Meet the makers of North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains

Artisanal tradition runs deep in this swathe of the Appalachian Range. Here we speak to the modern makers preserving North Carolina's heritage crafts

Words Jacqui Agate

Blue Ridge Mountain Range (Alamy)

Blue Ridge Mountain Range (Alamy)

The mountains were papered with Fraser firs and yellow birch. Clouds hung low, so the peaks appeared to be smoking, like the end of a burning sage stick. I followed the road, which snaked and squirmed, revealing Christmas tree farms and corn fields, before beating back into the woods.

I was in the belly of the Blue Ridge Mountains, a richly forested swathe of the Appalachian Range that swoops across most of Western North Carolina. It’s stellar road-trip country – with its rippling peaks and cute-as-a-pin towns – and it’s also one of the most creative pockets of the South.

Makers have been here for millennia and artisanal heritage runs as deep as the tree roots. The Indigenous Cherokee peoples were the first inhabitants, weaving baskets from white oak and working copper into jewellery. Then, from as early as the 1730s, European settlers infiltrated the region. They were mostly Scotch-Irish and they nurtured their own craft traditions, from hand-woven quilts to wood-carved instruments.

But while these newcomers brought fresh artforms to Southern Appalachia, they also drove out the land’s original inhabitants. From 1838, most Cherokee peoples were forcibly removed from their homeland to present-day Oklahoma, on a route now known as the Trail of Tears. A small number escaped, later purchasing back some 57,000 acres, which would become the Qualla Boundary.

Today, the Boundary is still home to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and it remains a cradle of Indigenous culture – meanwhile, across the wider region, crafts evolved by European settlers flourish, as do artforms once produced by enslaved hands.

I headed into the peaks to meet the creative souls keeping North Carolina’s traditional artforms alive.


Faye Junaluska AKA “Goose”, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, basketry

Goose sat in Cherokee’s Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual, where display shelves heaved with handwoven baskets and monochrome photos plastered the walls. In one picture, a woman scraped bark from a felled tree; in another, she perched a half-made basket on her lap as she twined the natural fibres.

“That’s my mother,” said Goose, pointing to the images. “I’m a fourth-generation basket weaver. I started for extra income when unemployment was bad here back in the late ‘70s. Now I’ve been making baskets for 45 years.”

Baskets at Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual in Cherokee (

Baskets at Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual in Cherokee (

Centuries of tradition informs Goose’s craft today: “All the baskets were used back in time. We had what we called a ‘burden basket’. Women put it on their back and went to the garden to gather vegetables.”

However, the weavers’ traditional materials are now under threat: “White oak is scarce on the Boundary, so we often have to go elsewhere. I’ve got an acre and I have no oak on my land.”

Still, over the years, non-profit organisations such as the Revitalization of Traditional Cherokee Artisan Resources have sought to protect these precious resources. And Goose continues to make and sell her work at the Mutual, where baskets jostle for space with beadwork, wooden masks and contemporary paintings. “I joined the co-op and now I sell every basket that I make here,” she said. “It’s a community.”

Goose creating one of her woven masterpieces (

Goose creating one of her woven masterpieces (


Nola Pina, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, finger weaving

An intricately woven sheath of pink and brown fabric hung in the Museum of the Cherokee People. It had tasselled ends and a small copper bead towards the centre. “It’s supposed to represent female anatomy,” its creator, Nola Pina, told me. “A lot of the artists created pieces representing women as we were traditionally a matrilineal society.”

We were standing in ‘Disruption’, an exhibition intended to “disrupt the way non-Indigenous people view Indigenous people in the museum”, according to Pina – it sees contemporary Indigenous art scattered amongst the museum’s historic exhibits, which were mostly curated by white scholars back in 1998.

An example of Nola Pina's craftwork is pictured right (Jacqui Agate)

An example of Nola Pina's craftwork is pictured right (Jacqui Agate)

“A lot of people think ‘Indian’ and they think ‘old’; they think ‘extinct’. Sharing this 21st-century artwork by people who are still alive today is important because it shows that we’re still here. And no matter what we create, if an Indigenous person is creating it, it’s Indigenous art.”

The exhibition holds everything from contemporary geometric prints to replicas of 18th-century-style silver work, warped from bold neon plastic.

“Creative expression is so important to Indigenous people because, since European invaders came over to this continent, it’s always been someone else telling us who we are,” said Pina.

“I’m a first-generation finger weaver and I’ve been weaving for about three years. But the craft has been around for more than 10,000 years – it’s one of the oldest textile forms we have.”

And though Pina sees the value in preserving traditions, she’s committed to contemporising her craft. “The original form was very utilitarian. My style is more decorative. I’m playing around with techniques and that includes finding time to create new designs. Because I’m not an 18th-century Cherokee – I’m a 2023 Cherokee.”

Hard at work, Nola Pina describes her style of finger weaving as decorative (Courtesy of the Museum of the Cherokee People)

Hard at work, Nola Pina describes her style of finger weaving as decorative (Courtesy of the Museum of the Cherokee People)

John Maddocks says instrument building is influenced by the Blue Ridge Mountains' landscape (Jacqui Agate)

John Maddocks says instrument building is influenced by the Blue Ridge Mountains' landscape (Jacqui Agate)

High Country

John Maddocks, luthiery

An hourglass-shaped instrument was mounted on the wall at the Ashe Arts Center, in the mural-plastered town of West Jefferson. A staff member told me it was an Appalachian dulcimer, made by a luthier (a maker of stringed instruments) named John Maddocks – the next morning, I drove to Maddocks' remote mountain home, knitted into mist-swaddled peaks, about 30 minutes outside of town.

“When I first began building, I wasn’t a good player. But to know whether it’s a good instrument, you have to know how to play – so I got better. There are a lot of instrument builders in this area and a lot of innovation takes place.”

That innovation, Maddocks told me, also happened over centuries, as settlers migrated across the US.

“In the 1700s, the Pennsylvania Dutch people brought in an instrument called a scheitholz – it looked like a box. They moved down the Wilderness Road – from Pennsylvania, into Virginia, into North Carolina, into Kentucky – and every time they set up a new settlement the shape of the instrument changed. Eventually, the scheitholz became the dulcimer.”

Maddocks explained that the physical geography of the Blue Ridge Mountains influences both instrument building and music culture.

“The building of instruments became more pronounced in the mountains because it was difficult to find a source for instruments – the nearest music store might be 100 miles away. There’s a strong sense of self-reliance.”

“Traditional mountain music was ‘front porch music’. It was played for your own satisfaction or with a neighbour or two. So styles became very personalised, and those styles began to blend and mix”.

‘Jams’ are still a thriving part of culture and anyone can join (or listen in to) a session at locations around bucolic Ashe County – such as Phipps Country Store, in nearby Lansing, or the Todd Mercantile, in namesake Todd. It’s the perfect way to drink in the sound of the mountains.

Asheville and the Foothills

Jim McDowell, pottery

I looked at Jim McDowell and some fifty faces looked back. “Face jugs started in Africa,” McDowell told me. “People made face jugs for protection against evil spirits or to celebrate a birth, or to mark gravestones. Then enslaved people who worked on plantations made these jugs. But after slavery ended, white people appropriated this design and started selling it without giving us credit. We’re just now getting recognition.”

McDowell, also known as 'the Black Potter', has been making face jugs for more than 35 years and there are row upon row of them in his home-cum-studio in Weaverville – they shone in teal and terracotta glazes, some with wide eyes and gaping mouths; others understated and seemingly contemplative.

“This is in my DNA. My granddad was a tombstone maker in South Carolina. But my family were enslaved about 50 miles from here, in North Carolina. The family unit started here.”

I first learned about McDowell in Seagrove, farther east on North Carolina’s Piedmont. There, rich soils lay fertile grounds for the largest concentration of working potters in America, where families such as the Owen family have been making ceramics since the 1700s – and where McDowell’s reputation precedes him. Back in the mountains, he showed me a face jug with a familiar likeness.

“This one here is Rosa Parks,” he said. “And that’s Nat Turner – he was a freedom fighter. This is Trayvon Martin – I was so mad that he was killed for being a hoodie-wearing Black man.”

Dates and names are typically signed onto the back of McDowell’s creations – a hallmark of David Drake, a potter who was enslaved in South Carolina, and who McDowell draws inspiration from.

“A lot of our history has been eradicated. Since we were not the victors, we didn’t get to write our history. But I’m recording it. There has to be somewhere to tell true stories.”

Jim McDowell is also known as 'The Black Potter' (Jacqui Agate)

Jim McDowell is also known as 'The Black Potter' (Jacqui Agate)

Great Smoky Mountains

Zak Foster, quilting

The table heaved with mac and cheese, collard greens and cornbread, and old-time music coated the air. I was at the John C. Campbell Folk School, a mountain bolthole committed to preserving Appalachian crafts and culture, where Foster was serving two weeks as a quilting mentor.

“North Carolina has a long textile history,” Foster, who grew up in North Carolina’s Winston-Salem and now lives in New York City, explained. “For a long time, the state was known around the country for a type of material called the Alamance Plaid, named for the county it was produced in and made from the cotton grown here in the South.”

“I only started quilting when I moved to New York, so I think there was something about pulling home a little bit closer to me through the work of my hands.” 

Foster described quilting as the “original, zero waste art form”, as quilters across Appalachia, who were mostly women, would create patchworks with old clothing scraps. He also sees it as a tool for reflection and change.

Zak stands with one of his creations (Courtesy of John C. Campbell Folk School)

Zak stands with one of his creations (Courtesy of John C. Campbell Folk School)

“My current body of quiltwork is called ‘Southern White Amnesia’. It’s exploring the stories that Southern white families tell themselves – or don’t tell themselves – about their origins in this country.”

“I ran across records that some of my ancestors had enslaved people. During my research, I was uncovering all these stories that I was the only person in my family to know about. I’ve been working with textiles to tell these stories in ways that are soft and non-confrontational, but also durable and unrelenting.”

“People understand quilts to be objects of comfort and nostalgia. And they are, of course – but many quilters, myself included, try to use moment where people drop their guard and think ‘oh, it’s just a quilt’ to slip in a greater meaning.” 

Zak Foster is inspired by the heritage of quilting (Courtesy of John C. Campbell Folk School)

Zak Foster is inspired by the heritage of quilting (Courtesy of John C. Campbell Folk School)

Elizabeth Belz is passionate about the artistry of blacksmithing (Courtesy of John C. Campbell Folk School)

Elizabeth Belz is passionate about the artistry of blacksmithing (Courtesy of John C. Campbell Folk School)

Great Smoky Mountains

Elizabeth Belz, blacksmithing 

The forge at John C. Campbell Folk School was alive with sparks and heavy with the din of clanging metal. Various creations littered the work bench: an iron turtle, an ornamental rose and a scatter of cooking utensils. 

“I took my first blacksmithing class at Penland School of Craft (a contemporary craft school in Bakersville, around 160 miles to the northeast of John C. Campbell),” explained metalworker Elizabeth Belz. “I looked in on the class and I said: ‘what’s the thing down there with the fire and the loud noises – that’s what I want to do’.” 

Now Belz is the Blacksmithing and Metals Coordinator at John C. Campbell Folk School and she’s preserving a craft with deep roots in the Great Smoky Mountains, a subrange of the Blue Ridge system. In fact, these rippling peaks were once known as the Great Iron Mountains due to the sheer bounty of iron ore here, and blacksmiths were an essential cog in early Appalachian society. 

“It was one of those trades that was sought after in all communities back then”, Belz said. “Blacksmithing in this region was really utilitarian. In the mountains, it was about farming equipment; making knives; making tools; repairing carts for oxen… That material knowledge is really important today.”

But as the decades wore on, the need for manual blacksmithing declined.

“Machines started taking over everything and there was definitely a shift towards ornamental blacksmithing,” Belz continued. “There are some very skilled ‘artist blacksmiths’ now. It’s really moved into a whole new art form.” 

Belz herself is an artist blacksmith, and she told me about her love of warping intricate bug sculptures out of metal – her collection encompasses everything from delicate honey bees to iron mosquitoes. She also explained the difficulties of forging a path in a typically male-dominated industry. 

“I did a fairly traditional mentorship at the Metal Museum [in Memphis] and I was one of only three women apprentices they ever had since the inception of the museum. I was also in front of the public then and the perception was very much: ‘you’re the blacksmith? You’re a tiny little lady’.”

These experiences spurred her on to focus on representation within the world of blacksmithing. 

“After that experience a lot of women blacksmiths got together and started a non-profit – The Society of Inclusive Blacksmiths – which is very intentional. And I sit on the governance committee for that organisation.

“We are encouraging LGBTQ+ and BIPOC individuals to experience the craft and we’re working to include a lot more people with disabilities, as well as people who have financial burdens.” 

 “I think there’s a really primal thing about being able to create. People need to be able to make stuff. Blacksmithing is not just a craft, it’s a way to empower people.”

The author travelled with support from Visit North Carolina and Blue Ridge Heritage Area