The first thing that caught my eye when I walked into the new Heartwood arts center in Abingdon, Va., was the sign behind the hospitality desk. Each letter spelling out the center’s name was carved from a different type of wood. I wanted to leap over the counter and touch them.
Pat Gaskin, the volunteer behind the desk, wouldn’t let me do that, but she did reveal this interesting fact: Each letter was made from a native wood sustainably harvested in the region. A handy fact sheet listed the types in order: walnut, ash, red oak, maple, wormy chestnut, white oak, poplar and cherry. It seemed as if the architects of the 30,000-square-foot facility had made use of an entire forest. And not just in the sign: Native woods are incorporated into almost every part of the building, from the kiosks to the floor to the stage where artists will soon start performing.
Heartwood is an appropriate name for southwest Virginia’s newest attraction, which officially opens this Saturday. Its founders, a coalition of several local art and economic development groups, hope that it will become the heart of the region’s cultural, musical and artisan communities. Another important goal: showcasing the area’s natural beauty.
“The heartwood is the kernel, or the source, within the tree from which springs all this growth and branches,” Todd Christensen, executive director of the Southwest Virginia Cultural Heritage Foundation, told me after my visit. “Heartwood is the gateway. It’s the place where one can discover and explore the culture, the assets and the artisan craft in the entire region.”
I’d driven through southwest Virginia a couple of times before and even overnighted there. But I’d never stopped to take in the local culture. Heartwood was revelatory.
Part visitors center, part museum, part shopping mall, it’s the kind of place you could spend half a day exploring. I started in the lobby, where two large touch screens displayed a map of the region. Press a button, and you’ll unlock a tidbit about a particular town. I touched Marion and found myself reading about Sallie’s Crying Tree, “the lone friend and mentor of a little slave girl, Sallie, who lost her family when they were sold to Lynchburg slaveowners in the 1840s.” The screens are also tools for trip planning. (Within minutes I’d decided on my next two stops: the William King Museum in Abingdon, for more regional art, and the Abingdon Vineyard and Winery.)
The building is laid out in a circle, with a dining room and a stage in the center. I bore left, into a room where the central display, “Explore the Crooked Road Region,” offered a lesson on southwest Virginia’s rich musical history. Naturally, there was a flat-screen TV streaming performances by local musicians. There were also instruments for sale, including a $4,600 Hicks mandolin that I heard a tot strumming — surprisingly well. In another corner was a jukebox, where I played a selection from the album “Mining Songs From the Appalachian Coalfields.” It was called “Dyin’ to Make a Livin’. ” Too mournful. I pressed stop midway through.
The main display in the next room was titled “Hands in Harmony” and included pictures of instrument makers, fiber artists, weavers, blacksmiths and other artisans, plus a little bit about each person’s life story and vision. (Guitarmaker Wayne Henderson of Rugby turned to his craft when he was unable to afford an instrument of his own.)
Along the walls were shelf after shelf of the artisans’ work, all for sale. I eyed a beautiful basket by Ruth Dunn of Damascus. Her weaving was impressive, but my favorite part of the basket was the mahogany fretwork bottom. My least favorite was the price tag: $159.
Small touch screens strategically placed around the room give visitors the opportunity to “Meet the Artisans” on a multimedia level. Click on the Food and Wine category, for example, and you’ll have your choice between a video of Diane Flynt talking about her Foggy Ridge Cider in Dugspur or David and Suzanne Lawson giving a tour of Mountain Rose Vineyards in Wise.
Hungry after hearing so much about food and wine, I made a stop in the restaurant at the heart of Heartwood. The menu was heavy on traditional Southern cooking: corn bread, buttermilk biscuits, smoked brisket, ribs and bread pudding. (I opted for slightly healthier-sounding oven-roasted chicken.)
After lunch, I walked to the other side of the building, where two more galleries offered even more history. Turns out that artisans flocked to the region to make furnishings for the Germans and Scotch-Irish who’d settled the region in the mid-18th century but hadn’t been able to lug all their belongings with them.
At the final display, “A Creative Culture,” I found myself rereading a quote that jumped out at me: “One sure indicator of a great place is the number of artisans who choose to call it home.” After a few hours at Heartwood, I couldn’t wait to go explore their home some more.