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Stories from the Smokies

Jeff Marley’s enthusiasm for the programs at the Nantahala School for the Arts (NSA) is contagious as he leads a tour through the 1943 Almond Elementary School building just west of Bryson City, NC in the Smoky Mountains. As Heritage Arts Department Chair, Southwestern Community College (SCC), Jeff is as comfortable helping repair a kiln or operating a printing press, as he is talking to groups about all the programs at the school and their effect on the students – young and old.

The Heritage Arts program started in 2006 with a grant from the Blue Ridge Heritage Area Partnership. One of the reasons for the Heritage Area being created in Swain County was that there was no Arts Council and there still is not one.  As Jeff says, “The idea was to create an access point for folks to be able to do some of the traditional art forms – and contemporary art forms – that would lend themselves both to an economic creation of business as well as for the general enjoyment for the population. Also, one of the things I am excited about for the program is that the NSA is part of the Blue Ridge Craft Trails.

“What we have here are some of the larger studio spaces that we couldn’t duplicate somewhere else like ceramics and pottery, printmaking and weaving. And then we also have “messy arts” like basketmaking and herbal medicine, which fit into the heritage mission of the school for utilitarian crafts passed down generationally.”

(above) Potter Joe Frank McKee teaches a class at SWCC’s Nantahala School for the Arts.


A hunk of clay becomes an elegant bowl.

Jeff Marley with tray of Cherokee syllabary printing type

Elise Delfield working at a pottery wheel

Elise with a finished pitcher at one of the Center’s kilns

The two best known classes and studios are Ceramics / Pottery and Printmaking. The ceramics area includes the glaze lab, work space with tables for up to a dozen potters, the wheels, and the kiln space with 4 kilns indoors, and an outdoor area with the wood, gas and Raku kilns. The studio also teaches digital photography and has a camera and lighting equipment to photograph finished pieces.

The Printmaking area includes letterpress type in English and in the Cherokee Syllabary, and multiple printing options from linotypes, monotypes, proof presses and silk screen printing, to book arts. Students create posters, postcards and more. Use of the Cherokee syllabary type may include researching the words in English and Cherokee and then creating art.

Anyone over 16 years of age may enroll in the classes, which run from beginner to advanced. Those 16 and under may enroll during the summer semester in the kids camps and classes such as woodcarving, printmaking, primitive cooking, primitive toys and games, and block printing.

Each year, the program hosts several visiting artists. These workshops and demonstrations provide an opportunity for students and community members to network, learn, and spend time with accomplished working artists. These events are free and open to the public.

The program also serves as a community art space, giving individuals the ability to book Independent studio time, which is available with prior notice for printmaking, pottery, ceramics and weaving. Also, anyone can contact the school to request on-demand, one-day classes. A Craft Entrepreneurship Workshop is held at the Sylva SWCC campus.

Each year,  the program hosts two festivals to showcase the work of over thirty regional artists.  There are also demonstrations, live music, DIY craft activities and food vendors. The Summer Festival (second Saturday in July) and the Holiday Festival (second Saturday in November) both celebrate the rich craft heritage of the region.

A collection of kiln-ready works in progress


Jeff Marley
Heritage Arts Department Chair
Southwestern Community College
60 Almond School Road
Bryson City, NC 28713


Information on classes