Creative Focus

Home Page Creative Focus photo: Ashe Co. Arts Council “New River Traditions” Mural

Above: Watauga Arts Council logo/banner; Art Lessons at Wilkes Gallery

Our Local Arts Councils:Strengthening communities and enriching life in the mountains through celebrations of art

By Emily Webb

Those who love western North Carolina know that the region is rich not just in natural beauty, but in opportunities for artistic expression and appreciation. This strong emphasis on the arts is due in large part to the dedicated individuals who run local arts councils.

Engagement with the arts is linked to better outcomes for school-aged children, stronger and more vibrant communities, and even economic growth. In rural, less-populated areas—like the High Country—arts councils play a vital role in ensuring residents and visitors have access to enriching artistic experiences.

“People need to experience the arts, both through big events and in their daily lives, and they need different kinds of experiences and perspectives,” said Joni Ray, executive director of the Ashe County Arts Council. “If you don’t have access to that in the community, the community is not going to thrive and flourish.”

Ray, who grew up in West Jefferson and has directly benefited from public art programming throughout her life, has seen firsthand how access to the arts can transform a community. She gives Jane Lonon, the former executive director of the council, a large part of the credit for transforming downtown West Jefferson from a street full of empty buildings into a vibrant and thriving community center. According to Ray, it was Lonon’s idea to feature art in the windows of empty storefronts, increasing foot traffic downtown. Now, the arts council hosts monthly art crawls during the summer to promote downtown businesses and work by local artists.

The benefits of public art programming goes beyond the economic benefit. Brooke Horn, the executive director of the Wilkes Art Gallery, experienced the power of the arts to improve the lives of individuals and families through the implementation of the Skyview Art Club. Horn was able to use art to teach students important lessons in emotional resilience, self-expression, emotional and environmental health, and more. Engaging in the act of creation even helped some students no longer need counseling.

“It gave them an opportunity to pour art into everyday life,” Horn shared.

Arts councils work in tandem with city and county governments, passionate community members, and artists to put together events and other programs that enrich the community as a whole. Horn and her team work with other local organizations like The Health Foundation and the Housing Authority to identify areas of need where art might offer a solution. Horn believes that art has a powerful ability to both address issues in society and improve people’s lives on an individual basis.

“Art speaks a different language,” she said. “It speaks to our heart and soul. There are parts of ourselves that aren’t being spoken to except through art. I truly believe that we are meant to create.”

Along with sponsoring classes and events throughout the year, arts councils encourage the pursuit of art by providing funding opportunities for local artists, working with towns and counties to display art in public spaces, coordinating with local schools to get art into the classroom, and more. A goal that most local art councils share is showing that art is foundational to who we are as people, and it’s something that everyone can and should engage with.

“A lot of people equate art with going to a gallery, but your everyday experience includes much more art than you realize,” Ray explained. “I don’t think life would be very worth living without art.”

Support these vital community institutions this summer by enjoying the events, camps, and exhibits being hosted by our local arts councils.


Ashe County Arts Council

Gallery Crawls take place on the first Friday of each month from 5 to 7 p.m. throughout the summer and early fall. The first crawl was held June 9, with the rest following on July 14, August 11, September 8, and October 13. This year, even more downtown businesses will stay open late to participate. Art lovers will find plenty to enjoy with both free public art—including the famous West Jefferson murals—and pieces from local artists to purchase.

The Ashe County Bluegrass and Old Time Fiddlers Convention returns July 26–27. This celebration of traditional mountain music features a live radio show by 580 WKSK, individual and group competitions with over $4,000 in prizes, more. All proceeds from the convention go toward supporting local youth programs. Tickets can be purchased online at or in person at the gate.

The arts council sponsors two youth summer camps: Cre8ive Drama Day Camp (in partnership with Ashe County Little Theatre) July 8–12, and JAM Camp July 22–23. During the weeklong Cre8ive Drama Day Camp, children between the ages of 6 and 18 will take classes that use theatre exercises to develop important life skills like cooperation and problem-solving. To register, visit

JAM (Junior Appalachian Musicians) Camp is a two-day workshop for students ages 8–18 who have participated in a semester of the JAM program or private lessons and students going into 3rd–8th grade who have no prior music experience. The two-day camp immerses students in traditional music and dancing. Instruments will be available for use. To register, visit

Visit or Ashe County Arts Council on Facebook to learn more about upcoming art exhibits and weekly musical performances.

Toe River Arts Council

The Toe River Arts Council serves Avery, Mitchell, and Yancey counties. The arts council operates out of the Owen Gallery in Spruce Pine, where they host art exhibitions as well as monthly life drawing classes for ages 16 and up.

This summer, the council is sponsoring several artistic workshops:

  • Paper Camp with Alena Applerose, June 24–28, 10 a.m.–12 p.m.
    • This week-long camp for ages 8 and up will teach participants how to create different works of art using paper techniques. Guest artist Iris Rountree will also lead a class on paper making.
  • Statement Necklaces with Alena Applerose, July 13, 10 a.m.–1 p.m.
  • Introduction to Print-Making with Claudia Dunaway Richards, August 10, 10 a.m.–3 p.m.
  • Marbling on Cloth with Alena Applerose, September 21, 10 a.m.–3 p.m.

More information about these classes can be found at

Watauga Arts Council

Elementary, middle, and high school-aged children can let their creativity flow during weekly art classes in June and July at the Watauga Arts Council building in Boone.

  • Ages 6–9 meet every Tuesday from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m.
  • Ages 10–14 meet every Thursday from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m.
  • Ages 14 and up meet every Thursday from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m.
    • These are less structured classes and more an opportunity to work on art projects using provided materials, although an instructor will be present.

Adults and teenagers are invited to participate in a traditional Appalachian art form during Barn Quilt Workshops in June and July. The first workshop is June 19 and 20, 6–9 p.m. both days. The second workshop is July 18 and 19, also 6–9 p.m.

Learn more and register at

Wilkes Art Gallery

This summer, the gallery is hosting a juried art exhibition featuring work by artists from northwestern North Carolina. Pieces can be dropped off July 9–10 from 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The opening reception for the exhibition will be held July 19, 5:30–7:30 p.m. The exhibition will be juried by Betty Powell and there will also be a People’s Choice winner. Voting for the People’s Choice work will take place July 19 and 20. The gallery has camps for kids all summer long, including beginner’s pottery, educational workshops about artists like Matisse and Van Gogh, tapestry weaving, and cake decorating. Classes are divided by age group. To see the full list of options and register, visit or

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