Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Made in these Hills: Allegany County’s Living Treasures

What is handmade? Why do we care? Why would I pay X amount for a handmade item when I could just shop at Made-in-China-Mart and get “the same thing” a lot cheaper?

Manufactured might perform the same function, but it is not “the same thing.” It doesn’t give joy. I have a hand-woven dish towel which I use daily. It cost more than the others in my drawer, but I don’t give a damn about the others. I suspect I will be enjoying this particular, beautiful, sturdy little towel long after my machine-made ones have worn out. The pinks threading their way through the lavenders brighten my life. It pleases me. I don’t know how to weave, nor have I a loom—but I’m glad the maker of this bit of fabric does. I think it’s worth every penny she asked.

I take my favorite mug down from the shelf. It has classic proportions and feels good in my hands. I run my fingers over the subtle rings left by the maker’s finger tips, the dent left at the base of the handle by his thumb. I think of the impressions left on a treasured pot in our collection by an Iroquoian maker centuries ago, and I get chills. This mug used to hold my morning coffee, not just because it is the perfect roomy size for my java addiction and has a beautiful slate-blue speckled glaze, fading into white over the rim—it also has a story.

Fred and I gave mugs like this to all the gents at the rehearsal dinner for our wedding thirty-five years ago. But now this mug, made by one of Allegany County’s Artisan’s, is retired and resides on a different shelf with our permanent collection of local pottery for which this area is so famous. Its maker, Bruce Greene, has passed on. It’s irreplaceable. I could have bought, smashed, and swept dozens of mold cast, manufactured mugs into the dustbin with nary a pang. But not this one. It is handmade. I knew the maker and saw his shop. He didn’t learn his craft overnight. It has character, beauty, quality, or as another Allegany Artisan, Pete Midgely puts it, “honesty.”

Japan calls its working artisans “Living Treasures.” Tucked away in and inspired by these beautiful Allegany hills, are the studios of dozens of artisans, working in a wide variety of materials. Some are preserving vanishing crafts and traditions, from timber framing, to letter press type setting, to precious metal working and gem cutting, to antler and wood carving and joinery, or tile and cook-ware making from local clay. Others express their personal vision in media like watercolor, printmaking, fiber art, or stuffed animals. There’s a world-renowned stone and metal sculptor, a glass blower, a stained-glass worker, and a candle maker extraordinaire. There are people branching into new media, upcycling, playing with whimsy, color, and pure silliness. Sure they use power tools and machines, but the concept, the designs, each little business, is unique and their own. Their creations have the stamp of the maker.

When I visit another Allegany Artisan’s home I am struck by the many handmade things that she and her husband surround themselves with. Marsha Van Vlack is a ceramic artist. She makes much of the art which decorates her home, the tile work in the bathroom and kitchen, dinnerware on the shelves, but she also collects the work of others, cherishing pieces she admires. “Using a unique thing of beauty that someone has made, makes me happy,” she says simply.

Me? I’m a word-wright, writing mostly for kids, trying to get it right. Is what I do handmade? My brain does the molding, machines do the word processing and printing, but it’s definitely original. The only trouble with being part of this remarkable group of artisans is that I can’t leave our own Irish Hill studio during the upcoming Allegany Artisan’s 27th Annual Tour (October 18th and 19th) to see what the other artists are up to this year and do a little shopping for myself and those I love. For one thing, I need a new and special coffee mug. 

To check out the Allegany Artisans and their work, go to www.alleganyartisans.com and pick up a brochure at one of your local businesses. Don’t forget to sign in at each location you visit for a chance to win prizes donated by the artists. See you on the tour!   

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