Students at Work

Berea College Crafts

Sustaining Traditions & Spirit of the Hand-Made

A Place Born of History

Much has been written of Berea College and the history that began with its founder, the Rev. John Fee.  As a community of believers sympathetic to racial equality, a desire to provide for the needs of each person and the worth of the individual, Berea naturally became a place where the simple work of the hands would be celebrated.

But is it plausible that a place could contain such a strong, unique and spiritual presence that it successfully guides subsequent generations and populations?  Could the Berea that we know today have been in the making for thousands of years- both socially and with regard to its commerce?  In the area surrounding Indian Fort Theatre, just outside the city of Berea, a sign stands indicating the region was the ancient home to the Crab Orchard culture of the Hopewell civilization.  From 100 B.C to 400 A.D., the Hopewell culture traded a wide variety of items from the Canadian border through to the Southeast and from the west coast to the eastern ocean.  This group of people, “the mound builders”, created some of the finest craftwork and artwork of the native Americas.  The people of the Hopewell culture were excellent carvers, potters and jewelers and their work was dispersed along with other tradable necessities. Based on the wide variety of items brought to the north central and east central parts of the country, such as alligator teeth, conch shells, feathers and other more exotic materials, it seems logical that trade appears to have been quite extensive and would have provided needed materials for their elaborate jewelry and clay objects.

The Hopewell culture was one that thrived on community and had a system in place to care for the needs of any person or group.  Though stratified in a contemporary sense with farmers, metalsmiths, potters, hunters, etc., it was a culture of shared leadership and one could posture that a “guild system” of sorts existed.  It seems this area was always a route for migration and commerce.  As Daniel Boone and numerous other intrepid individuals frequented the area and as generations settled here, commerce and the heightened sense of an “accepting” community continued to develop.  Would it be too far a stretch to consider that the sense of community and the art and craft legacy of this region were predestined or at least determined through tradition?

A Mission for the Future-
Leadership by Example

From the earliest days of Berea’s craft awakening and all during the Craft Revival, President William Frost undeniably had the best interests of Berea College in mind when he built the foundation for the Fireside Industries at Berea College.  Having spent a summer traveling by horseback through the Appalachian Mountains, Frost encountered numerous individuals engaged in the production of baskets, quilts and woven coverlets or “kivers” as they were known. Frost realized that these craft traditions were part of a delicately balanced rural life and he readily perceived that their very existence could be threatened if any attempt to modernize these rural regions was successful.  Frost acknowledged the natural charm and value of these craft objects and was further inspired to develop a system to preserve the craft traditions of the Appalachians.  The decision to offer folk crafts to wealthier individuals in the eastern United States as a means to generate revenue for the College began a long journey for both Berea College and the craft traditions present in Kentucky today.  It has been noted that Frost’s vision extended beyond the needs of Berea College to that of the greater community, as he invited other cottage craftsmen to come settle in Berea.  With proper support, Frost believed that various artisans could develop cottage industries capable of providing revenue to sustain their families.  Frost also understood the need for education and training that would allow both students at Berea College and the craftspeople that collected in Berea to have access to design and education professionals that Frost began to bring to Berea.  One such individual was Anna Ernberg, a Swede, who came to Berea College in 1911 to develop Fireside Weavers and raised the funds for both Log House Craft Gallery and Sunshine Ballard Cottage, the current home to Weaving.  The Crafts program at Berea College was born of an early student industry model that also included a brick-making facility, bakery, candy kitchen, needlecraft, laundry and College farms. These industries provided necessary support to the early community that was growing around Berea College.

The Craft Revival movement of the 1890’s to the 1940’s found Berea College squarely ensconced in the middle of the effort.   Notable authors and scholars of the Arts and Crafts and Craft Revival movement such as Allen Eaton, William Morris and John Ruskin wrote, lectured, taught and organized exhibits that helped people understand the need to preserve and support the arts and crafts.  As an institution of learning, Berea College had already identified the need to preserve these hand-crafts and had developed a mission and philosophy for furthering the craft traditions.  Berea College had the presence of mind to integrate as much “practical education” as it did liberal arts education.  The Industrial Arts Department (later the Department of Technology and Applied Design provided opportunities for many young students with excellent furniture building skills to find jobs as the industry continued to thrive through the ‘40’s, 50’s, and 60’s.  Berea College would be rewarded with the teaching and innovative creativity of Rude Osolnik, faculty member and the “Dean of American Woodturners”.  As did Anna Ernberg in its beginning, Rude left his mark on Berea’s craft program and a generation of young artists who would be inspired by a dedication to education and the spirit contained in the hand-crafted object.

Hands that create
Minds that challenge convention
An understanding that honors history

Since 1893, the crafts have thrived at Berea College and have provided an additional national (and international) presence for Berea College through the sales and marketing of student-produced items in wood, weaving, broom making, jewelry, ceramics and blacksmithing.

It would be impossible to separate the students and their stories from Berea College Crafts.  Talented young people, devoted to learning and the traditions of the studio, they continue to display a unique sense of respect for the works produced by their hands.  These students whose majors are as diverse as English Literature, Women’s Studies, pre-Law, pre-Med, Biology, African American Studies, Chemistry, Music and Business are successfully producing works alongside a skilled and talented staff of professional makers.  Thus, the traditions of mentoring, apprenticeship, and object-making are all preserved and ingrained in our students.  These are the values that have shaped the Crafts program.

“Every kind of work will be judged by two measurements: one by the product itself…the other by the effect of the work on the producer.”-Allen Eaton

Now beginning its 119th year, the Student Craft Program at Berea College provides experiential education in wood/furniture, ceramics, broom making, weaving and jewelry.  Berea College has long been recognized as a major influence in the American art and craft culture.  More than 85 students work 10 to 15 hours per week in the various departments of Student Crafts.  From the sales and distribution areas to the studio areas of Wood, Weaving, Ceramics, Jewelry and Broom Making, our students produce and market works that maintain strong ties to the elemental nature of the Appalachian region, design excellence, a respect for materials and the honor that comes from hard work.

The Student Craft Program, partners with Berea College’s other academic departments—including Business, Art, and Technology to provide real-time experiential education in a variety of methods.  A learning laboratory such as this is rarely found in an academic setting.  An active private commission program allows staff and students to design and build works for individual clients and produce one-of-a-kind works as prototypes for limited production.  Recent commissions in the Craft Program have included numerous items of furniture; brooms for galleries in Japan, Germany, San Francisco and Switzerland and special orders for Williams-Sonoma; the design and construction of the “Iconic Rocking Chair” for the new Children’s Reading Room at the Library of Congress and the design of objects for special presentation by the College.  In spring of 2012, the Wood Studio began the design and construction of residence hall furniture and unique one-of-a-kind tables for a new, deep-green student-living facility on campus. The furniture will be constructed from wood sustainably harvested as a necessary part of stewardship for the Berea College forest.

Educating the head, the heart and the hands is a Berea tradition.  Visiting Berea, Berea College and Berea College Crafts, offers an opportunity to connect with the artful soul of the craft students and their inspiring works.  And…just maybe…you’ll pause long enough to sense that spirit of creativity that has lived here for hundreds and hundreds of years.

Tim Glotzbach, Director Berea College Crafts