Arrowmont School: Creativity Percolates Quietly At The Heart Of Gatlinburg

Tuesday, February 28, 2017 - by Ann Yungmeyer

To many outside the Smoky Mountain region, Gatlinburg is best known for family attractions and outdoor adventure at the gateway to America’s most visited national park.  But more and more, the popular resort town is gaining recognition as a hub for arts and crafts, thanks in part to the esteemed Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts, as well as the influences of Appalachian traditions and inspired mountain scenery.

For the artistically inclined or anyone wanting to channel a curiosity about learning a craft – the highly regarded art education center offers a unique experience through immersive workshops in one-to-two week sessions or over a weekend.
Instruction in more than 60 forms of art, plus studio time, meals and lodging are offered in an all-in-one campus environment. Arrowmont enrolls about 1500 workshop students each year, and hundreds more visitors come to campus to see juried exhibitions and a permanent gallery collection featuring works by revered instructors.

“Art brings creative people together and the immersive experience is what it’s all about,” says Arrowmont Exective Director Bill May.  “The magic is in the community of working together and inspiring each other.” 

Founded in 1912, Arrowmont is part of the town’s early history, having brought opportunity and enlightenment to the community since its beginnings as a settlement school. Established by the Pi Beta Phi Fraternity for Women, Arrowmont initially introduced education, work and purpose to an area considered one of the most impoverished in Appalachia. It evolved into a cultural center and contemporary art school, and today, it is a place where talented instructors and passionate learners from all over the U.S. and 26 countries come together for workshop sessions, as well as inspiration and camaraderie.

Workshops are offered April through November and taught by national and international practicing artists and university faculty. In addition to traditional art forms and media including ceramics, metals, painting, photography and woodturning, new and unique offerings are on the agenda each year. The 2017 offerings are no exception – with specialized art forms from cloisonné and fabric marbling to pine needle basketry.

I stopped in to watch a hand-building clay workshop in which participants were exploring slab construction by hand shaping cups and other forms out of round. Another workshop that caught my eye was shoe making with a Cordwainer Shop design.  Participants used an original tin pattern from a 1930s shoe kit that had been introduced by the instructor’s parents during the Great Depression, and it has resurged as a popular craft in today’s fashion.  A mother and daughter in the workshop were thrilled to be constructing their own hand-made, custom fit pair of shoes with all leather uppers and soles with no machine stitching.

Tucked along the base of a wooded mountain slope, the 13-acre campus sits squarely in the midst of Gatlinburg’s busy attractions – and between the entertainment hub of Pigeon Forge and Sugarland Visitor Center at the entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  Many workshop participants never leave campus during the one or two week workshops, but for those that do want to get out and explore the area, there is plenty to discover in the way of restaurants, entertainment and the outdoors, says Bill May. If they are not familiar with the area he tells them simply, “Go right for neon, left for nature.”  

Though Gatlinburg is still rebuilding some areas after destruction in the November wildfires, the town rebounded rather quickly and has wholeheartedly welcomed visitors since the beginning of the year. Many of the roads and hiking trails in the park that were closed due to fire were reopened a short time afterward.

Arrowmont was one of the properties affected by the fires and lost two dormitory buildings and a maintenance building on campus. However, the school was able to continue winter-season activities, and plans are underway to rebuild these facilities. In the meantime, with limited on-campus dormitory-style and cottage accommodations, workshop participants may opt to stay at nearby hotels. Special rates for Arrowmont students are available at several hotels within a five-minute walk to campus.

Many individuals attend an Arrowmont workshop for the purpose of perfecting their craft or because of a well-known instructional artist who draws them in, while others are simply seeking a novel art form experience. Either way, one is likely to find inspiration at Arrowmont – from browsing gallery exhibitions and sharing meals and social time, to refining ideas or discovering new materials and expression.

As a teacher and artist himself, May is familiar on a personal level with the powerful enlightenment that one can experience through practicing art.

“We are all born curious, then we forget to let ourselves be open and inquiring,” May reminds us. “If you allow yourself to create something by hand, you become more than a mindless consumer.” 

And for some Arrowmont students, the experience is more about sharing time with others around a hands-on theme and new endeavors. Like the mother/daughter duo in the shoe workshop – who said they take an annual reunion in order to challenge themselves in a new way – each year tackling a craft that neither has ever tried before.

Founded on the premise of education and outreach to the community, fittingly, Arrowmont supports teachers in enrichment and skills enhancement.  A scholarship program allows K-12 teachers to attend workshops on a 50% tuition scholarship. The school also offers an Artist-in-Residence program and a Workshop Exchange for students who choose to do one week of campus work, which could include maintenance, dining hall or studio work, in exchange for attending one workshop at no fee. During the off-season, Arrowmont conducts ArtReach programs in partnership with Sevier County Schools and holds community classes for children and locals. 

A quiet reprieve from the crowded sidewalks and busy nearby attractions, Arrowmont remains a hidden gem easily missed by many visitors to the famous resort town. But the school is a valued asset and represents an enduring piece of the mountain community.

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