There is something timeless about the little town of Walterboro, S.C., on the edge of Interstate 95.
Even though it serves mainly as a stopover for tourists bustling by on their way to and from Florida, Walterboro has managed to keep alive a sense of tradition. Tiny motels with bungalows instead of rooms and a 150-year-old jail shaped like a castle rub shoulders with neon-lighted video stores and fast-food restaurants.
It's fitting, then, in this place where tradition and innovation mix, that a Victorian house on quiet Wichman Street serves double duty as the only active museum in South Carolina dedicated to keeping traditional crafts and folk arts alive.
This place is the South Carolina Artisans Center, which has become one of the state's most talked-about arts attractions.
Seven days a week, visitors can climb the shaded wooden steps of the house at 334 Wichman and step inside a light, airy series of rooms that showcase the handiwork of more than 100 crafts people from around the state.
Almost any good-sized town sports a gallery, museum, shop or festival where art lovers can check out paintings and sculpture.
The kind of art on display in the Wichman house, however, often gets ignored.
Here is where people who find the potential for art in vines, grasses, gourds and stalks of wheat get recognition.
Here the beautiful and the utilitarian come together.
Colorful woolen sweaters from the Two Suns Studio in Beaufort are displayed, hung on a wall like paintings. Hand-sculpted goats'-milk soaps are arranged with the same careful attention to detail as delicate blown-glass Christmas ornaments.
In short, with many of the things on display at the Artisans Center, you could furnish a house to look like something out of dreamland. Everywhere is art combined with function, the concrete combined with the ethereally lovely.
Crafts range from homemade jewelry and Christmas ornaments to clothing, Native American items, abstract sculptures and mixed-media wall hangings. Unusual and beautiful pottery and glasswork are especially in abundance.
The center is home to some of the most unusual crafts you'll ever see. Some of them are made of natural materials used in unexpected ways.
Take, for instance, the pictures and note cards created by Nancy Basket from the upstate city of Union. Basket, a Cherokee Indian, presses the leaves of the ever-present kudzu vine into paper and then dyes it to create her works. Strands of kudzu also are used to make intricate basketry.
The most striking of Basket's work is a framed paper quilt made entirely out of kudzu strips. It is displayed in the front room of the center.
Think wheat is just for making bread? Ask Maxine Fricke of the town of Gaston, who displays a wide selection of baskets, ornaments, mats and jewelry made from woven stalks of wheat.
South Carolina hasn't always had a place where items like these could be admired and purchased as easily as they are at the center. Before the center opened on Oct. 10, 1994, crafts and handmade items were largely relegated to side status except for folk festivals and other events.
South Carolina Artisans Center became a reality because of some Walterboro residents who worked along with craft enthusiasts, local development boards and representatives from state and local tourism groups.
They saw the center as a possibility for drawing tourists and art lovers to Walterboro's historic district, as well as providing crafts people a place to display works and demonstrate their crafts.
The center is not simply a place to stop and buy a few souvenirs to take home to the grandkids. It's also an active workplace for crafts people from around the state. Twice a year, the center sponsors "Handmade: A Celebration of the Elements of Craft," in which groups of artists gather at the center to demonstrate their crafts. The next series begins in September. The center also has begun restoration of a house next door to be used as an educational center.
The Artisans Center has recently been seeing an upsurge in visitors from out-of-state. A series of billboards advertising the center on I-95 and an article in Southern Living magazine have been attracting many tourists.
One Friday afternoon, a woman from California browsed for handmade Christmas ornaments while a group of people from Minnesota gathered on the front porch to experience their first bounce on a genuine South Carolina "joggling board," made by Dick Crayton of Pawleys Island.
The joggling board is just one of several crafts and metal sculptures on display on the wraparound front porch. While checking out the outside artwork, take a deep breath, and you'll notice a light, unusual fragrance that's a mix of sweet and herbal tones. This is the tea-olive plant, which grows in the center's surrounding yard.
A browser's delight
The Artisans Center is an ideal stopover for those who just want to browse as well as those with ready pocketbooks. Be aware that getting a close look at everything takes about 1 1/2 hours.
You'll also want to stop for a while in the education room, which features an in-depth look at a specific South Carolina craft. Currently, the room features a detailed display on sweet-grass basket weaving.
Everything on display in the center is also for sale. Pottery and jewelry is especially reasonable. The center offers gift certificates and a bridal registry, and will ship purchases anywhere.
If you go
What: The S.C. Artisans Center
Where: 334 Wichman St., downtown Walterboro. The center is two miles off Interstate 95. Take Exit 53 or Exit 57
When: Open 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays; 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays
Call: (803) 549-0011
Pub Date: 6/09/96