By Kristy Alpert
In the South, you can find the heart of a place in its artists’ creations.
Not only is the South rich with hospitality and friendly faces, but it’s also home to a vast array of passionate craftspeople and proficient artists eager to share their handiwork with discriminating tourists on the hunt for pieces with personality.
Regional crafts and locally made pieces of art go far beyond stereotypical trinket souvenirs. Travelers can bring back a piece of Southern heritage with a one-of-a-kind item often bought directly from the artist or crafter who created it. Although each item brings its own sense of rarity and regional flair, artisans abound throughout the Southern states, setting up shop in arts centers and artists’ communities scattered across the lower United States. Here are a few of our favorite — and most group appropriate — arts and crafts destinations in the South.
Heartwood: Southwest Virginia’s Artisan Gateway
Heartwood: Southwest Virginia’s Artisan Gateway is a showcase for the creative community of the 19 counties and four cities that make up the southwest region of Virginia. This artsy destination is not only rich with Southern charm and crafts — from woodworking and fiber art to jewelry, clothing and handmade lotions — it also offers groups a chance to try out great local music, coffee, wine, beer and food.
“We aren’t like every other artisan center,” explained Alexandra Veatch, Heartwood’s group sales and marketing manager. “Yes, we want you to come and spend time with us shopping, learning about the history of arts and crafts in our area and see artisan demos, but we also want you to explore what the artisans of the 19 counties and four cities of Southwest Virginia have to offer. So we encourage you to go from Heartwood to another locality, and we have all the knowledge and info to help to do just that.”
The heritage of arts and crafts in this Southern community runs deep. Many artisans that travelers can meet have learned their craft from their parents or grandparents, and items purchased in the area come with a tag that includes the name, the location, the biography and often, a picture of the artisan who made it. Beyond tangible works of art, this area also boasts weekly special events such as live music and barbecue on Thursdays, a Virginia coast seafood buffet on Fridays and a farm fresh gospel brunch on Sundays, as well as artisan demos.
“Exploring arts and crafts, but more importantly, actually meeting artisans is the best way to get to know a place,” Veatch added. “Traveling isn’t about eating in familiar places or doing things that you could do at home; it’s about expanding your horizons and exploring a new place. And local art is a great way to do that.”
South Carolina Artisans Center
Walterboro, South Carolina
Created out of a passion for the arts and a love of promoting all things local, the South Carolina Artisans Center opened its doors to its first wave of eager shopping groups in 1994 and has since played host to more than 800 artists from the state. Open seven days a week, except New Year’s Day, Easter, the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving and Christmas, the center is the official folk art and crafts center for South Carolina and currently represents more than 300 artisans from across the state.
“We’re not just some center with eight small galleries; we represent artisans from across the state, so we cover every medium you could ever imagine,” said Gale Doggette, executive director. “We have anything from folk art to abstract art, and we have the best glassblowers in the country. We have price ranges from $5 to $58,000, so we have something for everyone since the average price point for an item is around $22.”
Visitors who have been to the town of Walterboro remark that it’s just like walking back in time to the 1950s; in Walterboro, you can still get a fountain soda at the drug shop and meet with artists at the center. (Artists are on site every third Saturday during the Handmade Series.) Groups can easily spend the entire day at this arts-and-crafts hub, where they can park at the center, explore the wonderful folk art and then make their way to the 12 antique stores in the downtown area.