Western North Carolina Woman

dark horse gallery
by sandi tomlin-sutker

Deborah James says Dark Horse Gallery & Curiosities is only the first of the Willful Women Enterprises.

The idea for the gallery, located in Forest City, really started when Deborah realized she couldn't even get a job at the local McDonald's. She tells us that Rutherford County has the second highest rate of unemployment in North Carolina. A rash of textile and other plant closings over the past few years led to the county being declared a Historically Underutilized Business area, so grants were available for enterprises that could employ local people.

Deborah doesn't consider herself an artist, although she is learning, and loving, pottery. But she does have a good business sense and she knew there were lots of unemployed artists in the area. Two of them are her friends Emily Matlega and Amanda Rethman. The three women, along with several women volunteers they call the Dark Horse Angels (we met two the day we visited—Doris Medford and Marsha Laird) have done an amazing job in creating this gallery.

The big white Victorian at 381 W. Main Street sits in the midst of seven large white homes—all empty and deteriorating over the past 15 years. Everything needed repairing in the house, from the leaking roof to rotten floor boards, to broken plumbing. Months of dirty work, heavy physical labor, sweat and tears later, the gallery feels homey and comfortable, with much of the natural charm of that era restored.

Today the gallery contains work from 62 local artists/craftspeople. Several of them have gallery space in Asheville and Deborah says 25% of their artists are making a living at their craft. There are glass artists and painters and sculptors; there are wood carvers, metal workers, beaders, basket weavers, jewelry designers and more. Emily Matlega is a painter, including Habersham furniture painting, as well as making jewelry and helping run the gallery. Amanda Rethman's list of skills and talents was long—including pottery, beading, painting, drawing, metal work and wood carving—and that's just the abridged list. If you've ever seen Dawson's Creek, you'll see her work on the wall next to the stairway in the beginning scene)...and she's only in her twenties, folks!

In addition to providing a place to display and sell their work, the gallery helps artists jury into the Southern Highlands Craft Guild, takes work to festivals such as Asheville's Belle Chere and Charleston's Spoletto. Deborah was also able to secure group Major Medical for the gallery's participants (many of whom lost those benefits when they lost their jobs) and she continues to try to find grants to help support the gallery and the artists.

Dark Horse Gallery is part of a real community, both of artists, craftspeople, art lovers, tourists and residents. They believe firmly that there must be mutual support in this venture. To that end, they have held a birdhouse aution for Habitat for Humanity; another fundraiser for a local youth group that helps people in need with home repairs and maintenence. On June 5th they will host a Petting Zoo (including llamas) and bake sale to help local animal shelters. They've gathered potters who are making soup bowls to sell to benefit the Grace of God soup kitchen.

And within the gallery community itself, there is mutual respect and egalitarianism. For instance, an award winning painter could be displayed alongside a local folk artist—both artists recognizing the worth of each other's work. One well-known artist, Prudence Kohl, contributes part of her proceeds to an organization called PATH (Preventing Abuse in the Home).

To further participate in their community and as a way to increase the income of its artists, the gallery holds classes such as the painting course taught by Nikki Hicks. A next step in the growth of the gallery and its community of artists will be to purchase one of the houses next door to create a non-profit facility to teach everything from basketry to metallurgy to pottery.

We encourage you to visit Dark Horse Gallery & Curiosities, located at 381 W. Main Street, Forest City, NC (about an hour south of Asheville and an easy 40 minutes from historic Saluda). It is open from 10:00 am to 5 pm on Monday through Saturday, year round, though if you get there aftere six and give a holler, one of the artists who lives upstairs is likely to let you on in.

We will whet your appetite for an expedition to Forest City on the next two pages.
Deborah James shows us just what a willful woman can do when she puts her mind to it. Expect to hear more about these extraordinary women in upcoming issues.

[828-245-0205; dmj5@bellsouth.net]


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