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NC Travel Chat #12: The Incredible Toe River Arts w/ Nealy Andrews

Published by Carl Hedinger. Last Updated on March 20, 2024.

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For this episode of NC Travel Chat, we’re doing things a little bit differently and focusing on an arts council, specifically, the Toe River Arts that supports and promotes the art scenes of two Western North Carolina counties (Yancey and Mitchell).

Nealy Andrews is the Executive Director of Toe River Arts and during our interview, she shares the ways she and her team are helping area artists pivot to e-commerce and social media marketing.

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Nealy Andrews Interview Summary

During this interview, you’ll learn about the Toe River Arts and why they’re serving a more crucial role now than ever before. You can learn more about the organization on its website and Facebook page.

Artist Shoutouts include:

More Toe River Artists can be found here.

Additional Shoutouts include the following:

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Nealy Andrews Interview Transcript

Nealy Andrews: [01:59]

We’re a small arts council we’ve been around since 1976, so one of the oldest in the state. We’re actually the only arts council in the state of North Carolina that serves multiple counties. And so for us, that’s really exciting. We have a wonderful support system here, but also sometimes means that our resources are stretched a little bit more thin.

Carl Hedinger: [02:23]

So are you based in Burnsville or Spruce Pine?

Nealy Andrews: [02:26]

It depends on who you ask, but our administrative offices have been in Burnsville since about 2006. Recently, we did move them to Spruce Pine, but that was only to consolidate the staff to get them to one location.

It’s just easier as I’m sure you can imagine having everybody in one place, but we do have a location in Burnsville and one in Spruce Pine.

Carl Hedinger: [02:51]

And on a personal note, what brought you to this area?

Nealy Andrews: [02:56]

That is a very long convoluted story, but I will, I will keep it short. So I actually went to school at Appalachian in Boone, which is not too far away. I moved away for a few years, lived and worked in downtown Raleigh and came back up to Western North Carolina for a job and moved to this small rural community for another job at the community college.

And so I’ve always been involved with the arts and the arts council’s director who had been there for 30 years was retiring. So it was kind of the perfect opportunity and fit for me and everything just kind of fell into place at the perfect time.

A little bit more about the arts council. We have over 250 artist members just in our membership.

So, that’s quite a few for a rural community.

And we like to say that we have more than 500 living in this two-county area, which means, um, we have one of the highest per capita number of artists per people in the state compared to larger cities, larger urban areas like Orange County (Chapel Hill) and Mecklenburg County.

We are actually above a few of those for a number of artists in our area.

Carl Hedinger: [04:15]

One of the cool things I liked about driving around the area was when you’re you pass a mailbox and you see the stripe of the three colors, right?

Nealy Andrews: [04:24]

Yes, exactly. So that is our Toe River Arts brand. We went through a major rebranding a couple of years ago.

And so all of our artists kind of, I feel like, consider that a point of pride because they recognize how special this area is. And they’re proud to say that they are a Toe River Arts artist. And so we have a three-color branding scheme.

And so many of our artists actually have signs outside their studios that tell everyone driving by that they’re there they’re a Toe River Arts artist, which is pretty amazing because I’m sure that you saw driving around some of these windy roads. You would just happen upon one in a completely random spot that you weren’t expecting.

Carl Hedinger: [05:11]

Yeah, exactly. One thing, uh, that came to mind during that is that.
Around the Penland area. There do seem to be quite a few. Is there a big relationship between the Toe River Arts and Penland?

Nealy Andrews: [05:25]

Yeah, absolutely. You know, Penland School of Craft has been around much, much longer than we have, and it’s a very respected craft school and there aren’t very many of them in the United States and it’s one that’s world-renowned.

And so what happens, I think, is, a lot of times we have pretty amazing and well-respected artists who will come here for a class or a concentration, and they fall in love with the area as we all do.

And they stay, which is wonderful and beneficial for all of us.
So a lot of them are concentrated around the Penland area because it’s just as beautiful as anywhere else in the county.

And it’s kind of a community for them, for sure.

Carl Hedinger: [06:09]

Yeah, it was, we drove around, it was just gorgeous in that area and it was foggy too. And we couldn’t even get the view, but I mean, it was captivating.

Nealy Andrews: [06:19]

Even the fog is beautiful.

Carl Hedinger: [06:23]

As the Toe River Arts, what are some things that you do for the artists and the community too?

Nealy Andrews: [06:29]

Absolutely. We do a lot of promotional work for our artists, whether it’s through advertising or going on news programs or podcasts to talk about what we do just to bring a larger audience to our small, tiny pocket of the community. But we also have exhibition space in our galleries that artists can apply for at least once a year, sometimes more.

We also offer grant opportunities for artists to apply for funding for equipment. They might need to increase their skill, their trade, or their craft. And then we also partner with many different community organizations to host group shows or exhibitions or festivals. For example, the Blacksmith Festival is just one of my most favorite things that we participate in.

It actually happens in Mitchell County and Spruce Pine, but every year, usually in April, obviously this year was a little bit different, but, there’s a huge Blacksmith Festival in downtown Spruce Pine.

And so we host an exhibition from blacksmiths from all over the country, and that brings people from all over. And then Penland brings in a master blacksmith that usually gives a lecture in our building.

And it’s all different sorts of people, all different generations. And it’s just like a warm friendly event where you can purchase, you know, anything metal you can imagine, but also see people making these things on the street. So just all kinds of things.

We also work in the schools here to provide arts programming to elementary through 12th grade, usually, and bringing performances to elementary, middle, and high school.

And then we also offer free music, lessons, guitar, and banjo, and all the middle schools in these two counties.

Carl Hedinger: [08:33]

That’s so cool.

Nealy Andrews: [08:36]


Carl Hedinger: [08:37]

Other than that, are there any other events you would do during a typical year?

Nealy Andrews: [08:41]

Our studio tours are well known all over the country. We have one of the largest and longest-running studio tours in the United States.

We offer it twice a year. So it’s always the first weekend in June and the first weekend in December.

So we have over a hundred artists who open their homes. You can come see art being made right in front of you. And then also buy handmade gifts, right from the artists, which is pretty amazing. It’s a big event for the artists. They earn revenue.

Obviously this year, unfortunately we had to cancel the June tour and our tour in December is going to be a little bit different.

It’s going to be all virtual, which for us is going to be something new and innovative to try.

But what we’re gonna do, it’s going to be over a five-week period instead of just a weekend. Anybody who visits our website for the virtual tour during that time, will have a chance to purchase one of a kind handmade gifts for the artists and help them bring in some revenue for the holidays.

Because the December tour is historically when folks come up to purchase gifts, holiday gifts, we’re really hoping even that it’ll be a bit different this year, it’s still gonna be a really big revenue generator for our artists.

Carl Hedinger: [10:03]

I hope so.

Nealy Andrews: [10:05]

I know we hope so too. It’s, it’s interesting to see how people have pivoted and changed through all of this.

One of the exciting things for us, I believe, and for our community is that we’re helping a lot of our artists suddenly have an online presence and be able to sell work online, which they haven’t been able to do before. And so, we’ve had a lot of community partners, chip in funding for that.

So I think, in the long run, might actually help them. Bring in some more revenue, which is great, not only for the artists, but for our community as well.

Carl Hedinger: [10:39]

So as far as pivoting goes, are you offering them help to set up social media?

Nealy Andrews: [10:44]

Yeah, exactly. So we are working with our local community college’s small business center. Mayland Community College has an amazing small business center and a really well-respected one in the state and they are working with us to help any artists who want to set up social media, set up an e-commerce platform.

For the studio tour, but really long term, they’re going to be able to consult with that artist and build all of that out for them and teach them how to use these tools. So they’ve been an incredible partner for us. We’ve always offered free artists business classes through the small business center.

And so this is just kind of an extension of that partnership.

Carl Hedinger: [11:26]

That’s really cool.

Nealy Andrews: [11:28]

Yeah. And I will say our website, which we’ll probably talk about in a little bit, but you can go to our website and buy work straight from our website, from these artists.

Carl Hedinger: [11:39]

That’s really cool. And so you don’t have to go. I mean, of course I imagine the artists would love for you to go direct to their websites, but I mean, in a way that’s convenient.

Nealy Andrews: [11:51]

Yeah, we do list all of our artists who are members on our website, and if they have a e-commerce page where they sell their own work, we’ll list it there. But also if they have worked for sale in our shop, it’s listed there as well.

Carl Hedinger: [12:07]

Wow. that’s interesting. Eventually, we’re going to get into three other artists that we had the pleasure of meeting while we were there.

I know you’re not allowed to play favorites, but are there any other artists that you’d like to give a shout out to just in particular?

Nealy Andrews: [12:23]

Oh gosh, there’s so many, you know, and you don’t, you don’t want to make one person grumpy, but they all understand. I mean, we do this year-round. We. We just have a new artist member who I’m super excited about her name as Kit Paulson.

She’s a glass artist. And if you go to our website, her glasswork is kind of really contemporary, but she also makes beautiful jewelry and these tiny little vases that are the cutest little things you’ve ever seen. We just started selling those in our retail shops and they’re, they’re selling really well.

So we’re excited about Kit. She’s pretty interesting.

And then one of my favorites, they’re just wonderful people, warm and friendly, and their studio is open pretty much year-round. You might have to make an appointment, but they also have normal operating hours. Rutkowsky Pottery. It’s a husband and wife team.

And their styles are very different, but they’re both very whimsical. And the majority of what they make are usable, functional pieces of pottery. So plates and mugs and vases, all of that kind of stuff. But just warm and friendly and open and very good community partners, I would say.

So their studio is always worth the stop.

Carl Hedinger: [13:48]

I know that was tough. Thank you for going there.

Nealy Andrews: [13:52]

Sure. I may get in a little bit of trouble, but that’s okay.

Carl Hedinger: [13:54]

All right. Well, I’ll edit that out if need be. So you went to App and you’ve kind of come back to the area. I didn’t realize you were in Raleigh for a while.

That’s cool. But outside of Burnsville, Do you have a favorite part of North Carolina or town? I’m going to put you on the spot again.

Nealy Andrews: [14:14]

I know, I know this is a really hard question for me. Obviously, I have a deep love for the mountains of North Carolina. I’ve spent a lot of my time here. I grew up in the Piedmont, so really not too far away.

And Raleigh and Durham are great just for a whole urban lively city scene.

But I will tell you about one place that I’ve been wanting to go and I haven’t made it down yet but is to Wilson. I don’t know if you all have made it there yet just to go to the Whirligig Park. I studied it for a project I was working on in pretty great detail in it.

There’s just something that seems so magical and one to call about it. I haven’t quite made it down there yet, but I’m excited to.

Carl Hedinger: [14:57]

It’s such a cool place, especially if the wind is blowing, cause they’ll all start moving around. It’s so cool to see in person. I hope you make it.

Nealy Andrews: [15:09]

Thank you so much.

Carl Hedinger: [15:12]

So do you ever make it back up to Boone?

Nealy Andrews: [15:14]

I do. I was going about once a week, but, you know, given everything that’s going on now, not so much, but it’s amazing to see how much it’s changed over the years with the school getting bigger, which is pretty incredible, but there’s always those super secret spots that way that we love, you know. Going up to the fire tower up there or up to Howard’s Knob park, which is right above the city.

You can see a really expansive view of all of Boone. And it’s really easy to get to. It’s just kind of straight up, but it’s right off the road downtown. And then we kind of grew up in college going to Hebron Rock Colony.

I don’t know if that’s still accessible or not, but that’s a great place to just wade around in the water. Boone is pretty incredible.

Carl Hedinger: [16:10]

Yeah. That was that the fire tower you’re talking about. Is that the one that’s at Moses Cone?

Nealy Andrews: [16:15]


Carl Hedinger: [16:16]

Yeah. That was a fun hike. I went to the top of that and that got scary.

Nealy Andrews: [16:21]

Yeah. It’s not for the faint of heart for sure.

Carl Hedinger: [16:27]

In the Piedmont, was it Hickory you were from?

Nealy Andrews: [16:33]

Yeah. Say it was an interesting place to grow up. Um, so much furniture files there, you know, and being at the base of the mountains, it was, um, easy to come up for a day trip or for the weekend. It didn’t take very long at all. And it’s changed a lot too.

Unfortunately, I haven’t spent much time down there in the last few years, but I know it’s growing again and seems to be doing quite well. So.

Carl Hedinger: [16:56]

Yeah, we were just at Olde Hickory recently. That was a beautiful taproom on the inside.

Nealy Andrews: [17:01]

It is, it is really nice there. Yeah. I’m very impressed and excited about that for them.

Carl Hedinger: [17:08]

Well, Nealy, thank you so much for taking time to chat with me. Um, you mentioned your website a little bit in detail, but just in case anybody needs to learn anything about the Toe River Arts and your history, where can they find you?

Nealy Andrews: [17:21]

Sure. It’s And if you go there, all of our artists are listed on that page, uh, information about our history, E-commerce if you want to buy something directly from the artists, all information about the educational programming we’re doing as well, and it stays updated pretty frequently. So it changes.

Then, you can also go to our Facebook page, which is Toe River Arts.

Carl Hedinger: [17:50]

Awesome. Thank you so much. And I wish you all the best as we go into the fall season and have a great day.

Nealy Andrews: [17:58]

Thanks. You, too.

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