The small towns in Mitchell and Yancey counties were known for minerals and mining until Harvey Littleton arrived and blew the doors off with his glasswork, turning the Toe River Valley into a hotbed for art.
Once everyone had a plate of food and found a seat, Kate Vogel stood, microphone in hand. “We’re all going to spend this time telling stories about my father-in-law, Harvey Littleton,” she said. After some remarks from Harvey’s grandchildren, Kate started talking about the day she and her husband, John, thought Harvey was going to die. It’s important, she’d been told, to let someone know it’s OK for them to go. Harvey had been in a lot of pain that day. He wasn’t able to sit up or walk. He’d been moaning. There was nothing more they could do.
“John and I really love you,” she said to Harvey. “We are OK if you go to sleep tonight and you just don’t wake up.”
Harvey reached up and tapped Kate on her shoulder. “It’s OK,” he said, his voice suddenly getting louder and more gruff. “Not. Going.”
The room laughed.
One guy talked about what a terrible driver Harvey was. Several others joked about his love for lunch. His grandchildren said they liked watching Westerns with him. Sailing buddies remembered the time he sideswiped a boat in Florida. Lisa Anderson told a story about the time she was in Harvey’s basement, looking at some of the old glass he’d collected.
“Harvey,” she asked him, “do you know more about glass than anyone in the world?”
“Yes,” Harvey deadpanned.
The room again exploded into laughter.
Steve Edwards got the microphone. He’d been friends with the Littleton family for four decades. He told a story about the time Harvey swung a big piece of glass he was working on, miscalculated, and smashed it into the ceiling and the floor before it shattered. Steve then told a joke about the cold shop that glass artists understand perfectly. They laughed again. “It was easy to make fun of Harvey because he was a great man,” he said. “Great men are easy to make fun of.”
About 150 people showed up for Harvey Littleton’s memorial service in Burnsville. There were men in corduroy pants and beards. Women with fancy eyeglasses. Many of the guests had learned from him. Many were in awe of him. There were do-it-yourself name tags just inside the door. Most people wrote their name, and the word “friend” under it.
The memorial was a who’s who of glass artists who came to share a few more Harvey stories. Gary Beecham. Richard Ritter. Chris Ries. William Bernstein. Mark Peiser. Rob Levin. There were only a few suits, reserved for either university faculty or art gallery owners. All of them had gathered here, on a cold, gray, and rainy January day in the North Carolina mountains, a place that had become a nucleus of studio glass — of artists who, by and large, do it all themselves.
• • •
At first glance, this area doesn’t appear to be the nucleus of anything. Only 1,700 or so people live in Burnsville proper, which is home to a coffee shop, a few restaurants, a town square, and a bronze statue. A 20-minute drive east along U.S. Highway 19E gets you to Spruce Pine, another small town that’s heavy into mining. The two are tucked among the mountains of Yancey and Mitchell counties, respectively. If anything, the two counties can claim the Blue Ridge Parkway and Mount Mitchell, the highest point in the eastern United States. That, and the usual mountain accoutrements — cabins, serenity, views, and simple living — are what you find on most brochures here.
But there’s something else here — something you see when you wander into the Toe River Arts Council office in Burnsville. There are paintings on the walls, prints in frames, pottery on shelves, and guidebooks to artists’ studios on racks. There are twice-yearly studio tours, where dozens of artists throw open their doors and show you how they do what they do. Denise Cook, the director, says there are more than 500 artists living in Yancey and Mitchell counties. Put that number up against a population of a little more than 30,000 at last check, and the Toe River Valley has one of the highest concentrations of artists in the world, Cook says.
“Some of the top people in glass live here,” she says. “You look at ceramics, same thing.”
There are clues everywhere. Drive up and down the winding roads around either county, and you’ll see signs, big and small, pointing toward studios. There are kilns in yards, sculptures in varying designs and states of completion in front of houses. “Every driveway I drove past, the first time I came up here, I recognized a name,” says Micah Evans, a glass artist. Over the past 40 years, he says, nearly every big name in glass art has lived in these hills.
So how did this happen? How did such a small place get such an outsize reputation for art? Why are there so many artists here doing so much good work?
Everybody you talk to here says there isn’t just one answer. There are two: Harvey Littleton. And Penland School of Crafts.
• • •
It used to be that glass was largely practical: bowls, tumblers, wine glasses, and the like. Some was for everyday use, and some was less functional and more fancy. It also used to be strictly an industrial effort, centered in places like Toledo, Ohio, and Corning, New York. It took huge furnaces and lots of people to make things that most people hardly saw as high art.
Harvey Littleton changed that.
Littleton was born in 1922 in Corning. His father, Dr. Jesse Littleton, was a physicist at the Corning Glass Works who helped invent the Pyrex line of cookware. In college at the University of Michigan, Harvey majored in industrial design and spent his summers working at the Corning Glass Works, watching coffee pots and other everyday items rolling off the line. At the time, glasswork was divided into two distinct circles: designers who drew up the plans for pieces, and the glassworkers who were responsible for turning those designs into reality. After his graduation, Littleton applied for a grant to start an experimental studio at Corning, a laboratory open to anyone — designers, executives, or glassworkers. The answer was no. “They really believed — everybody at Corning, and I included — that glass was an industrial material,” Littleton later said in a 2008 interview, “and that it required a much bigger investment than was possible by the individual artist.”
Littleton largely gave up on glass and focused on ceramics until 1957, when he went on leave from his job at the University of Wisconsin at Madison to tour Europe. In Paris, he visited a glass artist who worked with a small furnace. He saw more of the same during two and a half months in Murano, Italy. He was thrown out of an Italian glass factory by managers who considered glasswork a secret to be guarded. Littleton thought there should be no secrets in glass.
In 1962, he led a workshop in Toledo to help prove that glass was a viable art form, something that could be created in a studio. The workshop led to the first hot-glass program at the University of Wisconsin, the first of its kind at a university in the United States. The ideas were simple: Learn from me. Then share what you know with others. Prove to people that you can do things with glass that you never knew were possible.
• • •
Littleton didn’t just create art. He created the groundwork that studio glass needed to survive. “Harvey used to say one person working in glass means nothing,” says Joan Byrd, one of Littleton’s first students. “It was important to send other students to teach.” Many of those students went off to found glass programs at other universities. By the time Littleton retired, he’d created an entire infrastructure spawned by studio glass: museum pieces, galleries, collectors, and classes. He’d also taken glasswork out of the factory and put it in the hands of people who wanted to work in small studios.
Byrd had started a glass program at Western Carolina University, and she invited Littleton to open an exhibition there in 1976. During his visit, he drove up to the Penland School of Crafts, where one of his former students had already had a glass program going for 11 years. He saw the small but dedicated community of artists that had sprung up around it. His wife, Bess, thought the mountains reminded her of her childhood in Hawaii. Littleton was hooked.
The following year, he retired from UW and moved to Spruce Pine.
• • •
Micah Evans is making a sewing machine that doesn’t work. Actually, it’s a replica of a 1956 Singer. Evans’s mother was a quilter and his father was a storyteller, and they were always using their hands. The Singer and Evans’s other creations are a tribute to them — and an effort to remember a childhood, his memories of which are slowly growing fuzzier.
The sewing machine doesn’t work because it’s made of glass.
For more than a year, Micah Evans has been meticulously piecing together the shell of his glass replica Singer sewing machine. photograph by Emily Chaplin
“It’s a bit of a selfish body of work, but it’s something I’ve been doing on the side for a decade,” Evans says. Two years ago, Evans was asked to teach a two-month workshop at Penland. He applied for residency while teaching. He’s been here a year and a half now, and he knows how intensive it can be. Classes start in the early morning and often end only when a student is too exhausted to go on. “This residency allowed me the opportunity to devote three years [to the sewing machine], and to really gain momentum with the work,” he says.
Evans, 38, is now one of several artists in residence at the Penland School of Crafts, a small collection of buildings — some stone, some metal — that sit among some hills between Spruce Pine and Burnsville. The school was founded in 1929 by Lucy Morgan, a schoolteacher with a passion for weaving. She’d found others who shared that passion, and they scraped together enough money to start building a campus.
By the time Morgan retired in 1962, the school had a reputation around the world as a destination for artists and people who wanted to become artists, but it had trouble attracting younger students. When Bill Brown took over as director, he pulled favors from fellow artists (Brown was a sculptor), and asked them to come teach. He embraced the emerging studio movement and added programs in iron and glass. He set up artists-in-residence. Mark Peiser was the first to work with glass. William Bernstein moved to Penland for the same reason in 1968. Neither man left the area. Harvey Littleton joined the board, established a scholarship, and donated some of his work to help the school raise money.
• • •
In just the last year, students came to Penland from 49 states and from countries like Australia, Kuwait, Germany, and Peru, to take courses in clay, painting, ironworking, printmaking, woodworking, and more. The tuition can be steep. A two-week course this summer runs $1,000 — more, if you want to learn about hot glass — and the cost doubles if you want a meal plan and a place to stay.
But it’s the high price and the lack of distraction that allow artists and students to do their best work, and a lot of it. Evans did more work in his first year at Penland than in the previous four years combined. “You can learn it in small workshops or weekend workshops here or there, or maybe at a university for clay or metal,” he says, “but to be able to come here for two weeks or two months and focus with a master of the medium who’s a working artist, it’s invaluable in keeping these traditions alive.”
The classes at Penland get people to come to the mountains. The community gets a lot of them to stay. When Harvey Littleton arrived, his name alone drew attention to the area, and in turn, Littleton found the community invigorating. “He used to compare the atmosphere around Penland with Paris in the early part of the 20th century,” Byrd says. “The work he’s best known for came out of North Carolina.” At Wisconsin, Littleton taught. But in North Carolina, he focused on his art, creating tubes, then columns, then loops with graceful curves and colors, twisting and dynamic. He even took advantage of the minerals mined at Spruce Pine and created the Spruce Pine Batch Company to sell the raw materials of glassmaking to artists. The company is now run by his son Tom.
Several of Littleton’s students went off to bigger cities, and glassmaking communities sprang up in places like Seattle and San Francisco. Dale Chihuly, for example, designs work and has a team of 12 to 15 people to create the pieces. But around Penland, glasswork is still largely an individual pursuit. “The small studio remains the expression of the way people work in North Carolina,” Byrd says.
Which brings us back to Micah Evans and his sewing machine. For a year and half, he’s been sticking it together, bit by little molten bit, clear glass here, black glass there, assembling the base and body of the machine together like a Lego puzzle. The two colors of glass cool at different rates. “When they’re attached to each other, it puts stress on the other one. It’s like a tug-of-war,” Evans says. “When you’re doing that with thousands of small welds, it becomes problematic.” It took months of troubleshooting and engineering, but finally he figured out a way to make something big out of so many individual pieces.
• • •
Gary Beecham likes his commute, a 200-foot walk from his front door, along a footpath littered with colored glass globes that, for one reason or another, didn’t quite meet his expectations. His studio overlooks the Toe River just south of Spruce Pine. It’s an old house that he bought and gutted. Inside, there’s an organized mess of heavy metal rods, colored glass pegs, and jars full of nails that screw into the ceiling. The corner where the furnace sits is open for two stories to let the heat dissipate. Upstairs, fused glass cubes of brilliant color sit next to discs with rainbow-colored rods inside.
Beecham has a big, white, scraggly beard and an old ball cap on his head, and he doesn’t so much seem to be wearing clothing as he is draped in it. He has a propensity for reminiscing about the good old days. The days of the one-man glass studio are starting to go away, he says. “We had to build our own ovens,” he says. “Now, a kid goes through school and he never gets to touch any of that; there’s a technician that does that for him.” A lot of schools won’t let students sell their work now, he says. They come out in debt, and they don’t know how to market themselves. “Unless you have a trust fund,” he says, “you have a hard time.”
A work by Gary Beecham photograph by Emily Chaplin
That wasn’t the case after Beecham left college. He spent a year working in a glass factory in New York City and hated it. He’s here because Harvey Littleton asked him to come to Spruce Pine and be his assistant. He did that for five years, slowly making enough money to buy the necessary equipment to set up his own studio. He and others still remember Harvey’s lessons: Be accountable. Don’t take payment under the table. Pay your taxes. If you don’t know how to calculate them, learn. Don’t give away your work. Charge at least enough to make two new pieces. Do quality work. Littleton had the only studio around where you could grind and polish pieces. You can’t sell a piece like that for $5,000 if you don’t finish the bottom, he’d say. Come to my studio, use my equipment, and learn how to do it.
Selling anything in Burnsville and Spruce Pine can be tough. Both are small towns in two neighboring counties whose populations are getting older and getting smaller. In North Carolina, one in 10 people is 65 or older. In Mitchell and Yancey counties, that number is one in five. Burnsville used to be a mill town, but there’s only one big manufacturing plant, Glen Raven, that’s still humming along. Spruce Pine is at the center of mines that pull feldspar, mica, kaolin, and high-quality quartz out of the ground; the latter mineral is used heavily in the building of silicon computer chips. But the money, like the minerals, largely leaves town.
So, art is a big deal here because the local economy needs a big deal. Burnsville has been slowly losing factories and jobs for years, and the mining at Spruce Pine doesn’t benefit nearly enough people. The idea, according to Denise Cook, is to put art in as many places as they can, so that it’s impossible to drive down Highway 19E and not see it. The road is going from two lanes to four, and Burnsville will get three spots to put a sign, and it’s gonna be something that’ll get people to pull off the road and head into town. It has to be.
• • •
There are, according to census data, roughly 237,000 visual artists living in the United States. Of them, 210,000 live in cities. (The number may be bigger than that with respect to glass artists, because technically, glasswork can be listed as a manufacturing job.) The rest are scattered throughout rural areas. The land is reasonably priced. William Bernstein liked the community he saw down in Celo. Richard Ritter found a nice farm. The weather’s not all that bad. And there’s a third thing. It only feels isolated. One of the things that brought Harvey to this place in the 1970s? The realization that Spruce Pine sat close to the center of his East Coast market. Penland sat right in the middle of collectors and gallery owners in New York and Miami.
There’s a difference between feeling isolated and feeling alone. There are about 30 or so people in the area whom Gary Beecham can ring up and ask about a problem. “One of my classmates from college moved to this idyllic place in Colorado, and he never got a damn thing done,” Beecham says. “There was nobody around to bounce ideas off, or ask questions. You need that input.” Harvey did that for him. Now Beecham does it for others.
• • •
Before the memorial service started, a projector cycled through old pictures of Harvey and his wife, Bess. There was 1940s-era Harvey in a fedora and round spectacles that gave him the air of a film noir detective. There was Bess, dark-featured, dressed in a Hawaiian swimsuit.
Food, some vegan fare, some pasta, some salad, some ham, sat on top of a long table with a long line, worthy of observation. “Let’s see how everybody is different,” one man in line said to his wife, “by seeing what they put on their plates.” Gary Beecham, white-bearded, wearing a fanny pack, grabbed a roll.
At one table, Joan Byrd complained about Harvey’s obituary in TheNew York Times. “Sooo many things wrong,” she said. She wrote a letter to the editor. She doubts they’ll publish it. She wants them to get this thing right, she said. It was important to Harvey that nobody had secrets.
After the service, a group of graying men and women squeezed together to take a class photo of sorts. They were all artists, all living here, all working here, working alone, but working together.
Harvey was there, along with Bess, both in ceramic urns designed by Cynthia Bringle, who has a studio in Penland. Bess died in 2009, and the family planned on holding a joint memorial, sadly but practically thinking Harvey wouldn’t be long after. He hung on all this time, all the way until this past December, when he died in Spruce Pine at 91. He never was the kind to give up.
Kate Vogel had one last story about her father-in-law, recalling his words to her one day at his house. “I asked Bess to marry me for a year before she said yes,” he told her. Kate thought that sounded frustrating, but Harvey thought it was thrilling. His hard work had finally paid off. She finally agreed.
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