in the Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet of the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Selling works of more than 700 Kentucky artisans, including art, crafts, food, books, and cards, the Kentucky Artisan Center features changing exhibits all year and craft demonstrations every Saturday from 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
The center’s current exhibit, on view until Nov. 24, is “The Art of the Book: 45 Years of Larkspur Press.” The display includes a video produced by CBS Sunday Morning, a bio of the letterpress printer’s owner/operator Gray Zeitz, and an array of Larkspur’s books and broadsides of works by such notable Kentucky authors as Wendell Berry, James Baker Hall, Ed McClanahan, and Silas House. Any would make much-appreciated, memorable holiday gifts.
Serving Kentucky Proud produce and farm products, the Center’s Artisan Café and Grill offers breakfast and lunch, with Bluegrass State specialties that include fried catfish and Kentucky Derby pie.
Now, if you’ve been perusing all these handmade objets d’art and thinking that with a little instruction, you too could create your own work of art, Berea is happy to teach you how to create a potential family heirloom in painting, fiber arts, woodworking, glass and more at their annual holiday Make It, Take It, Give It workshops. Under the guidance of expert artisans and master craftspeople, using their equipment, you can indeed produce a handmade gift. Or you can “gift” a workshop to a special person and let them express their creativity. Better yet, come together and celebrate the joy of making something with your own hands and imaginations in workshops that last from two hours to a full day. You can even bring the kids and grandkids and enroll them in the youth offerings, or register with them and create together.
Make It, Take It, Give It workshop dates are Nov. 29, 30; and Dec. 1, 6, 7, 8, 13, 14, 15, 20 and 21.
Want to watch an expert make a beautiful pot emerge from a lump of clay spinning on a potter’s wheel? Head just outside Berea to Tater Knob Pottery & Farm, where Sarah Culbreth will do just that, and serve you a cuppa coffee or her famous punch to sip as you stroll through the studio she owns with Jeff Enge and their son David Enge. Their huge selection of handmades includes dinnerware, mugs, and baking dishes, including an honest-to-goodness spoonbread baker.
When shopping and/or creating has tuckered you out, spend a cozy overnight or two just down the road from Tater Knob at Snug Hollow Farm Bed and Breakfast, set on 300 acres of breathtaking Appalachian hill country. Select your room in a spacious farmhouse or cabin and revel in divine food, feather beds with handmade quilts, woods paths to walk, critters to watch, clean mountain air to inhale, and relaxing rockers on porches. All pure “holler hospitality.”
Katherine Tandy Brown is a correspondent for The Lane Report. She can be reached at [email protected].