I didn’t actually intend to do all my Christmas shopping in the Great Smoky Mountains, but when I watched Mike Fowler, owner of Fowler Clay Works, form a ball of clay into a bowl, I was mesmerized.
As a hosted guest of Visit Tennessee, I had the opportunity to visit The Great Smoky Arts and Crafts Community in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and I was hooked.
Nestled on an 8-mile loop, more than 100 artists make up Gatlinburg’s Great Smoky Arts and Crafts Community, which is also part of the Tennessee Heritage Arts and Crafts Trail. Cute little individual shops sit side by side on this arts trail, and craftsmen (and women) create items and gifts that have deep ties to the Appalachian heritage. In one shop, I found a blue and yellow silk scarf that was hand marbled by Pat K. Thomas, who had decades of weaving in her fingers. That scarf went to my sister-in-law.
In Fowler’s pottery shop, I bought a pottery mug for my beau. My yoga friend Kat got a delicately carved wooden box from Whaley Handcrafts that fits together like a puzzle. Two of my other girlfriends got heady, perfumed bath bombs from the Three Flowers Bath Company, and before I knew it, all my Christmas shopping was done without ever touching the internet.
Even better, I knew that each gift was one of a kind, made by hand, and absolutely unexpected, and in turn, I was supporting the craftsmen who have dedicated their lives to the arts.
Forget Amazon and other online shops! This Arts and Crafts Trail in Gatlinburg is the perfect Amazon alternative -- and road trip excuse -- and you’ll find unique, handcrafted, thoughtful gifts for anyone on your Christmas list.
The Great Smoky Arts And Crafts Community
The Great Smoky Arts and Crafts Community is the largest group of independent artisans in North America and begins at 668 Glades Road in Gatlinburg. The 120 artists who call the trail home offer up traditional crafts ranging from weaving to casting, pottery, jewelry making, carving, and more.
Like many things in America’s Appalachian region, this arts community was born of necessity. Settlers to the region were resourceful, and many made their own furniture, created their own cookware, wove their own clothes, and whittled out their own tools.
These resourceful folks also sold their wares to the people of town, and in 1937, the Gatlinburg Arts and Crafts Community was formed so that the craftsmen could be closer to town and the tools they needed.
When the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was formed in 1940, even more visitors came to the Tennessee region to explore the natural wonders of the park. They also came for a piece of authentic Appalachian heritage, and many of the artists found more customers for their work.
So after years of selling their arts in downtown Gatlinburg, a group of artists including woodcarver John Cowden, broom maker Lee Ogle, and chair maker Noah McCarter established the Great Smoky Arts and Crafts Community to invite the tourists to come to them.
As the tourists increased, so did the community, which added eateries, more shops, and even lodging.
For more than 80 years, this unique loop of Appalachian craftsmen and artists has continued to grow, making it one of the largest arts and crafts communities in America.
Pro Tip: Gatlinburg has an extensive trolley system to help you get around town for only $2 a day. The Arts and Crafts Community can be reached using the Yellow Trolley from downtown Gatlinburg.
The Artists Of The Great Smoky Arts And Crafts Trail
We started our journey along the trail at the Cliff Dwellers Gallery, which features the works of local artists. It’s kind of a clearinghouse of what you can find along the arts trail, with examples of original painting, glasswork, handweaving, pottery, fiber arts, and wood carving.
Every day, different artists work in the upstairs gallery, and visitors can peek in to watch actual artists at work.
The building is beautiful as well. This historic 1933 gallery, built by artist Louis E. Jones, who used the chalet as his gallery, studio, and private home, was originally located in downtown Gatlinburg. After he retired, two ladies took over the business but sold the unique building in the early 1990s.
The building was to be torn down. Thankfully, in 1995, a local artist named Jim Gray and his son moved the building to its current location to help save the historic structure.
“Just keep in mind that when you’re looking at the shop here, there are more than 100 other shops out there. All of them are special, and all of them are different,” said Louise Bales, one of the six local artists who now owns the gallery.
“We started as a group of four local ladies who owned this shop together. We’ve been together for 24 years.”
Upstairs in the workshop, Pat Thomas was busy as she marble dyed great swaths of material. As co-owner of The Cliff Dwellers Gallery, she is also a featured artist who visitors can watch work.
“What we call arts today was just what people here in the mountains had to do to survive,” said Thomas. “The weaving, the woodworking, the chairmaking, the basketry -- this is what started it all because the sellers had the means to go out here in the Smoky Mountains and get everything they needed to make what they needed.”
Potter Mike Fowler and his wife Cheryl are among the newer transplants to the Smoky Mountain Arts and Crafts Community. He opened his shop a little over five years ago after he and his wife discovered the community during their honeymoon.
“My wife and I honeymooned up here in 2003, and we kept coming back, so we just moved up here from Florida,” said Fowler. “I had worked under potters in Florida. When we moved here, I learned about historic Southern pottery with Alewine Pottery, and I opened Fowler’s Clay Works in 2015.”
Fowler’s Clay Works not only sells handmade pottery but also offers pottery experiences that visitors can try. The cost of a Fowler’s pottery class includes materials, shipping costs, and the class itself.
Just around the corner from Fowler’s Clay Works are dozens more studios that also offer hands-on experiences. When you visit, The Cliff Dwellers Gallery has a map of all the artist shops, or you can find a complete listing here.
Pro Tip: The community has three special crafts shows planned for late 2020 and 2021, both at the Gatlinburg Convention Center. The Thanksgiving Show is November 24 to 29, 2020; The Christmas Show is November 30 to December 6, 2020; and the Easter Show is set for April 1 to April 3, 2021. This is a good time to find all the artists’ wares in one place.
With all the walking and exploring you’ll do while Christmas shopping on the Smoky Mountains Arts and Crafts trail, you’re bound to get hungry and thirsty. This community also has a few restaurants to help you keep your holiday spirits up.
For an Austrian tea house experience, check out the Wild Plum Tea Room, which was recently named one of the 10 best restaurants in Tennessee. Be sure to try the famous Lobster Pie or the favorite Wild Plum Chicken salad. You can even buy the Wild Plum Tea Room recipe book as a Christmas gift for that foodie in your life.
The Morning Mist Cafe has choices of fresh salads (try the egg salad) and lunch fare, and the outdoor patio sits over a pretty little bubbly creek for a quaint view of the mountains.
Crystelle Creek Restaurant and Grill is your holiday choice for a romantic dinner for two, and the restaurant serves up high-end dishes like fresh Tennessee trout, Italian specialties, and a selection of grilled steaks.
So this year, skip the online shopping and support the artists of The Smoky Mountains Arts and Crafts Community for your alternative to Amazon. Every single gift I bought last year was a hit, and now I try to buy Christmas gifts from local artists everywhere I travel.