Toe River Studio Tour
Dark Fire 2 by Rob Levin
Held typically in summer and fall, you’ll find open studio tours across the state making hundreds of artist studios accessible for visits by members of the public for conversation, socializing and sales. You can meet artists up close and in person, discuss how they make one-of-a-kind works in clay, fiber, glass, leather, metal, mixed media, natural materials, paper, wood and jewelry and occasionally watch them in action.
For almost two decades, the Toe River Studio Tour has brought arts aficionados to the colorful communities and country roads of Mitchell and Yancey counties in western North Carolina — learn about this tour below and find more open studio tours in the list that follows.
More than 145 studios and galleries are featured on the Toe River Studio Tour, held in June and December and sponsored by the Toe River Arts Council in Spruce Pine. This extensive tour covers Mitchell and Yancey counties in the N.C. mountains, including the towns of Bakersville, Penland, Spruce Pine, Burnsville, Micaville, Newdale, Estatoe and Little Switzerland.
“What I enjoy most about the studio tour is that people actually see where and how things are made,” says Claudia Dunaway, whose wheel-thrown stoneware and porcelain can be seen at Yummy Mud Puddle Gallery near Burnsville. “Visitors come away with a better understanding of how we live and how we work. Our exchanges are mostly around techniques and how things are done.”
Celo area artist Rob Levin, a 1981 and 1997 N.C. Arts Council Fellowship recipient who makes hand-blown vessels out of glass, says the studio tour's educational component makes it appealing to children and families. “When people walk into a studio, especially a glass studio, they may have seen finished pieces in the past, but they may not be familiar with the process,” Levin says. “I'll end up explaining and demonstrating the process of making the work, and people can see the studio facilities where the work is being made. People will say they had no idea that so much went into it. I think that helps to demystify the process and makes it all a little more accessible. Children especially are often very taken with the whole process.”
Selena Glass' Deana Blanchard, who lives and works in the Burnsville area, says that traveling the side roads to get to the studios is part of the adventure. “You get to explore a lot more of the mountains. Then when you come to the person's studio you get a glimpse into the artist's life. Because most craftspeople have an aesthetic sense, the place where they live is pretty, too. It might not be big and fancy, but usually it will have a charm to it, and you can tell it's a place that's been managed lovingly.”
Blanchard says she enjoys the fellowship encouraged by the tour. “We do have people who come back every year, and it's kind of like a homecoming," she says. “There's a couple of sisters who come back to our studio every year from Charleston, South Carolina. Last time, one sister made each of us a little cap, and the other sister made ceramic pins. So we do establish a relationship with people that come every year, and it's so sweet. We love it when people buy things, but part of the tour is just the chance to get to know people.”
“There's a lot of repeat people,” Dunaway agrees. “We have a group of women that comes in and takes over a bed and breakfast, or they'll rent a house for the weekend, and they'll go off and pick a different area each time. Sometimes they'll focus on Bakersville, sometimes they'll focus on Burnsville. It's really fun.”
In addition to people from the local community, Blanchard welcomes visitors from the New England states, Wisconsin, Iowa and cities including Charleston, Atlanta, Charlotte, Chattanooga and Knoxville. She also credits the nearby Penland School of Crafts, with its well-known and well-established craftspeople, as a draw for collectors.
“Everybody brings a different perspective to looking at artwork," Levin says. “When someone voices their own response to a piece, it's eye-opening because there's always another perspective beyond what I might have had about the work when I was creating it.”
Dunaway, who exhibits and sells at the two Southern Highland Craft Guild fairs as well as the Potter's Market in Spruce Pine, says that their participation in the Open Studio Tour has a cumulative effect. “We market year-round,” she says. “The studio tour helps build the business.”
All of the artists credited the local arts community and, in particular, the Toe River Arts Council, as major factors in the tour's continuing success as well as their enthusiasm about participating.
“When we were looking for a place to live in the area, one of the first things we did was to go on the studio tour — twice,” Dunaway recalls. “We found that the quality of work here and the welcoming artists were just hard to beat. So was the Toe River Arts Council. That’s why we ended up here.”
“Many artists have been in the area for so long, it makes it a wonderful place to live,” she adds. “I grew up in North Carolina, and I used to come over here 30 years ago with my parents. The artists have really built a wonderful relationship with the local community, and the studio tour really keeps that going. Local folks come and do the tour to see what's going on and what their neighbors are up to. We have quite the bragging rights.”
Levin says that when visitors spend the night or enjoy a local restaurant, they benefit the counties and surrounding towns and are more likely to return in the future. “Places like Yancey and Mitchell counties are kind of tucked out of the way,” he says. “A lot of people don't know about them because they're not really 'on the way' to anyplace. The studio tour opens up a nice window on what these places are all about.”
For more information, visit the Toe River Arts Council website.
Major Open Studio Tours
Scenic 276 South Fine Art and Craft Studio Tour
First weekend in May
This studio tour, centered around scenic route 276 south, features pottery, photography, glass, wood, paintings and more.
Orange County Artists Guild Open Studio Tour
First two weekends in November
Originating in 1995, this open studio tour typically features around 80 artists working in a variety of mediums: drawing, fiber, glass, jewelry, clay, pottery, ceramics, metal, mixed media/collage, painting and photography.
River Arts District Studio Stroll
Mid-November and June
One hundred and twenty working artist studios in 13 historic buildings open their doors for this studio stroll featuring glass, musical instruments, wood, clay, recycled furniture, painting, metal, stone, sculpture, jewelry, fiber, mixed media and more.
Toe River Studio Tour
First weekend in December and mid-June
More than 145 studios and galleries, many of which are not normally open to the public participate in this tour. They represent an array of works in basketry, clay, fiber, glass, jewelry, metal, wood, stone, sculpture, mixed media and books.
Chatham Studio Tour, Chatham Artists Guild
First two weekends in December
Founded in 1992 and one of the oldest in the state, the Chatham Studio Tour features nearly 60 artists working in pottery, drawing, fiber, glass, jewelry, mixed media, metal, painting, photography, silk screening, stone and wood.