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Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The Lost Arts Guild

The Southern Appalachians have a rich tradition and heritage that have their roots in the earliest Anglo-pioneers of North America. As those earliest pioneers moved westward, they brought with them a lifestyle that supported them in their move.

Stores and other places of business didn’t exist on the early frontier. People were either adept at making clothing, shelter and either growing or killing food or they died. Only the strongest and heartiest survived to pass along their genes to their offspring.

Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs states that “food, shelter and clothing are needs; everything else are wants”. The earliest Anglo settlers knew this on an intimate level and could either provide for their every need or barter/trade with other skilled folks.

Blacksmiths would shoe horses, make nails, gun parts, knives and wagon rims for wheels, candleholders, door hinges and the like. Wood workers made wagons, cabins, tables, chairs, serving vessels, garden hoes and those things needed for shelter. Women were spinners and weavers making clothing and linens. They would save precious garden and flower seed for both food and beauty. Every frontier wife and mother also had a medicinal herb garden where feverfew and willow bark (precursor of aspirin) would calm headaches. Boneset would lessen the symptoms of influenza and comfrey was used to stop heavy bleeding and to aid in healing wounds and broken bones.

Children were given chores at an early age and would gather eggs from the setting hens, hoe weeds from the garden, gather firewood and card wool for the spinners. Boys would be given guns and taught to hunt as young as six or eight, depending upon size.

Every hand was needed for survival and everyone had many jobs and was expected to help. Chores would increase in scope and importance as children grew in age and size.

As time went by nails could be bought in a barrel in the store, bolts of cloth were purchased from the mills of the northeast, furniture was ready made and oil lamps replaced candles. People could afford the luxury of making things for the pleasure of making them. As money became a more easily obtainable commodity, people began buying mass produced items and things like spinning wheels and niddy noddy’s lay unused.

Life is cyclical though and, in time, what was old is new again.

“A group of like-minded Southern Appalachian folk who do things the old-fashioned way, one at a time, with their hands” got together because “artists and artisans value their connections with the mountains and with the long traditions of craftsmanship in rural highland Virginia.”

The Lost Arts Guild was born of a need to see the old ways not only reclaimed but shared with others. The Lost Arts Guild (LAG) was formed to celebrate our rich mountain heritage and to bring together people who enjoyed making things and keeping our culture alive.

The mission statement reads, “to provide a nurturing atmosphere in which crafts-people and artists, using natural and or organic materials may expand their areas of expertise and have a market-place to sell their wares. Further, to educate others by teaching our arts and crafts.”

Members believe strongly in not only supporting each other but also provide a venue for others to see first hand how a bench is carved from a tree trunk or how yarn is spun from sheep’s wool. LAG members take great pleasure in demonstrating their craft and go to great lengths to demonstrate and teach the history behind the spun yarn dyed with black walnuts, fungi or sumac or the pear shaped 4-string mountain dulcimer born in Virginia.

Charlie Butcher makes 4-string mountain dulcimers that sound as sweet as a Mother’s voice. He uses materials at hand such as downed cherry or walnut trees found on his Daddy’s farm. For the fretwork decoration he’ll use abalone shell that catch both the light and the viewer’s breath. His work is beautiful both in the way it looks and the way it plays and every dulcimer is meant to be played and savored. No wall adornments these, they bring so much more pleasure and enjoyment when stroked by loving and knowledgeable hands.

Charlie and his children are well known in Tazewell County for being musically inclined. Charlie plays the guitar, dulcimer and mandolin and his youngest son and daughter play the violin. Charlie and his wife Jeans’ oldest boy, Matt, plays the bass or stand-up fiddle as it’s sometimes called.

The pear shaped dulcimer is said to have originated in Virginia and a few years ago, Charlie made one for then recently elected Governor Warner. Charlie and Jean traveled to Richmond and, at the Tazewell County lobbying reception, Charlie played Stephen Foster’s Hard Times Come No More. Mr. Foster published that tune in early 1855 and it reflected events in his life such as he and his wife separating for a time. It’s a hauntingly beautiful tune, especially sweet and poignant when played by Charlie on one of his hand crafted dulcimers.

Bud Thompson is a blacksmith, farrier and ironworker. Bud is a superb story teller and, while making iron courtn’ candles, he tells the story of how the Father would make sure the young man courting his daughter would know how long to visit.

The historically correct iron courtn’ candle has a wooden peg within an iron spiral upon which the candle sits. If the Father liked the young man, he would place the peg higher in the spiral so it would have more inches to burn down. If the young man wasn’t very welcome, the peg would be placed lower in the spiral so the candle only had an inch or two to burn. When the candle flame reached the top of the spiral, it was time for the man to leave.

We live in an extremely rural area and will often lose electricity. One of Bud’s iron courtn’ candles not only looks pretty, it’s pretty useful when the lights go out.

First article in series


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