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Mountain State Art and Craft Fair hits 50

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- They sewed quilts, working tirelessly to help their families stay warm and comfortable.

They fired pottery, baking and glazing the pots, bowls, oil lamps and vases that would pass, parent to child, through households.

They carved what they needed -- chairs, tables, bookshelves, workbenches -- and molded glass for what they wanted -- a chance for their work to be recognized by the rest of the world.

West Virginians have a rich history of art and craft making as part of the state's culture; that's why, 50 years ago, the Mountain State Art and Craft Fair was created as a way for local artisans to showcase their talents and their Appalachian heritage.

"One of the greatest precipitators was that it was our centennial year," said Donald Page, an 82-year-old furniture maker, woodturner and artisan who has been involved with the fair since its creation. "Throughout the state, there was this feeling; this idea to present who we were, where we come from and where we were going."

The fair, which was originally planned as a one-time event to celebrate the state's centennial, is celebrating its 50th anniversary thing year. More than 170 artisans and craftsmakers will participate in the fair, held Thursday through Saturday at Cedar Lakes Conference Center in Ripley.

Page, who began making crafts for extra money since he was a boy living in a coal camp in Southern West Virginia, said the art and craft movement in West Virginia is something that grew out of necessity and remains vibrant today.

"As a young boy, we weren't poor until we were told we were poor," Page said. "I've always made things to make extra money -- little stools, tables, corner shelves, things for the girls, toys for the boys. I've been doing it since I was 9 years old, as a way to have extra income growing up in a coal community."

The first fair had 54 artisans; at its peak, the Mountain State Art and Craft Fair had more than 300 artisans and 75,000 visitors over a five-day period. Started by the Department of Commerce and other government agencies as a way to promote the state's artists and craftsmen, the event has evolved over the years to include educational opportunities for youth, according to Bob Wines, vice president of marketing and promotion for the fair.

"The Department of Education has its own interactive education tent, and there are about a dozen folks in their who are demonstrating and allowing kids, and adults, to make items -- to make a corn broom or a piece of stained glass -- and take it home with them," Wines said. "The fair really has really changed its focus over the years; its really about education now, and preserving the heritage of the state."

Page, who continues to promote the art and craft legacy of the state, said other states have visited the fair in the past in order to use it as a model for their own initiatives, and he is hopeful that the fair will continue to stand as a testament to the work West Virginians are capable of.

"We found that West Virginians were people who liked to create things, so we said it to the world; we went promoting tourism from Canada to Miami, to Chicago and St. Louis over to Washington and New York, saying 'come to West Virginia,'" he said. "West Virginia has been a good place to emulate, because our people have heart."

The three-day event will include a Civil War reenactment encampment, kite-making and stunt kite flying for children, and a NASA small rocket building and launch exhibit on opening day. A youth fishing derby will be held Friday, and the Firecracker Chili Cookoff will be held Saturday.

The fair will also host several local and regional musicians, including the Davisson Brothers, who will headline Friday's festivities. The fair includes demonstrations from interactive artisans who will instruct people in basket weaving, broom making, stained glass and other projects participants will be allowed to take home with them.

Page, who has worked with the state and with other artisans for more than 60 years, said his experience with the state has taught he him how much West Virginia has to offer - places like the Tamarack, the Wheeling Artisan Center and the Mountain Made Foundation, and people who fuel the Appalachian craft heritage year-round.

"We have some unique people in West Virginia," Page said. "It takes years to learn some of these professions and these crafts; some of them have had a lifetime of experience with it. They didn't just start cropping up -- they were already here."

For more information on the Mountain State Art and Craft Fair, visit www.msacf.com or call 1-800-CALLWVA.

Reach Lydia Nuzum at lydia.nuzum@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5100.


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