A decade ago, just off I-75 in Berea, the Commonwealth launched an experiment in marketing. It built the Kentucky Artisan Center and stocked its shelves with locally made products. The center has since been a stop for travelers seeking arts and crafts, a meal and a clean restroom. WEKU’s Charles Compton reports.
It doesn’t bother Victoria Faoro that clean restrooms are a big attraction. Faoro, who directs the Kentucky Artisan Center, says during the last ten years, over two million travelers have stopped in Berea to use the public restrooms. Some are first time visitors, but there are regulars.
“It’s challenging because we don’t always have exactly the same customer, so we are trying to meet the needs of a wide variety of people. But, what a wonderful thing to be able to introduce people newly to Kentucky or to offer them a place they can always come to and find Kentucky products and find out what’s happening throughout the state,” said Faero.
When the Kentucky Artisan Center was built near Berea, it was modeled after a similar facility in West Virginia called Tamarack. Like Tamarack, the Kentucky Artisan Center is situated near a major interstate and offers locally made products.
It’s a trend that’s caught on. Faoro says officials from other states now come to Berea, hoping to launch similar centers back home.
“Many of them talk about the fact that we have quality work but that there’s a great price range and a style range. They like the fact that that we’re meeting the needs and interests of lots of people and that’s something we’ve really focused on, that no matter where you are in the center, you can take home a piece of Kentucky even if you don’t have a huge amount of money to spend, you can find things that are interesting to you, even if maybe you only thought you were stopping for a rest stop on the highway,” said Faero.
In celebration of their 10th anniversary, pieces from 52 artists who first showed work at the center are on display. And, Assistant Director Debbie Giannini says the display keeps changing.
"We sell pieces from exhibits, when we have exhibits up and then the artist replaces them. And, this has just been a real popular exhibit, we've sold several pieces from it. It's a variety of items. We have baskets and dulcimers, scarves, pottery, two-dimensional art, glass pieces. It represents a little bit of everything that we have here at the center," said Giannini.
"We sold a dulcimer right off the bat and then we've replaced that. We've had just…one of a kind things fascinate people and those kinds of things sell real well," added Giannini.
One piece that gets a lot of attention is a stained glass sculpture created by Lexington artist Dan Barnes. Diamond-shaped in a black metal frame, it stands in the corner like a diamond. It’s red and blue squares bend light into a circle, but then, at its center, the glass mosaic defies two dimensions and bulges outward like a luminescent kiss.
“He specializes in these showcase pieces of art and that was one we were really tickled to death to have because I think almost everybody that comes in here has mentioned that. I would love to have a humongous house and put that in there. I think that would just be gorgeous because I love the color. And, he does such colorful art...it's beautiful," said Giannini.
The products offered in Berea are diverse. Some items are pretty pricy, but there also low tech, low cost merchandise meant for school kids.
At the cash register, Tom Graham of Dayton Ohio found beauty in bark-covered birdhouses. Graham, who’s on his way to Somerset, Kentucky, stops by the Artisan Center whenever he’s in the neighborhood.
“I just like the craftsmanship of them. I got one for myself and one for my mother, so enjoy having rustic things outdoors. These two will go outdoors and the other birdhouse is a birthday present for my mother. That one will probably stay inside.”
“Have you stopped here before?”
“Yes I have, several times. Everytime we go pass, we stop. Pretty much every time, I think we (buy something).”
Kentucky’s culinary arts are also on display. In the Artisan Center’s café and grill, Monday’s are meatloaf day. There’s country fried steak on Tuesdays and chicken with dumplings is served on Wednesdays. Plus, there are always salads and baked goods.
As servers prepare lunch, executive director Victoria Faoro sits down at a table. After a decade of work developing the center itself, increasingly, her attention has been drawn outside their walls. For example, within the next year, the Artisan Center will sell Kentucky-made goods on-line.
“One of the things that's important to us as we head into the next ten years is to kind of capitalize on the great reputation the center has had and its products and artisans and experiences. Many people travelling have discovered that Kentucky does have great things to offer, they've liked what they've found here. Now we're really in a wonderful opportunity to be able encourage them to travel throughout the state, to interact with Kentucky long distance, via the internet, if that's the only way they can do it sometimes. We've got great potential I think for just involving people around the country and around the world with Kentucky," said Faero.
The official 10th anniversary celebration takes place over three days this summer. Beginning July 19, re-enactors will portray famous Kentuckians, such as Colonel Harland Sanders. Also, artisans will create clay jugs, wooden hats and wire sculptures. Plus local musicians and chefs will also mark the occasion.