The “Best of WV,” in one placeJune 29, 2016
You may have seen it as you drive south past Beckley on Interstate 77— a large, round building, its red crown-like roof peeking above the surrounding trees. This is Tamarack, a landmark with lofty goal— to showcase of the best of West Virginian arts, music, literature and cuisine all under one roof.
If you walk around Tamarack’s circular court, you might see a fine art exhibit by regional painters, hear the twang of old-time music from around a corner, pick up that historical guidebook that you’ve been looking for, grab a bite of local Appalachian trout, and seriously consider spending hundreds of dollars on the high-grade oak coffee table that you never knew you needed until now.
It’s all here– it’s part shopping boutique, part museum and 100% West Virginia.
The goal of the “Best of West Virginia,” as they call it, goes back to the late 1980s, when the West Virginia Parkways Authority decided to put a portion of a $143 million upgrading bond into rest areas and concessions, investing the revenue from these resources back into tourism and economic development for Southern West Virginia. The money eventually made its way into Economic Development and Tourism Director Cela Burge’s vision to “connect West Virginian craftspeople with turnpike travelers.” Groundbreaking was Aug. 8, 1994.
In case you’re wondering, it was named “Tamarack” after a type of larch tree.
Right from the get-go, Tamarack worked with local artists, not just for the wares, but even for the very design and construction of the building. While Tamarack was being built, a rigorous jury process searched for the very best West Virginia artists to display their works there. Prominent West Virginia artists also voted, too.
By the end of 1996, just 2 years after the groundbreaking, more than 1,300 artists were on display in Tamarack, nearly half a million people had visited, and there had been more than $3.3 million worth of sales.
But it was never about just selling art at Tamarack; you can try some of the best regional food here, too. Tamarack worked with the prestigious The Greenbrier resort for cuisine, with West Virginia staples like fried green tomatoes and pan-seared trout.
Today, Tamarack has taken off– more than 2,800 artists have displayed their work, there’s been more than $78 million in revenue, and nearly 10 million visitors have walked through its doors.
Inside the “Best of West Virginia”
What can you expect when you walk into Tamarack? When you first walk in, you may see an artist giving free demonstrations— soapmakers, jewelers, potters and more are on the schedule for this summer.
“I meet so many people who stop there regularly for one-of-a-kind gifts that you can’t get anywhere else. It’s a great foot forward for West Virginia; we shine!”
One of those demonstrators is stained glass artist and jeweler Stephanie Gasior Danz, who has been on the demo schedule for the past 2 decades. (She actually juried into Tamarack even before the building had been completed.)
“It’s been a love affair ever since,” she said. “I meet so many people who stop there regularly for one-of-a-kind gifts that you can’t get anywhere else. It’s a great foot forward for West Virginia; we shine!”
To Danz, Tamarack is a perfect way to showcase the natural beauty of West Virginia that influences so many regional artists’ work. The New River Gorge, which is just 20 minutes north of Tamarack, has long been an inspiration to her and many others. Her kaleidoscopic glasswork often represents the gorge with rhododendrons as a frame for the river.
Art and nature truly come together in a lot of Tamarack pieces— which shares the very best of our state’s landscapes and creativity with visitors.
You may wander through the art gallery, where some sort of special show is always on display. This summer, the gallery will be “The Best of West Virginia Open Juried Exhibition,” which will include all forms of visual arts, with prizes for the 5 best in show. The exhibition begins June 19, and will continue until August 7.
Walking out of the gallery, you will enter a huge indoor court, which is shaped like a donut surrounding a center outdoor garden/atrium. It’s almost overwhelming. But just choose whether to wander to the left or right, and let your curiosity lead you.
If you’re a bookworm, beeline directly for the bookstore, with its hundreds of hard-to-find regional titles. You can also see finely carved wooden wares, from dishes to statues to furniture. There are also textiles: scarves, tapestries and quilts.
Whichever direction you wander, and whatever wares capture your attention, you’ll probably get so caught up in walking this circle that you won’t not even notice when you’re back at your starting place.
Artisans in action
West Virginia has a very vibrant ceramics and pottery heritage, which is well-represented at Tamarack. John Ackison and Mary Bethune of Gauley River Pottery in Mt. Lookout have been displaying their stoneware here since they started their business in 1997.
“The jurying process was kind of rigorous,” John said. “There are so many great artists in West Virginia. But we’ve been showing there for about 20 years now, and it’s been a great partnership, great exposure.”
John and Mary’s pottery is uniquely regional. They create special glaze colors inspired by our state’s waters, forests and sunset skies. Several of their pieces feature scalloped wave patterns that seem to be literally plucked out of the namesake whitewater of the Gauley River.
Beyond the wares that decorate dozens of shelves, nooks and crannies throughout the building, Tamarack also houses resident artists. At Tamarack, they not only have studio space to create work on their own terms, they also have a convenient outlet to showcase it to the public.
Diversity is the defining feature of these studio artisans. This summer, Tamarack is supporting expert glassworkers, an abstract painter and even a couple who handcrafts Celtic stringed instruments.
Of course, art doesn’t have to be just visual. As you pass by displays of handmade dulcimers, banjos and fiddles, remember that old-time mountain music is inseparable from West Virginia culture. Tamarack proudly brings different Mountain State musicians to the stage.
"We have dedicated fans and local music lovers who make it a point to be there every week, in addition to the tourists. It’s a great gig in a great room.”
Occasionally, they throw big all-day festivals, like the Appalachian Music and Arts Festival, where amazing rock, country and even jazz bands take the stage, one after another. But Tamarack always has a weekly show, Sundays@Two. Every Sunday at– you guessed it– 2 p.m., a musician puts on a short, 45-minute concert. Admission is free.
“When I first started playing, it was mostly tourists, just stopping in for a few songs then taking off again,” said Andrew Adkins, a featured musician and songwriter in Fayetteville. “Now it’s a little different— we have dedicated fans and local music lovers who make it a point to be there every week, in addition to the tourists. It’s a great gig in a great room.”
Tourists just passing by and local regulars all united in a love for the arts, crafts and culture that make West Virginia the unique little pocket of Appalachia that it is— that’s what Tamarack’s all about.
Stop in next time you’re on the interstate, or make a special trip for your art fix. You’ll truly get the Best of West Virginia here.
by Paul Nelson