Written by Jim Murphy | Photos by Ellen Gwin
In the ultra-competitive battle for tourist dollars, vacation regions try to brand themselves with enticing nicknames. Sometimes the brand takes on a life of its own and becomes an identity in itself. Consider the Big Apple, Big Easy, Music City USA. The brands confer instant recognition as New York, New Orleans, and Nashville.
[dropcap]A[/dropcap]mong smaller destinations, the branding game is no less intense. Jacksonville bills itself as the place “Where Florida Begins.” Charleston, South Carolina, is the “Low Country,” Greenville-Spartanburg is “Upstate South Carolina.” Asheville claims the lofty handle, “Land of the Sky,” and along the Virginia and Tennessee borders, a six-county Appalachian mountain region calls itself, “The High Country.”
The mountains of the High Country provide a three-season tourist bonanza, beginning with the cool summer breezes that invite visitors to escape the lowland heat. The summer gives way to fall-color tourists—“leaf peepers”—snapping photos of the mountain wilderness. And Thanksgiving weekend marks the beginning of the snow season when enthusiasts crowd the slopes to slide down a mountain on everything from skis to inner tubes. Then comes springtime,—what the tourism promoters call their “shoulder season”—when everyone can take a deep breath and begin getting ready for the upcoming summer rush.
Running concurrently to all those outdoor attractions is a vibrant arts scene. Anchored by energetic programs at Appalachian State University in the city of Boone, the High Country is home to dozens of artists, museums and galleries. “We have a pretty big artsy community up here,” says one knowledgeable resident. It gives the visitor still another activity to pursue. The pursuit will inevitably reach the Carlton Gallery in Banner Elk.
Toni Carlton calls her space an art gallery. A more accurate description might be an arts—with an s—gallery. Because a visitor would be hard pressed to find a medium that isn’t represented here.
[quote float=right]To enter the front door is to walk into a wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling montage of color, texture and form. [/quote]To enter the front door is to walk into a wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling montage of color, texture and form. Paintings—oils, pastels, acrylics—display bright splashes of color in abstract, impressionist and realist styles. Large sculptures, both abstract and representational, done in wood and steel, stand at apparently random places in the 10-room spread. Clay creations—the word “pottery” doesn’t quite measure up—sit on pedestals or shelves alongside display cases of jewelry or a rack of woven fabric. Glass figures reflect sprays of quiet lighting. The gallery exhibits whatever an artist’s hands and imagination can conjure.
And behind a small counter in a corner Toni wraps a purchase for a smiling patron. She calls the variety of arts on display “diversity,” a word that captures her own experience as an artist.
She was attracted to a career in the arts “as young as I can remember,” she says, pointing to a creative family heritage. “As a little girl I learned crocheting from my grandmother. Both my grandmothers did fiber arts, and my grandfather was a woodworker who built a loom for my grandmother and an aunt. So my feel for the arts goes back at least three generations.
“When I got to highschool, I took every art class they had. I also took industrial arts—woodworking, leather, anything I could do with my hands.”
She continued her arts education at Appalachian State University, where “I wanted to learn everything I could.” That led to classes in woodworking, leather, clay, jewelry, architectural design, painting, and drawing. “Fibers were my main concentration. In fact, for a woodworking class I built a loom for my weaving. The teacher didn’t like it. He wanted a piece of furniture. I explained it was something I would use, but he gave me a C. So I took the course again and made a king-size four-poster bed with ball-and-claw feet. I got an A.”
That loom played a big—if accidental—role in her path to owning a gallery. “I had no idea I was going to have a business. It wasn’t a plan; it just worked out.”
A full-size weaver’s loom is bigger than a king-size bed. It can fill a generous room, leaving little, if any, space for living. The size of her loom presented the young weaver with a large problem.
“It was too big for my apartment. At the time I was waiting tables at Smoke Tree Lodge, and they rented a suite of offices where they were selling timeshares. I put some of my work on the walls of their office, and they let me use the back rooms for my looms. That was working out quite well, but when Smoke Tree moved out of the building I panicked. I had to figure out how to pay the rent. So I asked two friends who were also fiber artists if they’d like to share the space and the expenses. I was just making it up as I went along. We kept that arrangement for a couple of years—until they decided to move out.”
Toni’s fiber creations were not the usual utilitarian pieces. No hats, gloves or scarves. “I was into big pieces. They weren’t functional. They were art.” And her work was getting noticed. “I did panels for P.B. Scott’s Music Hall in Blowing Rock. They were 12 feet across and we hung five, maybe seven, panels. I had pieces in Smoke Tree Lodge, Grandfather Country Club. Wayne Underwood from Mystery Hill asked me to demonstrate there maybe a day or two a week. I was weaving, making art. I was determined to prove that fiber arts and craft could also be art.”
She had begun to branch out into clay, drawing, tapestry, basketry. “I didn’t make baskets to use,” she says, and as she speaks, her hands are hard at work, drawing little circles in the air, waving abstract gestures to illustrate her thoughts. She stands up and extends a hand at shoulder height to help describe the size of her early baskets. “I only made them as an art form this big, this tall. It was sculpture. Sculptural basketry.” She is giving new meaning to the term, “the art of conversation.”
As her creations were expanding, so was her marketing. She began going to art shows and festivals, which brought her to the next step on the road to her gallery.
“At the Virginia Beach art show I met so many other artists. I loved their work. I would add a few little things from my favorite artists to complement my vision. And then I started purchasing pieces. I’d buy a handful of these, a couple of those…”
Toni is clearly absorbed with her multiple artistic ventures, so it seems curious that she would devote so much of her time and energy to the challenges of running a business.
“That part I didn’t plan,” she says with an almost sheepish grin. “It began to evolve when those two partners moved out. Even when I was with them I was paying the bills, doing the bookkeeping. I finally had to hire someone to take care of the paperwork. I’m more right-brained than left-brained, so to pull me in and keep me focused on that is not something I do easily.”
Beyond bookkeeping, the business demands a catalog of chores that Toni lists with a plodding cadence: “The marketing, the advertising, all the social media now, emails, mailing lists, planning shows and receptions, designing the ads, working with newspapers and magazines, writing press releases, designing cards that go out, putting stamps on the cards, printing address labels and putting them on the cards.
“Then in the gallery, there’s cleaning, hanging art, lighting the space, painting the walls, spackling, just keeping the place looking pretty. You have so many chores in here.”
Toni’s inner entrepreneur and artist compete for her energy, and she feels the conflict. “The gallery takes so much of my life. There’s this push and pull of how much of my work do I display here. I would like to put my art in other galleries, but I don’t have the time to do all that and run this one and make my art…” Her voice trails off.
But for all her struggles, her art and her gallery keep growing. More than 30 years after that “room-for-the-loom” beginning, the Carlton gallery is in its third location with more than 200 artists. The gloss and quality of her gallery prompts the question: Why hasn’t she moved to a bigger city with a stronger art reputation?
“I’ve thought about it,” she says. “But I was born here in the High Country, in Boone. This is my home. This is where I belong.”
Her gallery remains at home, but some of her artists have earned national recognition.
PAINTER ANDY BRAITMAN was named one of America’s leading artists by First Lady Nancy Reagan. Braitman contributed a decorated Easter egg to the White House. The egg remains on display in the Smithsonian Institution.
JOHN LITTLETON AND KATE VOGEL create pieces in cast and blown glass at their studio in nearby Bakersville, North Carolina. They have taught at the prestigious Penland School, and their works are in museums from Asheville to the High Museum in Atlanta to museums in Denmark, Germany, and Switzerland.
SHARON RUSCH SHAVER was commissioned to do a painting for the White House in 1999. It remains in their permanent collection. Her work is included in major corporate collections, including Blue Cross and Blue Shield.
Carlton artists range from the thoroughly notable to the simply noticeable. And their prices range from less than $15 to more than $15,000. “The lower-priced items add to the diversity,” Toni says. But all the artists in the gallery have one thing in common: They have appealed to Toni’s selective eye.
“I go to shows to experience new artists. And I go through stacks of mail and email from artists who would like to be in the gallery. There are so many of them I get lost in that. I really appreciate what everybody does. I know what they go through to create. I know technique and I know quality because I’ve made them all. I want the quality and beauty, so I keep expanding, but I still don’t have space for all the artists I’d like to have in here. The hardest part for me is saying, ‘No.’”
For all the time and energy Toni has devoted to the gallery, she still has managed to advance her own career as an artist, with exhibits in China, Korea, Europe and, of course, the United States. It is that creative element of her career that brings a satisfied smile. “My original dream wasn’t to be a gallery owner. My dream was to be an artist.”