As Appalachian as the banjo and as ancient as civilization
Few artists embody the Appalachian culture, the autumnal colors and the handcrafted heritage of the Appalachian Mountains like Matt Tommey. He produces “sculptural basketry for luxury mountain homes that include wall hangings, tabletop pieces, fireplace mantel installations and collections for the pedestal or shelf.” In other words, he creates woven baskets as ornamental art.
By using locally sourced material including kudzu, Tommey creates sculptural work that connects a home’s interior to its natural environment. His art is much more effective than a painting for evoking nature because it actually incorporates natural elements. And his work fits just as well in a luxury vacation home in the mountains as it does in a log cabin in the hills.
An Ancient Craft Modernized
Basket weaving is a craft that spans centuries. The oldest woven basket in the U.S. dates back to 7000 B.C. Unearthed in the caves of Utah, it exhibits a level of skill that points to even earlier development of the craft. In fact, until the twentieth century, baskets were a necessity in most cultures.
Today, woven baskets are mostly decorative, a niche that Tommey fills for a variety of homeowners. While his primary audience consists of second or third home owners, he also has pieces priced under $100. And every piece he makes “begins with a walk in the woods,” a practice he continues.
“I still harvest most of my basketry material myself,” he claims. “I only harvest locally here in the Southern Appalachia. That’s one of the self-limiting features of my work; it maintains a strong connection between me, my work and the land from which it comes.”
An Appalachian Import
Although Tommey originally hails from Columbia, Georgia, he’s resided in the mountain city of Asheville, North Carolina, since 2009. “Asheville is such a center of influence in the fine craft arena nationally,” he says. “Most of my clients are relocating to this area because they want to connect with the story of the mountains and the beautiful environment.”
To emphasize the local aspect of his craft, he favors kudzu in his baskets. Properly treated, “it’s a wonderful weaving material.” He started using it when he was a college student at the University of Georgia. He collects the runners in winter, splits the vine and then dries it. “Once I’m ready to use the material, I put it into hot water until it’s pliable.”
An International Reach
His customers come from all around the country. Some move to the Appalachians; others bring his work back to their homes wherever they are. His type of modern rustic décor attracts attention because it can complement any interior design esthetics.
Tommey exhibits his work at three regional craft shows from Asheville (the Southern Highland Craft Guild) to Atlanta (the American Craft Council), but he teaches basket weaving and art classes all over the world. He often teaches five classes a year in his studio in Asheville’s renowned River Arts District. But he also travels by invitation. In 2016, for example, he’ll teach a class in Germany and spend a month in Australia spreading his brand of basket weaving.
And while he develops an international audience and reputation, he knows that his creative career blossomed in the Southern Appalachians. “My artwork brings the beauty of nature into the home in a way that’s approachable yet elegant. I always tell people that Asheville is the center of the universe for fine craft, so in that respect, being here has been a real game-changer for me.”