Tom Eblen

Artisan Center hopes arts, culture can create new jobs, industries in Eastern Kentucky

Dan Estep, left, the Appalachian Artisan Center's resident blacksmith, works with Earl Moore, right, to temper a steel blade for a knife Moore is making. Watching them are Randy Wilson, left, and Bill Weinberg, chair of the center's board of directors.
Dan Estep, left, the Appalachian Artisan Center's resident blacksmith, works with Earl Moore, right, to temper a steel blade for a knife Moore is making. Watching them are Randy Wilson, left, and Bill Weinberg, chair of the center's board of directors.

Shelbi Rhein of Columbus, Ohio, was born and raised in Knott County, but she didn’t learn to play the dulcimer until she moved to upstate New York, where she spent most of her adult life.

“I grew up around all this,” said Rhein, 79, who recently attended the Hindman Dulcimer Homecoming workshop with her daughter. “My mother played, but I didn’t have enough sense to learn anything as a kid.”

The classic Appalachian dulcimer originated in Knott County after the Civil War with “Uncle” Ed Thomas, who made and sold 1,500 of them. His work was carried on by the well-known local artisans Jethro Amburgey and Homer Ledford.

Their examples helped inspire local leaders nearly a decade ago to start the Appalachian Artisan Center. The center’s goal is to leverage Appalachia’s rich cultural heritage for economic development in the region, creating jobs, businesses and cultural tourism.

That vision is finally beginning to blossom. The center recently finished its headquarters and sales gallery in a former downtown hardware store. It has a variety of job-training programs under way, including pottery, metalworking and stringed-instrument making.

The Hindman Dulcimer Project won this year’s Folk Heritage Award in the Governor’s Awards in the Arts. Future plans include a production factory to make and sell guitars and mandolins.

Appalachia has never had a strong economy beyond the boom-and-bust cycles of the coal industry, which seems to has gone bust for good because of cheap natural gas, depleted mineral reserves and global concerns about climate change.

These economic changes have renewed interest in developing the region’s creative industries. And why not? Bluegrass music and Appalachian crafts are popular around the world. Smart, talented people have always come out of Kentucky’s mountains; the problem was they usually had to move elsewhere to earn a living.

The coal industry’s collapse and Internet-based global commerce that makes it easier for small businesses to succeed have added urgency to decades-old efforts to nurture the region’s creative industries.

“I think the center has given people in the community hope,” said Jessica Evans, the center’s program director. “We have a vision for moving forward, and I believe we have the skills, equipment, know-how and ambition to get that done.”

The center got started mainly through a series of grants, including two from the National Endowment for the Arts. But the eventual goal is to make these efforts self-sustaining.

Dan Estep, who spent more than two decades as a welder and metalworker in coal company machine shops, is now the center’s blacksmith in residence, teaching apprentices interested pursuing careers and setting up their own businesses.

“The potential is limited only by anybody’s imagination,” Estep said. “This is a craft that can apply to almost any craft or industry.”

Grants helped create the Hindman School of Luthiery to capitalize on the local heritage of dulcimer-making and the popularity of bluegrass music.

“We have taught more than 50 people how to build instruments,” said Doug Naselroad, a Mt. Sterling native who directs the school and spent decades before that working for well-known guitar companies. “There’s a lot of talent in Appalachia, and people are ready to go to work.”

One goal is to partner with the Kentucky School of Craft in Hindman and the Kentucky School of Bluegrass and Traditional Music in Hyden — both divisions of Hazard Community and Technical College — to start a production factory that would sell Troublesome Creek brand guitars, mandolins and other instruments.

The School for Craft has struggled to attract and retain students because of a lack of housing in Hindman. Many of the 220 students this semester are distance learners.

“It’s rare that a community this size has all this infrastructure,” Bill Weinberg, a Hindman businessman and chair of the center’s board, said of the well-equipped School of Craft. “We just need the people to make it work, and part of that is solving the housing problem.”

Growing the School of Craft is a priority for Jennifer Lindon, the Hazard college’s new president. “We really have a gem here,” she said.

In addition to training Eastern Kentuckians in marketable, arts-related skills, the center sees potential in cultural tourism — attracting hobbyists to come for days or weeks to learn instrument-making and other traditional skills.

“I predict there will be a different way of talking about tourism,” said Mark Kidd, the center’s new director of strategic operations. “I’m convinced that arts and culture are some of the best ways to develop communities, and economies.”

Tom Eblen: 859-231-1415, @tomeblen