Works of art may not be the first things people think of when they hear the word Appalachia, but several mountain destinations offer traveling shoppers terrific traditional (and not so traditional) arts and crafts.
For one-stop shopping, Virginia and West Virginia both sponsor large visitors centers featuring artists from their respective states as well as regional food and music.
Tamarack is the West Virginia center just off Interstates 77 and 64, near Beckley.
Heartwood, called Southwest Virginias Artisan Gateway, is the Virginia craft center on Interstate 81 near Abingdon.
Fair warning: If theres any room in your vehicle when you arrive at either destination, it will probably be filled when you depart.
I usually find myself considering ditching a less important piece of luggage to make room for a new chair, dulcimer or case of local wine. If I were driving a U-Haul, Id undoubtedly leave with both trailer and credit cards maxed out.
The last of this years spring snow was falling when I revisited Tamarack, housed in a large, cylindrical building with a pretty courtyard at the center. Visitors loop through displays of pottery, carpentry, weaving, art glass and much more. If you spot an intriguing item, you can ponder it during your walk and wind up back in the same place to make a decision.
I spotted a lot I liked, especially a bowed psaltery, a magnificently crafted triangular stringed instrument that one of the salespeople was demonstrating. The psaltery looked and sounded like something an angel would play in a heavenly mountain-music band. The psaltery would have gone great with my dulcimer, autoharp, fiddle, mandolins and squeezebox. But I have vowed not to bring home yet another beautiful instrument that would be proudly displayed but little played.
Instead, I opted for another of my favorite crafts -- craft beer. I bought a six-pack of Almost Heaven Amber Ale from Mountain State Brewing. The product didnt make it home for display, alas.
Heartwood, like Tamarack, has its own restaurant featuring regional cuisine made with local products. A unique feature of the Virginia stop, though, is a separate wine bar, featuring Virginia wines and beers by the glass -- a great place for one half of a couple to unwind and await the other half to finally finish shopping.
In addition to a wide variety of local arts and crafts, Heartwood also offers museum-like interpretive displays about the various crafts and their traditions.
Berea, Kentucky, may well be the best-known crafts center in Appalachia, and for good reason. The crafts produced by students at Berea College are coveted worldwide, and many artisans work and sell their arts and crafts in the pretty town of Berea.
The liberal-arts college is the commercial, social and artisanal center of the town. Every student who attends is on a full scholarship and, in return, performs at least 10 hours of work each week for the college. Some labor as landscapers, others as computer technicians or office assistants.
Others learn traditional Appalachian crafts under the tutelage of expert craftsmen and other college employees. They learn woodworking, weaving, pottery, wrought-iron smithing, even decorative-broom-making -- and produce items for sale to benefit the college.
Because of the influence of the college and its crafts program, the town has become a gathering point for many other Appalachian artists who have established workshops and galleries.
Berea is also the home of the state-operated Kentucky Artisan Center -- where visitors will find handblown glass, pottery, pewter, quilts and other fiber crafts. Baskets, sculpture, Kentucky literature and music -- even specialty foods such as locally produced honey and wine -- are also among the treasures for sale.
But back to Heartwood. There I met James E. Turner, a white-whiskered local painter who was displaying his colorful, abstract artwork. Turners alter-ego, Corry the Psychic and Life Coach, insisted on giving me a palm reading, finding my soul to be pleasantly a-bubble with artistic creativity and potential, like fermenting sauerkraut, I suppose.
After the delightful, and free, palmistry demonstration, Corry suggested that I might want to purchase one of Turners small paintings. It didnt take a psychic to predict that hed made a sale.
-- Steve Stephens can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @SteveStephens.