Kentucky School of Craft hoping for 'rebirth' in Hindman

Ashley Stidham, 27, of Knott County created a coloring book of scenes and people around Hindman for her class at the Kentucky School of Craft. She plans to transfer to Morehead State.
Ashley Stidham, 27, of Knott County created a coloring book of scenes and people around Hindman for her class at the Kentucky School of Craft. She plans to transfer to Morehead State. Herald-Leader

HINDMAN — When a dozen students begin a class on making handcrafted jewelry at the Kentucky School of Craft in January, they'll be using work stations that have sat idle for at least two years.

Planners envisioned the school in Hindman as a key part of a strategy to boost the local economy, but it has struggled with a lack of money at times and with turnover among directors and faculty.

A new program coordinator took over for the fall 2013 semester, however, and is working to boost course and workshop offerings, enrollment and enthusiasm. Michael Flynn said he wants to raise the profile of the school, better connect with the community and help turn out students skilled in producing handcrafted items.

"That's one thing I'm very passionate about, is to make things happen," said Flynn, 29, a native of Pennsylvania. "I know there's been some turbulence in the past, but we have potential to succeed."

The craft school is in the process of a "rebirth," according to a news release from Hazard Community and Technical College, which oversees the school.

Going forward, the school will focus on turning out graduates with an associate degree in fine arts, with an eye toward having them transfer to other institutions to get bachelor's or master's degrees, said Leila E. Sandlin Smith, a dean at the community college.

"It is first and foremost a transfer program," Smith said.

For the spring 2014 semester, there will be classes in metals and jewelry; sculpture; and ceramics, Flynn said. That means 40 to 50 students are scheduled to take a class for college credit come January.

Dan Estep, who lives at Red Oak in Knott County, will be among them.

He hopes an associate degree in fine arts will lead to a new career.

Estep, 56, was laid off two years ago from his job as maintenance supervisor at a coal-washing plant — one of thousands who have lost jobs in a sharp downturn in the Eastern Kentucky coal industry. He has lived on savings since.

Estep has a blacksmith shop and has worked in metal for 30 years, making knives and other items. But he said he still has much to learn, including the business side of being a craftsman.

"Art with function, at a realistic, down-to-earth price, is what I hope to do," Estep said. "I want to help my neighbors and myself."

The focus on leading students to college degrees is a different mission than first envisioned for the craft school.

It was conceived as part of an initiative to diversify the economy of Eastern Kentucky to be less dependent on the coal industry, starting with Hindman and Jenkins. The two towns were chosen in 1997 to receive tens of millions in state and federal money for economic development projects. The plan in Jenkins centered on creating a large industrial park on a former surface mine, while Hindman opted to try a plan based on arts, crafts and education.

In addition to funding projects such as water and sewer lines and a building to house the public library and a branch of the Hazard college, the development initiative paid to renovate the former Hindman High School into the School of Craft, and to create the Kentucky Artisan Center downtown.

The idea was that the school would train artists and craftspeople to work in wood, metal, clay and other mediums, and that they would then sell their wares through the Artisan Center or set up their own shops, creating a bustling local economy of studios and galleries.

"As an economic development tool, we anticipated people coming in for art shows, to attend classes, to shop," former Gov. Paul Patton said earlier this year.

The plan has not worked as hoped.

Hindman is about 90 minutes off Interstate 75, so local shops have no chance for the kind of traffic that has helped make Berea, which is on the busy interstate, a notable center for arts and crafts.

Another issue is that the Hindman school has no housing for students, and, with a population of about 800, the town has no motels for tourists.

After Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher shifted the school's funding to another education program he favored, it closed for a time in early 2004 before it even enrolled its first full-time students. The community college took over operation of the school but has had trouble keeping teachers who come in from out of state.

Both faculty members quit in December 2012, leaving the school unable to offer for-credit courses in the spring 2013 semester.

Flynn, a sculptor with bachelor's and master's degrees in fine arts, came on board Aug. 1 to help work on a turnaround. He taught art appreciation and a studio class at the school in the fall, as well as classes at other Hazard community college campuses, Smith said.

Flynn said the School of Craft will use a system of dual instruction, so that a local artisan skilled in a certain field — but lacking a degree — can teach a class and the students get college credit.

One reason for the change in focus for the School of Craft is that it became apparent over time that there were more people interested in training to produce crafts as a hobby rather than as a full-time occupation, Smith said.

To that end, the Hindman school will still offer workshops on making products such as knives, dulcimers and chairs, which will help the school have an economic impact, she said.

Flynn said he is also looking at ways to make it easier for people from the community to use the school's top-of-the-line equipment to make items.

While preparing students to pursue higher degrees is one goal, Flynn said, he also wants to raise awareness of art and help students advance their abilities, whatever they choose to do next.

He believes the School of Craft can boost the economy by spreading the word about the value of handmade tools and other products the students will be trained to make.

"We can make local products better than anything that is imported," Flynn said.

He said he hopes the school can win a commission to make a product — metal light fixtures, for instance — to showcase the capabilities of students.

"That's our market — creating handmade objects that have utilitarian purposes," he said.