SMITHVILLE – Woodworking, glassblowing and pots molded from clay. These are the everyday activities at the Tennessee Tech Appalachian Center for Craft, a Smithville gem that’s experienced a facelift of sorts in recent months.
There’s a host of new staff, some new programs that are set to roll out in 2014 and a fairly new director leading the helm. Jeff Adams, who started in his position in January 2013, is leading the charge.
The Appalachian Center for Craft, a satellite campus of Tennessee Tech and a home – literally – for dozens of students pursuing their bachelor of fine arts degrees, also doubles as a tourist attraction with exhibitions, special events and a sales gallery that features jewelry, ceramics, textiles and more, all nestled on a hill overlooking Center Hill Lake in DeKalb County.
The Center for Craft is not misunderstood, exactly, but Adams wants there to be a larger, renewed focus on what makes it different – with its link to the university and to the community at large, which it hopes to attract in higher numbers.
“We have a different identity. And you don’t necessarily get that if you just come here and walk around,” he said. “(For our students) it’s not just coming in and learning how to throw pots on a wheel. There’s so much of your own personality involved; it all comes back to your own personal experiences, and your work has to speak for itself. It’s tough and emotionally wrenching for students, to put yourself out there in critiques in the classroom everyday.
“But when they leave, even as undergraduates, I think some of them are at a graduate level, because of the quality of the instruction they’re getting and the quality of the facilities that are here, the intensity of living and working alongside professional artists I think is very unique,” he added.
Adams is looking to involve the public a lot in those aspects and daily drivers – as part of his mission to “bring the craft center’s programs to an expanded audience.”
Raised by his grandparents in Lexington, Ky., Adams was heavily influenced by his “backyard tinkerer” of a grandfather. He initially wanted to focus on engineering at the University of Kentucky – but found his math skills were a little lacking.
An advisor suggested he take an art class. It clicked.
“I went from being basically a ‘D’ student to being an ‘A’ student when I got into the art department. That was a big change for me,” he said. “I wanted to be an automotive engineer, but I was struggling, looking at other people who knew exactly what they were doing and I could barely balance a checkbook at the time. I accidently fell into an art class and realized, because of the experiences with my grandfather, I knew how to use the equipment and materials. I felt comfortable. I also found I did better with the faculty, the staff.”
Following his graduation as a Wildcat with a bachelor of fine arts degree in 1990, Adams attended and received his master’s from The Cranbrook Academy of Art, a renowned art and design school in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. He followed that with teaching positions at the University of Notre Dame, Pittsburg State University in Kansas and a 10-year stint at Northern Illinois University. Adams served as director at the Kentucky Center Craft before accepting the same titled role at Appalachian Center for Craft last year.
At a turning point
As director, Adams oversees the center’s gallery, cafe, housing and more, working in close proximity with Ward Doubet, chair of the art department. Most of Adams’ administrative staff, or the managers who help him run the aforementioned gallery and exhibitions, which includes Lindsey Maestri, the exhibitions and programs manager, is also mostly brand new.
Such a wide scale turnover could scream a lack of continuity for some, but Adams sees it as a positive.
“I think that the craft center is at a turning point,” he said. “A lot of people on the administrative staff had been here for some time, and it’s like any system, any department, you eventually get to that tipping point where people start to retire, they get a better position or move on with their lives. That has happened here all at once. It can create difficulties if you don’t have good people to step in, but I feel like I’m fortunate. We’ve had some great hires, people with great credentials who just fell in love with the Craft Center.”
Part of that renewed focus has led to host of new ideas, three that Adams mentioned in particular. First, leaders are looking to start a “C2 Craft Academy” later this spring. Similar to the center’s annual Celebration of Craft event, a one-day open house that features mini-workshops, narrated demonstrations in the center’s studios and more, it will extend those offerings – to both adults and kids – throughout the week and on the weekends.
“That’s going to be a big change for us,” Adams said. “Since we are an academic unit, it’s difficult for us to open up the studios. You can’t really go into a lab in the science department and play around. We’re really looking to extend that idea of Celebrations to where people can look at the Craft Center to be a destination, to come and do things year-round. And it’s really going to involve our artists and residents and studios.”
The C2 Craft Academy – C2 standing for connect and create – is in beginning stages. Space has been identified and is being renovated to serve its purpose, he said, and Adams hopes it will launch alongside Celebrations in April. The second idea, informally, is to expand the Center for Craft’s scope in terms of workshops and summer programming. Last year, the center had a “real successful” high school summer residency program, he said. The center has attracted some new and different instructors, Adams said, and will be offering workshops “that have never been offered before.”
“We’re trying to bring in a little more technology here,” he said. “Some of our workshops are starting to touch on rapid prototyping, 3-D modeling and things that are more computer based. I think that’s coming in the craft world and something we’re starting to look at investing in and having it be part of what we do, too.”
Lastly, there’s bound to be more collaboration: Like what happened recently between art students and those studying in Tech’s engineering department. Adams said undergrads from both disciplines recently worked together on an exhibit for the Kiwanis Cookeville Children’s Museum. He wants partnerships like that to be the norm.
“That’s the kind of thing that n ever really happened before, and we want to build relationships like that,” Adams said. “I think it’s been viewed that we’re not really a part of Tech; that we’re different. I have a different opinion. We are very much a part of Tech, we want to embrace that relationship with the university and not necessarily play it down.”
While 2013 was admittedly a “whirlwind” for Adams, he seemingly has a full plate for 2014 as well. With a host of new ideas to hammer out, there’s no better time to start.
“(Last year) I felt like a shark in the sense that I was always moving,” he said. “It was just bam, bam, bam, bam, bam. Now that I’ve got this great administrative team in place, now that I’ve been through a full-year cycle here, we really want to start implementing our game plan. That’s where we’re at right now. And it’s something we’re all very excited about.”
Jeff Adams is director of the Tennessee Tech Appalachian Center for Craft in Smithville. For more information, call (931) 372-6875 or visit www.tntech.edu/craftcenter.