How Arts and Crafts Kept This Community Together After a Tragic Wildfire

Tennessee’s oldest arts and crafts school survives (and thrives) after a fire tore through almost everything.

Arts-and-Crafts-Kept-This-Community-Together-After-a-Tragic-WildfireCourtesy of ArrowmontWhen wildfires burned through the Great Smoky Mountains in November 2016, the people who call these storied peaks home did what they always do—they banded together to save kin and community.

“As Appalachians, we recognize that we are always called on to go the extra mile,” says Fran Day, an east Tennessee native who describes herself as Appalachian to the core.

“There are always challenges to overcome, and it is important for us to reach out to those around us and to give what we have.”

The folks who run the Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, embody that spirit. Since its founding, Arrowmont’s mission has been to help the people of east Tennessee. It began as a settlement school, providing not just education but a community center, and then it became a folk arts school. Today, it houses an impressive collection of Appalachian art, helping preserve a culture that might otherwise have only existed in history books.

As the fires burned in the hills nearby, the staff, who had been evacuated from the school and their homes, resolved to help the community recover.

From the first day back at work until Christmas break, the school served free lunches to up to 100 people a day. Staff helped those who lost everything find resources. And the show also went on during the Christmas concert, which was open to the public. The staff even cooked Christmas dinner so people with no place to go could gather for the holidays.

Fran, who is the school’s director of development, says, “We drew strength from each other…What the fire brought home to us was just how strong and resilient we are. Yeah, we lost two dorms and a maintenance building, which was a terrible loss, but it didn’t kill us.”

Arrowmont’s story began in 1912 when the Pi Beta Phi Fraternity for Women established it as a settlement school. The mission was to teach reading, writing and arithmetic to children in this poor and remote mountain region.

As a thank-you for educating their children, mothers sent gifts of handmade weavings, baskets, quilts and wood carvings to the teachers, who recognized the items’ artistry and potential value. (These are things you don’t know about wildfires.)

“An egg basket in Appalachia became a work of art in St. Louis and Chicago,” Fran says.

By 1926, the teachers opened the Arrowcraft Market where mountain women sold their creations. The market’s impact was substantial not only because it created a cash economy in the area, but also because “you had a group of educated women coming here and saying to the mountain women ‘who you are matters,’ ” Fran says.

As the arts and crafts coming out of the Smoky Mountains grew in popularity, Arrowmont began hosting summer workshops. By 1967, the school’s mission shifted from basic education to the arts for adults as well as children, and its name was changed to Arrowmont.

Arts-and-Crafts-Kept-This-Community-Together-After-a-Tragic-WildfireCourtesy of ArrowmontToday, the school hosts one- to two-week workshops in woodworking, quilting, painting, basket weaving and sculpting to name a few. Students of all ages, walks of life and experience come to learn from renowned artists.

Most students prefer to stay in the dorms on campus, which is a 13-acre oasis in the middle of touristy Gatlinburg. Adding to the appeal, Great Smoky Mountain National Park is nearby.

“I tend to describe it as adult art camp,” says Annie Pennington of Waukesha, Wisconsin.

Annie, a jewelry maker, and her mother, an accomplished quilter, have taken at least five classes together at Arrowmont, including glass fusing, furniture making, wet-process enameling, wood turning and shoemaking.

Arts-and-Crafts-Kept-This-Community-Together-After-a-Tragic-WildfireCourtesy of Arrowmont“We always choose something that neither one of us is good at,” Annie notes. “It’s fun to learn something new together.”

The atmosphere is collaborative and open. Students are encouraged to work together and pop in to other studios to see what’s being made.

“Maybe you have never been interested in basketry before, but when you see what’s possible, it may spark an idea for your own work,” Annie says.

And then there are the people who work at Arrowmont. “You can tell they love it,” Annie says.

“Hearing their experiences and learning about the school and its history make you want to return again and again.”

In the aftermath of the fire, people did not forget Arrowmont. The community came together to help its oldest social organization, the school. People donated what little they had to help.

“Appalachians recognize we can’t do it by ourselves,” says Fran, who was awed by the graciousness and generosity of folks who love the school. “We are just so grateful to be here to be able to play a part in the growth of our community.”

Today things are almost back to normal. A restoration company cleaned the buildings affected by the smoke, and the dorms that were untouched by the fire are ready to accept the next wave of enthusiastic students. Enrollment is almost to pre-fire numbers.

“We welcome contributions and expressions of support, but what we really, really want people to do this year is come and take a class,” Fran says.

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Originally Published in Country