By Mackenzie Jones
Typically when I make the scenic drive from Lexington down the Mountain Parkway and into Slade I’m headed for long hikes, high climbs, or calm river paddling in the Red River Gorge. Last weekend, however, I was seeking a unique shopping experience at the third annual Natural Bridge Artisan Festival. The festival features a wide variety of local vendors providing music, food and crafts at the base of the Natural Bridge sky lift and hiking trails in Natural Bridge State Resort Park, one of the 49 parks in the Kentucky State Park System. The park’s name comes from a large sandstone bridge located within it’s boundaries that was formed by natural weathering processes which sculpted a traversable arch out of a solid mountain ridge. Its scale and solidity rivals man-made bridges and is the perfect backdrop for the festival’s display of natural materials transformed into art.
After taking in the beauty of the arch and the park around me, I wandered amongst the artisans who were right at home in the outdoor market. As I shopped around and viewed the many forms of art on display, I realized I had the rare opportunity to talk directly with the people who created the objects I was admiring. After speaking with several of the friendly artists, I found that the lifetime of knowledge and dedication to their craft results in products of finer quality than any machine-manufactured replicas you may find on the shelves of stores. It was much more rewarding and engaging to learn from the skilled craftsmen creating these products than it is to make a purchase when my only options come off an assembly line.
The first booth I approached was displaying clay pottery for sale with the potter himself working at his wheel. The artisan, Elihue Shepherd has been using clay as his medium since he first took a pottery class in high school. Since then, he has crafted and painted countless pots, mugs, and dishes that are sold through his business, Clay City Pottery. Over the years, Mr. Shepherd has learned a lot about the complexities of working with clay and is more than happy to share this knowledge with others. He eagerly answered every question I had, and shared with me the history of the many materials he works with and the differences each can contribute to the quality of a finished product. His children also share a fascination for the art, and have already begun making and selling their own pieces of jewelry made of scraps of clay from Shepherd’s projects. The family business thrives as long-developed skills are shared and passed down to new generations, so that Clay City Pottery can continue to provide the community with unique and individualized pottery pieces.
As my ears caught a soothing melody coming from a nearby tent, I followed the sound and was quickly drawn into the next display along with many others. Soaring Raven’s Flute Wonders attracted quite an audience as people gathered to hear the beautiful songs he played on his flute. Soaring Raven is an artist on multiple levels because, for him, there is no final product. He first crafts wood into several kinds of traditional Native American flutes, and then uses them to record music on CDs. Beyond that, he is also willing to provide aspiring musicians with a flute of their own and teach the art of performing. The musical pieces he plays are so calm and peaceful, it seems as though learning to play would be a similar experience. But after he offered to teach me how to play on a beginner’s flute, I quickly learned that picking up a novel instrument is not as easy as it looks. The style of Native American flutes is different than the European reed instruments, and requires controlled and precise air flow and finger movements. Soaring Raven, however, has mastered the technique after years of practice by taking his instrument along on peaceful nature walks where he seeks inspiration.
I soon snapped out of the tranquil state created by Soaring Raven’s music when a harsh clanging of metal caught my attention and I turned to find a blacksmith working at the forge over hot coals to creating various tools and utensils on display for purchase. I watched in awe as his handiwork displayed the skill and time it takes to fashion steel into a useful form, and my appreciation for the seemingly simple knives, axes, and spoons grew with my understanding. A new addition to this year’s festival scene was a series of booths aimed at reviving historic art forms and trades. Mountain Man Mafia ran three booths at Natural Bridge, all dedicated to continuing the history of mountain art, life, and culture. Lacy’s Irish Pub served root beer while playing traditional Irish music. Another sold a large assortment of adorned weaponry, jewelry, and accessories inspired by those worn by mountaineers during America’s settlement.
The festivities lasted all day as I ventured through each booth and embraced the opportunity to learn the crafts of artisans so eager to share their passions with others. In the summer heat, I decided to rest and enjoy delicious BBQ in the shade of the pavilion.
A local bluegrass band provided entertainment in the evening, playing both originals and classics that have been written or often sung in Kentucky. Although they weren’t exactly artisans, another great presence at the festival was the Powell County Search and Rescue Team. This group of volunteers is a pleasant reminder of how members of the community look out for one another, and the appreciation of the locals was evident in the overwhelming support for their booth at the festival.
The Natural Bridge Artisan Festival invites Kentuckians to venture to one of our finest state parks for a weekend filled with nature, history, and art. It’s important to appreciate the natural resources that Kentucky has to offer. There are endless natural wonders such as the Natural Bridge stretching across the mountain ridge, natural materials that can be used to create precious jewelry and decorative pieces, and talented artisans who know how to make the most of these resources and turn them into beautiful things. The Natural Bridge Artisan Festival brought all of these things together for a weekend I won’t soon forget.