The best thing in Gatlinburg is off the beaten path, but just by a hundred feet or so. A sign at the driveway and three kiosks next to the Arrowcraft Shop are about the only glimpses of Arrowmont that one sees from the Parkway. Located on the property near where Pi Beta Phi Fraternity for Women established a Settlement School in 1912, Arrowmont is an arts and crafts school of world renown. And unless you know where to look, you might miss seeing it in the hustle and bustle of Gatlinburg.
My first visit to Arrowmont was in 1991 for a meeting. In my head I heard May Lansfield Keller’s first-hand account of her arduous travels to Gatlinburg after the 1910 vote of the Pi Beta Phi convention body to establish a school in Appalachia. What I encountered as we entered Gatlinburg was not what I had pictured in my mind. But in that trip and in my subsequent trips there, I could see glimpses of those early Pi Beta Phi Settlement School years. The signs of Arrowmont’s rich heritage are there if you know where to look. The red barn that was the site of the first film shown in Gatlinburg is now a dormitory for Arrowmont students. Teachers Cottage (Helmick House), also used today as housing for Arrowmont students, was designed in the early 1900s by two women, sisters who were Iowa State Pi Beta Phi members and architects. It was designed as a model home; the cement that was poured for the foundation was something the locals had not encountered until that time. The Pi Beta Phi Elementary School carries the name of the fraternity that brought education to the community one hundred years ago.
Pi Beta Phi chapters and clubs helped create a market for the handcrafted items the local residents made; the Arrowcraft Shop opened as a local venue for the sale of these items. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park was established in the years after the Settlement School began and tourism became an industry. The Sevier County Board of Education took over more and more of the educational responsibilities that had been done by the Settlement School and by the 1960s, full responsibility for the school was assumed by the county.
In 1945, the first Arts and Crafts Workshop took place. When Pi Beta Phi was seeking a Centennial Project to mark its first 100 years in 1967, an arts and crafts school was a natural segue. Arrow in the Smokies, the first name of the project, became Arrowmont, Pi Beta Phi’s Centennial Project.
Arrowmont is a rare gem. The array of classes is exceptional and all levels of experience are welcomed in classes. Arrowmont has been a potent force in the lives of its students. One of my favorite stories about how Arrowmont changes lives is one that appeared in the Summer 2004 Arrow of Pi Beta Phi.
Cathy Swengel Hunt was almost finished with her geology degree at the University of Illinois when she was offered an opportunity to attend Arrowmont on a scholarship given by the Champaign-Urbana Alumnae Club of Pi Beta Phi. It seems that all the Pi Beta Phi chapter’s art majors were busy that summer so Cathy traveled to Gatlinburg for a class about silk-screening on fabric. As the class winded down, Marian Heard, the Director of Arrowmont, spoke with Cathy about purchasing one of her pieces for Arrowmont’s permanent collection, but she cautioned Cathy that she might need it for a one-person show or for a grad school application. That is when Cathy confessed that she was not an art student and would not need the piece. She donated it to Arrowmont. Marian Heard told Cathy she had a good eye and a goodly amount of talent. She discouraged Cathy from changing her major so close to graduation but encouraged her to pursue her interest in art.
After graduation from the University of Illinois, Cathy married and found work as a geologist. But she took art classes in the evening. When the Hunts moved to Houston, Cathy ditched geology and became a full time art student after taking another class at Arrowmont. Today she teaches printmaking and book arts at the University of Houston. She has also served as President of the Arrowmont Board of Governors.
As Arrowmont approaches its 50th year as a premier arts and crafts educational institution, it is on solid footing. Executive Director Bill May, a talented artist himself, has made tremendous strides in a short time at the helm. I have no doubt that Arrowmont’s future is bright.
Arrowmont can change lives. Maybe it can change yours. Take a look at the course catalog, http://www.arrowmont.org/. Sign up for a class, pack your bags and head to Gatlinburg. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised!