Approaching from the south, Gatlinburg, Tennessee, appears out of nowhere.
One minute, you’re driving through the seemingly endless forest of Great Smoky Mountains National Park; the next, you’re looking up at the 407-foot Gatlinburg Space Needle from the midst of breweries, steakhouses and more Ripley Entertainment-managed attractions than you can count on one hand.
But for guests whose personal style doesn’t favor an airbrush t-shirt, Gatlinburg’s arts community offers a chance to discover an artistic tradition full of skill, spirit and history.
In the shadow of a new chairlift/gondola (“chondola”) station to the just-opened mountaintop Anakeesta attraction, Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts has ready evidence of such history. Founded as a general education institution more than 100 years ago, the school began its emphasis on art just after World War II. There’s no faux-rustic molded fiberglass signage here. Instead, while attending functions hosted in one of the campus’s auditoriums, studios or meeting rooms, visitors find themselves surrounded by genuine art created by local, national and international artists.
Though Gatlinburg’s craftspeople come from across the nation, they all share the same passion for their art.
Florida transplant Mike Fowler owns Fowler’s Clayworks, where he offers small group workshops in wheel throwing pottery for those seeking a literal hands-on experience.
“Your imagination is your only limitation,” he says as he demonstrates working a graceful curve into the side of a mug in progress.
Best suited for intimate creative breakout sessions and alternative networking, these attendees leave classes with handmade mugs created under Fowler’s expert guidance—souvenirs to accompany a story that will stick with guests long after they’ve washed the clay from under their fingernails.
A. Jann Peitso art!
A. Jann Peitso runs a gallery where she shows off her unique watercolor style of vibrant colors running in fascinating patterns across specialized, high-tech paper. (“It’s made from rocks,” she says, as she demonstrates that it’s nearly impossible to tear.)
Like Fowler’s Clayworks, Jann’s studio is set up to accommodate small classes and breakout sessions—a common feature in many establishments throughout the arts and crafts community.
Cliff Dwellers Gallery
A little farther down the winding mountain road, guests can visit Cliff Dwellers Gallery. With a history dating back more than 75 years, studios like this one helped develop Gatlinburg’s artistic cachet and attract people such as Fowler and Peitso.
A short walk through the gallery and its studio spaces is enough to see why these places are the soul of the local community. Lifelong Gatlinburg native Louise Bales co-owns the gallery with five other local artists. Her chosen subjects—birds, flowers and other natural themes—are painted onto materials including gourds and wood with skill that can only be developed through years of practice fueled by a love of the art form.
Pat K. Thomas, another co-owner and longtime Tennessee resident, marbles scarves, papers and carvings using a bright palette of colors and a process that relies on the suspension of oil-based paint on top of water. But while their styles are totally different, both women share the spirit of Gatlinburg’s arts community and infectious passion that would make any visitor enthusiastic to take in a session at the gallery.
Bales describes one event during which guests enjoying refreshments on the back deck got a visit from a curious black bear. It surveyed the group from the safety of the tree line before disappearing up the hillside adjoining the property.
Most visitors probably won’t get their own bear sighting, but these studios and galleries offer a refreshing contrast to the busy downtown environment. The craftspeople’s love of the community is self-evident. Their skill continues to build on the history of the place, leaving guests with beautiful, one-off creations and an experience of the spirit that made Gatlinburg’s arts and crafts community what it is today.