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A homebody and a magpie: Artist Carly Owens Weiss discusses her work at John C. Campbell Folk School

Multimedia artist Carly Owens Weiss sits in her cabin on the John C. Campbell Folk School property during her residence.
Lilly Knoepp
Multimedia artist Carly Owens Weiss sits in her cabin on the John C. Campbell Folk School property during her residence.

On a misty, cool morning in Brasstown just outside of the Cherokee county seat of Murphy, the school’s most recent artist-in-residence. Carly Owens Weiss said she is re-discovering the landscape of her upbringing during her stay on the around 270-acre property in the mountains of Western North Carolina.

“I feel a very like, kindred relationship to this landscape and the land,” Owns Weiss said. “Also being in the world's coziest cabin, it really makes you think about those things.”

The property features art studios, community space and cabins for visiting artists.

Owens Weiss grew up in the Asheville area but is now based in Boulder, Colorado. The residence at the folk school in Brasstown was a homecoming for her, she said.

“I consider Western North Carolina in general it’s my home. It's the place that I grew up in and the landscape is basically the same,” Owens Weiss said, referring to the similarities between this part of the mountains and the Asheville area.

Owens Weiss works in what she calls “soft sculpture,” meaning she focuses on embroidery, beadwork and other forms of that are more traditionally crafts made by women.

“I like to tell people that I'm trying to combat the stigma of women's work through my pieces. Even though I do identify as a woman. Hand embroidery has been a medium that's been so gendered throughout its entire existence,” she said. She studied embroidery at the Royal School of Needlework in the United Kingdom.

“Therefore, it's not been taken seriously even though I feel like it's just as effective as communicating ideas as any other art form like painting, drawing, etc,” Owens Weiss said. “So I'm using this technique in kind of a more unconventional way. And also using contemporary context to kind of push it beyond what it's always been kind of historically stigmatized as.”

Owens Weiss says she has been embroidering nonstop since 2016. And in the last year she started moving away from jewelry and embroidery to sculpture and a fine arts focus. Her work is influenced by artists generations ago.

A beaded egg, deli meat, knife and monarch wings sit next to embroidered squares.
Lilly Knoepp
Multimedia artist Carly Owens Weiss shares some of her work on her kitchen table.

Owens Weiss choses unexpected, sometimes surprising, beaded sculpture subjects: a knife, deli meat and an egg.

“I had been doing a lot of research on this, the 17th century Dutch still life tradition in this concept of vanitas, which was basically pointing at how you have these like beautifully rendered paintings of foods and objects,” she said. “But then like the more that you look at them, you notice these tiny details like bugs that are eating the food or like the food is half eaten. So, like how long has it been out? And this was really just to draw attention to troubling realities of the time as well as remind us of the transience of life.”

Unlike traditional vanitas, the pieces are embellished to show flies and other details in glittering beads. Using sparkling beads is not only a modernization of the form but also just an aesthetic choice, she said.

“I am like a magpie, I'm just like instantly drawn to shiny things,” she said.

The pieces took on a political life of their own as she thought about the connections between the ripening of food and her own body.

“We were at a point where Roe v. Wade was also being overturned, so I was also kind of drawing parallels between that experience and within my own body,” Owens Weiss said. “I just kind of formed this kinship with the egg and went from there. Using specifically like these like meat and dairy products as vehicles for representing the body.”

During the residency, Owens Weiss also worked on embroidering fabric with a bed, sofa and chairs made of red thread onto white cloth. The furniture has hairy human arms and legs in the place of traditional furniture legs.

“Throughout art history, the female form specifically has always been objectified in the sense of like you're always seeing like nude women lounging on couches, eating fruits, things like that,” she explained.

“So this is kind of my rebellion against that and making a statement in navigating personal experiences through my body, navigating place and belonging and then also combating archetypes.”

The anthropomorphic pieces are an investigation of being a homebody, Weiss Owens said.

“By using these domestic objects that are always seen within the home I'm adding on these like body parts, so elements of legs and arms and hands and feet and hairy legs to kind of literally transform the body into an object,” she said.

During the residence, she learned new skills like metalsmithing and oil painting.

She spent much of her time in her studio in downtown Murphy at Olive’s Porch. The space opened in April 2022 as a bridge between the secluded Brasstown campus and the local community in Cherokee and Clay Counties.

Robert Grand, communications and brand manager at the folk school, said the school reached out to the community to find out what it needed.

Former executive director Jerry Jackson is credited as the driver behind Olive’s Porch, according to a Folk School press release. The school announced on April 14th that Jackson is no longer with the Folk School. He had been in the role since August 2017. The school named Bethany Chaney as the interim executive director; she was the deputy director. The school is searching to fill the role permanently.

Communications and Brand Manager Robert Grand at the John C. Campbell Folk School History Center in April 2023.
Lilly Knoepp
Communications and Brand Manager Robert Grand at the John C. Campbell Folk School History Center in April 2023.

Robert Grand, communications and brand manager at the folk school, said the school reached out to the community to find out what it needed.

“We had these community listening sessions in 2019 and essentially asked the surrounding area, ‘What do you want to see from the Folk School?’ And a lot of people said they wanted to see a space in town, they felt disconnected because our campus is so secluded and so rural,” Grand said. “We were able to get some grant funding and really make this space happen.”

The space also offers workshops and classes for the community as well as the work of regional artists.

“I think what's pretty magical about the Folk School and what you see in this museum is that our mission has pretty much not changed over a hundred years,” he said.

The next residency will take place in June. Applications for 2024 open in July.

The final two artists for 2023 have already been chosen and announced. Jasmine Best will be in residence from May to August 2023 and Angela Eastman will follow from September to December 2023.

Lilly Knoepp is Senior Regional Reporter for Blue Ridge Public Radio. She has served as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina since 2018. She is from Franklin, NC. She returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.