The history of craft in Tennessee began from necessity. Settlers created wooden bowls for food preparation, pottery crocks for canning, quilts for bedding, baskets for storage and more. Through trial and error, pioneers discovered the best local woods for constructing furniture, creating musical instruments and crafting toys; to keep warm, they harvested fibers to spin and weave into clothing; for storage, founders dug in the earth to find clay for pots, jugs and bowls. Eventually, the items transformed from purely functional pieces to decorative works of art, enriching the lives and homes of our ancestors.
These practices are by no means new or unique to Tennessee artists. When visiting museums today, we find common utensils on display from the earliest civilizations up through the Middle Ages. These finds, however, are regarded as treasures thanks to the time and care their creators invested in each piece. Over time, simple, everyday tools became beautiful works of fine craft.
In our New World, we lost this sentiment as the Industrial Revolution swept through our nation in the 1700 and 1800s. Efficient processes and low costs dictated our culture as manufactured goods and mail order catalogues found their way into our homes. Makers found themselves overshadowed by machines. Handmade traditions and one-of-a-kind products were in danger of being lost forever.
In response, an international trend known today as the Arts and Craft Movement emerged. This philosophy sought to relate the moral and social health of a nation to the qualities of its architecture and design and believed that a healthy society depended on skilled and creative workers. Arts and Crafts artists tended to oppose the division of labor and prefer craft production, in which the whole item was made and assembled by an individual or small group; artists became concerned about the decrease of rural handicrafts.
In Tennessee, passionate individuals banded together to ensure important customs were not lost. In 1926 women like Olive Dame Campbell and Frances Goodrich began brainstorming about the importance of handmade goods at the Southern Mountain Workers Conference in Knoxville. From excited conversations that began in East Tennessee, these women formed what is now the Southern Highland Craft Guild.
During the Great Depression and in the 1930 the Guild cultivated commerce for craftspeople in the Appalachian region through educational programming. In the 1940s the Tennessee Valley Authority work led to the formation of the Southern Highlanders, a craft marketing organization which was government sponsored and had shops at the Norris Dam in Tennessee and Rockefeller Center in New York City. In 1948 the first Craftsman’s Fair of the Southern Highlands was held. This fueled interest in handmade goods from area artists.
Though initial conversations for the Guild began in Tennessee, it found its home in North Carolina. To give Tennessee artists a connecting point and ensure our state’s traditions were preserved, a group of passionate individuals worked to unite artists from Memphis to Johnson City. A dedicated core drove across the state, recruiting members and working to organize events for artists to show and sell their work.
The Tennessee Association of Craft Artists (TACA) was founded in 1965 to encourage, develop and promote crafts and craftspeople in Tennessee. The organization carried out this mission first, by hosting The Best of Tennessee Craft Exhibition and later, in 1972, with the state’s first Craft Fair. In 1978, a second juried craft fair—this time a national show—was established. Each of these events continues today. Now, our Craft Fairs are traditions of their own, attracting nearly 100,000 visitors annually.
In addition to these banner events, TACA – now known as Tennessee Craft, provides direct support to artists year-round through professional development workshops, regional programming, scholarships and mentor opportunities. We strive to embrace the passion of our state’s first makers and our organizations founders by connecting today’s emerging and experienced artists and the public with resources and opportunities to make their mark on our state’s handmade legacy.