A town you can see, and embrace, and be charmed by in a single day. A town with a creek that’s not quite a river, that runs through a park in the middle of town, beneath high hemlocks, and beside a walking trail and monuments to fallen heroes. I love a town ringed ’round with mountains — the accessible, protective, not-imposing kind, furred with evergreens.
Bakersville is that town. Squiggle up the highway hairpins, past the feldspar quarries and the boxwood farms, nearly to Tennessee. It’s just there, across a concrete bridge over that not-quite-a-river, Cane Creek, with the historic Mitchell County Courthouse and a pressed-tin building clustered at the town’s only intersection.
This is that town, with a population of 464 people, the vast majority of whom work with their hands. Sure, they grow things and fix things and cook things with their hands, too, but most of Bakersville’s residents do something else with their hands: They create sculpture and pottery and glassware and jewelry and paintings and furniture. They bind books and weld metal. This is a town of artists and artisans.
Pull over on North Mitchell Avenue, the main drag, and cruise: Start at the Crimson Laurel Gallery in the old Blevins Building, built at the turn of the 20th century, which has been, in previous incarnations, a grain warehouse, a silent-movie theater, a bowling alley, and a general store, but which is now home to the work of 152 different potters from India to Montana to Connecticut to, well, Bakersville. Convenient, comprehensible signage explains to the uninitiated the differences between firing techniques like raku, naked raku, pit, and horsehair firing.
Move on to the Mica Gallery, an airy cooperative with blonde-wood floors that’s home to 14 local artists, most of whom have taught at nearby Penland School of Crafts. Study that champagne flute by woodworker Jacque Allen. The stem is rebar. Like the other artists and artisans represented, Allen works three days a month in the gallery, and she often fields questions about lunch options from gallery hoppers visiting Bakersville for the day. She’ll suggest Bonnie and Clyde’s Drive-In, four miles down the road, which has a sliding-screen takeout window and a sign in the bathroom that says, “Wash yer hands and say yer prayers, ’cause germs and Jesus are everywhere.” Do not leave, do not pass go, without ordering their burger with bacon, which is rightfully famous.
Just up the hill is Cadell Studios, where Melisa Cadell makes small, intense, dramatic sculptures. Black-and-white anatomical illustrations depicting bones and muscles hang on the walls. Worktables are covered with sculpted androgynous heads — bound for a gallery in Florida — whose expressions range from pensive to taunting. On the way back, duck into the Ron Slagle Studio Gallery, just off the road, where no one’s minding the store except the aged dog in the driveway. Pottery and paintings and arresting metal sculptures — standing or reclining nudes with oversize or elongated bellies and limbs — are displayed in the old outbuilding. Here is a gallery so peaceful, so available, that you’re not sure if the calm emanates from the art or from the constant gurgle of the creek just beneath the building.
Pass by Helen’s, the meat ’n’ two restaurant you’ll save for dinner, and refresh yourself with a lemonade at one of Dot’s Coffee Shop and Café’s three indoor tables, or on the outdoor terrace, and watch the trucks bearing rafts and tubes pass by. Then wander on, into the Mitchell County Public Library, and buy yourself three used hardbacks for $6. Next door at Jason Bige Burnett’s studio, study the gallery of handcrafted, graphic ceramics, especially the armoire whose doors are covered with inspiration in every imaginable form.
Who doesn’t love a town with two historical markers on the same block, at that same single intersection, one to Asa Gray and one to André Michaux, botanists who both worked with their hands, as well? A town with plank bridges over the creek, every quarter mile, to reach not-quite-secret studios of artists and artisans, who come here, particularly here, to work? Who doesn’t love a town that very nearly fits in the palm of your hand?
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