April 2007 Issue
Artists in Motion
West Virginia artists showcase their talents at Tamarack.
West Virginia is known for its cultural heritage and one-of-a-kind arts and crafts. Visitors to the Mountain State can see artistry at work at Tamarack, West Virginia's one-stop shop for handcrafts, fine art, music and cuisine, that has drawn 5 million visitors over its 10-year history. There's something for everyone here -- from a bill of fare featuring the state's famous fried green tomato sandwiches - to exquisite hand-carved furniture, glass and pottery, and stellar music, dance and theater. Meet four resident artisans who take pride in sharing their work.
The Sweetest Sound
The haunting melody of "Take Me Home Country Roads" leads to the studio of Tish and Greg Westman. The couple, who've been married for 22 years, have learned what it takes to make beautiful music together - from start to finish. For the past eight, they've been crafting variations of the bowed psaltery, a teardrop-shaped stringed instrument related to the harp but, Greg promises, not as complicated to play.
"We can have anybody, 5 years old and up, playing â€˜Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star' in less than two minutes," he says with a smile. "It's like playing the piano with one finger."
Fashioned out of cherry, maple, black walnut or mahogany, the manageable lap-sized instruments contain anywhere from nine to 37 notes. Each takes approximately two weeks to build, with prices ranging from $78 to $300, depending on the model purchased.
"We sell a lot of our little nine-note starters to adults who have never played music in their lives," Greg says. "It seems that finally, at age 50 or 60, when they've retired, they think â€˜I at least want to play something before I die.' The psaltery is a good starter."
As it is for many of the budding musicians who are regular customers, the psaltery served as the Westmans' prelude to a new world. A decade ago, the couple was living in Colorado, where Greg worked in corporate architecture, building high-rises across the West, and Tish supervised the night shift at a printing company.
"We wanted to get out of the rat race, so we moved to West Virginia where my family is," Tish explains.
While wintering in Florida in 1995, they were introduced to the strains of the psaltery, became captivated by the sound and purchased one with 25 notes. Tish, who was forced to abandon playing the guitar and mandolin due to the pain of arthritis, especially appreciated how easy it was to play.
"Friends kept asking where we got it, and we kept referring them to the guy in Florida," Greg says. "Finally, he called, told us he couldn't keep up with the demand and suggested we start making them."
Already folk artists experienced at crafting dulcimers and wooden banjos, the couple sharpened a scroll saw and got to work. "We love coming to the studio," Greg says. "It's a job, but it's also real relaxing. People say, â€˜I can't believe you work every day.' And I say, â€˜Lawyers, doctors and architects take up woodworking for relaxation. So for us, it's more than a job.'"
In addition to creating them, Tish teaches classes in playing the psaltery at Tamarack Wednesdays from 10 a.m. to noon. It's not unusual for Sunday afternoons at Tamarack to turn into impromptu jam sessions featuring local musicians on psaltery, dulcimer or guitar.
"I want to consider myself the Johnny Appleseed of psaltery," Greg says. "With the economy forcing many schools to discontinue music programs, I'd like everybody to have one in their house."
For Tish, the rewards go beyond being able to make her own music again.
Here is a sampling of upcoming events:
April 1, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.: Artisan Jo Brewer demonstrates her flair for making fabric dolls.
April 1, 2-3 p.m.: The Montclaire String Quartet, resident quartet of the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra, performs.
April 13, 6-10 p.m.: The Renaissance Theater of Huntington performs the comedy "Nunsense," at Tamarack's dinner theater. Reservations required.
April 15, 2-3 p.m.: Concord University's ConChords present an afternoon of music, ranging from jazz to classical favorites.
May 5, 11 a.m.-4 p.m.: Bernita McCoy Lyons, author of Scratch Cooking: It's the Real McCoy, will demonstrate easy-to-follow recipes from the mountains of eastern Kentucky.
"I couldn't ask for life to be any better than what we have," she says, sharing the letter the couple received from a 94-year-old customer two weeks after he purchased a psaltery, proud of the fact that his mastery of the instrument had garnered an invitation to play in church for the first time that Sunday.
"You go though many careers in a lifetime," Tish adds. "I would say for me, this will probably be the most rewarding one."
For more information about the Westmans' studio, visit www.westmaninstruments.com.
The Fabric of Life
Every day, Elaine Bliss surrounds herself with a rainbow of jewel tones she's happy to share -- deep purples and teals, rich blues, reds, burgundy and gold. Before visitors' eyes, this palette, showcased on cotton, silk, linen and rayon and often hand-dyed, is transformed into one-of-a-kind works, ranging from book covers to wearable art. The designs are inspired by Bliss' love of nature.
"I'm fascinated by flowers, storm clouds, sea shells, fuzzy seed pods, the texture of tree bark, the intricacy of tiny new leaves and the patterns of moving water," she explains, while applying the finishing touches of beadwork on a fabric mandala, representing the circle of life.
For five and a half years, Bliss has served as Tamarack's resident textile artist, demonstrating her talents and discussing her knowledge with those eager to learn about it.
"I'm a fervent advocate of the arts," she says. "I think they're vital to a person's well-being. For me, textiles have so much to offer - the different textures of fabric, the colors, the layering and techniques used to enhance them - from appliquÃ© to stenciling to silkscreening. They just draw me in. If you're in love with your work, it doesn't seem like a job."
The artist also enjoys sharing her enthusiasm with studio passers-by. "I hear a lot of â€˜my grandmother was a quilter' stories," says Bliss, who's been known to tailor-make a class based on audience interest. "People enjoy sharing stories about the history of quilting in their family, and I enjoy the exchange that often follows."
The daughter of a seamstress, Bliss professed an early fascination with sewing, stringing buttons together and using wooden spools as building blocks. She had a needle and thread in hand by age 4. Traditional quilting classes followed, as she mastered age-old piecework techniques.
"I decided early on that since there were so many wonderful traditional quilters out there, I wanted to develop my own signature style," Bliss says. "I created a stenciling technique using hand-cut designs made of heavy paper, and carved blocks of rubber to use with the stencils."
That talent attracts a loyal following, eager to take home small handbags and wall hangings, ranging in price from $25 to $125, as keepsakes of a visit to West Virginia.
What I do is fun, kind of meditative and can be therapeutic," Bliss explains. "There's nothing like those moments when everything - the colors, the threads and the textures - work together in such a way that the piece almost creates itself. It is truly a magical time."
Art of Glass
As Boyd Miller removes a piece of molten glass from the fire and begins to fashion it into a vase, his thoughts drift back to his father, uncle and grandfather. Tamarack's resident glassblower is the third generation in his family to practice this ancient craft, which he sees as a dying art form.
"Everybody wants to measure a dream as soon as they start working," he explains. "In the old days, glassblowing was a family business that you learned by working your way up. In modern times, people do something for a while, they get tired of it and they do something else. It takes time to perfect the technique."
It's also about timing. Waiting for liquid, bubbling a foot away at 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, to turn into a solid mass, says Miller, calls for split-second accuracy.
"Making glass is like working with something alive," he says. "If you try to move it around too much when it's in a liquid state, you can ruin a piece before you get started. You have to apply pressure according to what state it's in, and listen for that bell in your head to go off to let you know when to begin the next step."
As he progresses from blowing air through a pipe onto a hot ball of glass, rolling it across a steel table to create a marbling effect, and decorating it with bits of frit, or crushed glass, before placing it in a kiln to harden, the artist reflects on his material of choice.
"Glass really does have a mind of its own," he says. "Sometimes, even when I have a shape in mind, the glass does not do what I want it to. So I set it free, letting it flow and stretch in a way I hadn't thought of. I always look forward to the end result."
Miller's popular pieces include pendants, pencil holders and penguin figurines, starting at $20. Large contemporary pieces, such as an intricate love knot and a hand holding a marble, are priced at $500.
"I enjoy the challenge of making sure no two pieces are identical," he says.
For more information or to schedule a class with Miller, call 888/262-7225.
WHEN YOU GO...
Tamarack: The Best of West Virginia, One Tamarack Park, Beckley, W.Va., 1/88-TAMARACK. www.tamarackwv.com. April-December, 8 a.m.- 8 p.m.; January to March, 8 a.m.-7 p.m. Food court hours: breakfast 8 a.m.-10:45 a.m., lunch/dinner 11 a.m.-closing.
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