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Cows, Clay, Country

A painted tile by Whitesboro's Martha Van Vlack.

Artisans open their homes and studios in Allegany County

Allegany County has country roads that wend past quiet homes and through small towns. Tractors crawl over cow-dotted hills and the occasional horse seems to pose in the fields. People raise alpaca in meadows, selling their wool at Alfred Station’s knitting shop. It looks ordinary but this is gem-studded farmland with colleges and universities, community orchestras, and village bands, as well as an enclave of artisans who invite people into their homes and studios during the annual Allegany Artisans Studio Tour.

Twenty-three years ago a group of artisans got together in Andover and their conversation sparked the creation of the Allegany Artisans, who chose to coordinate one of the first art trails in New York State. In their studios, potters explained the process while working with clay. Carvers demonstrated how they felt their way through the shaping of a chunk of wood and blacksmiths clanged steel into roses and vines. Visitors liked watching, listening, and talking, so the studio tour became an annual event. Every year since, hundreds of people have driven up long, curving driveways and down the streets of towns to watch people work with traditional materials and methods in innovative ways.

Husband and wife Jim Horn and H.M. Bateman are regulars on the tour. Horn, a quiet guy, communicates in plastic using this simple material to form wearable giggles. Bateman never leaves home without a pin on her jacket, another on her blouse, and maybe a third tucked in her purse just in case she needs it. Look at his work until you find the one that reaches out a small paw to tweak your smile.

A barn hanging from Orlando Forge Metal Studio in Belmont.

Peter Midgley grew up in Allegany County and thought he’d left the place behind, but he now lives and works in Wellsville, in his childhood home where he produces stacks of pots and hundreds of mugs—many with little people crawling over the lip. Midgley sets up his Raku kiln in the driveway (if it’s not raining) and astonishes people when flames lick through billowing smoke as he inserts a dull, raw pot, waits just a few minutes, and then pulls out a transformed piece that’s cherry-red and smoking hot. Find Laurie Johnson at Midgley’s, too. Laurie invented the Wear Bear Hat which she now makes in sizes infant to adult and in species bear, frog, dog, duck and whatever suits her fancy.

Wellsville might be considered a small town but only by people who haven’t found Whitesville and Marcia Van Vlack, tile artist. Whitesville’s school has about 200 students but the town is huge in spirit. The people rally around town soccer teams, ambulance corps fundraisers, and their neighbors.

Inside the Whitesville Library are tiles from a project organized by Marcia Van Vlack. Van Vlack usually makes backsplashes for kitchens, wall hangings of birds or landscapes, and even tiny tiles of snowmen that demand a moment of pause and appreciation. Van Vlack’s life is a juggling act of art and family life including community service and a part-time teaching job but she found time to surround her own kitchen with richly flowered tiles that pop from a black background.

North of Wellsville, in Belmont, is a husband-wife team with skills including singing, dancing, acting, sewing, knitting, making tin folk art, and pounding steel. Betsy Orlando is a doll maker whose original designs have brought home awards from shows across the country. Betsy is inspired sometimes by a bit of fabric or maybe by a small basket, a pin, a pedestal, a ribbon, or button. She sees common things with an uncommon eye and works them into whole characters with arms, legs and personalities.

Betsy’s husband, Charley, puts his energy into tin art, knitted and felted projects, and the heavy-duty hammers that forge his steel. This past president of New York State Designer Blacksmiths spends his anvil time working on gates and fences (up to 100 feet long), weathervanes, and other custom iron work. Charley makes a few small things for general sale but concentrates on commissioned items to give homes and businesses that solid, handmade, craftsman look.

On the eastern side of Allegany County is the town of Andover, home to Walker Metal Smiths. Steve Walker grew up around people who found unusual ways of making a living. By the time he was 13, he had an established business. He played bagpipes and sold items of Scottish regalia to members of his band and others. Walker purchased steel blades from a European manufacturer and finished them with ornate wooden or silver handles. He also made buckles, brooches, and other items for bagpipers. When the blade manufacturers went out of business, he became a jeweler and found that the same amount of work created pieces of wider appeal.

Walker has kept his designs in line with his family roots—Celtic. Walker Metal Smiths makes designs in silver, gold, platinum, and combined metals, intricately knotted and smoothly welded. Find similar patterns in the Celtic work of woodcarver Alec MacCrea and the clay vessels of Dick Lang.

There are many more artists—47 of them in 39 locations—most involved in their communities. Visiting them at work and watching them carefully make things by hand may bring you to feel the need to use real things—country things, things that began as a tree, a chunk of earth, a rod of steel, or a ball of wool. You have to see Peg Cherre’s antique loom and hear it click away with a dog underfoot to know what goes into her scarves. You’ll not believe the quality you can feel in every one of Casey Robber’s bags and you’ll long remember driving past Sarah Phillips’ gardens to approach her studio.

There are artisans working in all kinds of materials with prices ranging from just a few dollars for a Mommy Vase to a few hundred for Hope Zacaggni’s paintings or Alec MacCrea’s carvings. Each artisan puts the skill of their hands and a sense of themselves into their art and each welcomes you into their home or studio. The 23nd annual Allegany Artisans Studio Tour takes place October 16 & 17 this year. Check for a full list of artists and take a one-tank trip to the rolling hills of Allegany County.

There are 39 different locations so, generally, from Buffalo take Route 400 South to Route 16 South. Go East on Route 39 to Arcade and take Route 98 South to Route 243. Continue on 243 to Caneadea then take Route 19 North to Fillmore or South to all other towns. See for complete maps.

Elaine Hardman, an Allegany Artisans and potter, will offer her work and demonstrations in her home on Route 19 in Wellsville.

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