Summer Issue 2022

The Kentucky Crafts Encyclopedia:
A User's Manual

By Thomas A. Adler

Are you—or anyone you know—a craftsperson, an artist, an artisan, a maker? Have you ever tried to explain your processes and products to others in depth, and to justify the terms you use to label yourself and the things you create, only to run into trouble with the words and concepts? It often seems easier just to show others what you do and how you do it.

Crafts are evident everywhere in Kentucky, though the concept is slippery and hard to rigorously define. The very word “craft” is simultaneously a verb and a noun, referring both to practices and products (or objects). At the center of these important but elusively contextualized concepts are pointers to almost any sort of creative or productive activity—past or present—from crafting a poem to baking a loaf of bread. More narrowly, crafts in Kentucky have been understood to include such long-established traditional arts as basketry, chairmaking, pottery, or blacksmithing, as well as innovative contemporary creative practices, from glass-blowing to epoxy resin-casting.

The Kentucky Crafts Encyclopedia (KCE) is a constantly-expanding portal to information about Kentucky craft practices, history, institutions, schools, makers, organizations, and places that exhibit or sell craft products. While the KCE is not an exhaustive database, it offers a diverse overview of the topic, and directs visitors to other websites that can provide much more extensive information. Expanding upon an idea first offered by the Kentucky Craft History and Education Association1, my goals as the website’s sole developer have been realized through the creation of the KCE’s 26 main alphabetic pages and 120 Kentucky county pages, which together offer hundreds of links to craft information. There are also bibliographies, as well as questions, commentaries and discussions.

While navigation of the site should be easy and clear for most users, the following 1-minute video provides a brief overview of the website and its content.

Visitors to the KCE are urged to explore the website and to offer suggestions for its continued improvement. I certainly hope the broad scope of the KCE quickly becomes clear, and any access to the site with its many links, buttons, and discussions of special topics should reveal the value of exploring so vast a topic.

Basic Content and Navigation

The HOME page offers quick alphabetical access, like most encyclopedias, to the site’s wide-ranging content. Each of the 26 pages offers a letter of the alphabet, on which visitors will find color-coded entries to help them explore a range of Kentucky crafts and crafters.

The MAPs page brings you to any of Kentucky’s 120 counties, where the craft-related content of the KCE can be considered in its geographical distribution. The TIMELINE highlights historic developments in chronological sequence, currently ranging from 1789 through 2019. The INDEX offers a quick overview and access to the high-level topics and discussions. The CALENDAR yields information and links to upcoming craft events, typically festivals, fairs, shows, and exhibitions.

A COMMENTS page offers viewers a way to interact with me, to inform me of broken or nonfunctioning external links, to allow crafters to ask to be included on the site, and to address any additional questions or concerns. Finally, the MAGNIFYING GLASS icon, at the far right of the menu, is a tool provided by Google that lets visitors do a detailed search for any word or phrase, anywhere in the site. 

Black underlined links connect to other pages within the site; Blue underlined links connect to external pages outside the KCE site; Red underlined links offer a quick way to distinguish deceased persons from living ones; and Green underlined links lead directly to the internal map pages of all of Kentucky’s counties.

The front page of the Kentucky Crafts Encyclopedia
Photograph courtesy of Thomas Adler

Discussions and Commentaries

In addition to the hundreds of alphabetized external links that lead to specific craft types (e.g. “Knives/Knife-Making”), craftspersons and makers (e.g., “Mize, Art – luthier”), organizations and museums (e.g. “Kentucky Arts Council,” “Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill”), and schools (e.g. “Woodworking School at Pinecroft”), there are also internal links to nearly two-dozen critical discussions or commentaries. My longstanding hope is that knowledgeable visitors will accept my invitation to author more complete or nuanced viewpoints, not only on specific craft types like “Weaving,” or “Basketry,” but also on these special commentaries2. For now, the principal commentaries in the KCE can be found here.

A partial listing of KCE's principle commentaries

Issues and Further Discourse

It has proven hard to represent so broad a topic as “Kentucky crafts” in historic, geographic, and cultural contexts, yet that is a key goal of the Kentucky Crafts Encyclopedia. While some craft genres (particularly traditional folk crafts like whittling or quilting) are familiar to many, and therefore patently worthy of inclusion in the KCE, it is a greater challenge with genres that that de-emphasize utility in the creation of objects, or those that depend more on complex modern technologies than on manual skill, such as photography or programmable machine-based decoration.

As the site’s developer, I’ve included limited references to what I consider problematic genres of crafts, including “artisanal food crafts” (e.g. baking, cheese-making, or the widespread production of so-called “craft beer”); and taxidermy and tattooing are also now represented in a preliminary way. So, too, are some “studio crafts,” which involve the practice of craft methodology in a “fine artist’s” studio or atelier. I’ve chosen to exclude such popular crafts as journaling, terrarium building, and hairdressing, along with poetry, language arts, and other examples based on non-material media. Am I wrong? Let me know!

Eleanor Roosevelt examining the winning quilt from the Chicago World's Fair (1933)
The prize quilt was handmade by Margaret Rogers Caden of Lexington
Photograph courtesy of the Harris & Ewing Collection housed at the Library of Congress

Several special questions and concerns have arisen in the course of developing the online KCE portal. These are discussed at some length in the website’s built-in commentaries especially those labeled “Issues and Concerns about Kentucky Crafts,” the “Arts/Crafts Controversy,” and “About the KCE.” Five of these key questions and issues are:

1. Definitions

What terms are used in defining and discussing crafts, and how do they differ in both denotation and connotation? Even a brief overview of terminology quickly generates a lengthy list of words with partially-overlapping meanings: “art,” “artisan,” “contemporary crafts,” “handicrafts,” “heritage crafts,” “folk crafts,” “studio crafts,” and many more. The people involved in craft products and processes may seem to overuse the word craft and its partly-synonymous extensions, or they may shun the term altogether in favor of equally-slippery terms like “art” or “artisanal” with their important connotational distinctions. They may even simply substitute broader terms like “handmades” or “making.”

While the terminology of folk, popular, and elite levels of cultural process and learning can be useful, the term “elite” is typically offensive to those who learn and work in the domains of academic or studio crafts; they tend instead to emphasize the quality of their products, and especially the aesthetic dimensions of their creations, which they most typically define as “art.” And, apart from the ever-increasing availability of “handmade” objects created with materials purchased from nationwide franchised chain stores like Hobby Lobby or Michael’s, and subsequently sold at temporary fairs or through mass-cultural online marketplaces like Etsy, Facebook, or Shopify, the idea of “popular crafts” normally receives little scholarly attention at all.

2. Time and History

How has the march of time altered or affected the processes and products of Kentucky crafts? Is it reasonable to include all materials and processes—even those invented in the past few decades, such as polyester resins or 3D printing—in the consideration of Kentucky crafts?

Photograph courtesy of Thomas Adler

3. Place and Region

To what extent can or should “Kentucky crafts” be differentiated from those outside the state’s borders? Some outstanding craftspersons included in the KCE site came to Kentucky from other places or moved away from Kentucky later in life. Examples abound: the exemplary Berea-based wood-turner Rude Osolnik was born in New Mexico and educated in Illinois. The founding president of KCHEA, Susan Goldstein, is a potter using the Japanese raku technique who now lives in New Mexico. There exists a small company that produces handmade “Kentucky Derby Hats” and “fascinators”—HeadCandi Millinery—that is actually based just outside the state border—across the Ohio River from Louisville, Kentucky, in New Albany, Indiana. There is also a father and son who make round and oval Shaker-style kitchen boxes sold at the Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill in Mercer County who live and work in southern Indiana and are nonetheless members of the Kentucky Guild of Artists & Craftsmen. Many makers of Appalachian dulcimers live and work within or outside of Kentucky’s borders. How do such issues of place matter in a broad consideration of “Kentucky crafts”?

4. Tool Use

Do developments in tools and technology over the past centuries, decades, or recent years alter or even eliminate our acceptance of the resulting products as “crafts”? Is it still “craft” if one makes objects with 3D-printers, laser-engravers, electronic cutting machines, CNC (computerized numerical control) routers or plasma-cutters, decorative infusible-ink transfer devices, or programmable embroidering equipment?

5. Scale and Scope of Craft Production

Are craft processes always to be considered the work of individuals? Can’t small or large groups, such as married couples, intergenerational families, community or church groups work together (as in quilting bees) to produce “crafted” products? At what point does craft production become industrial manufacturing, which all-too-often uses craft terminology in its marketing to assert attention and skill in production?

"Bowl," Rude Osolnik, 1984, spalted maple
Photograph courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum

Future Needs for the Encyclopedia

I hope visitors will deeply examine the Kentucky Crafts Encyclopedia and then offer concrete suggestions that can be implemented in the near future.  Viewers can do so using the COMMENTS section within the KCE or by contacting me directly via email3.

Among my own desiderata for the future are:

1. More Complete Regional Representation

I would like to add craft makers, organizations, schools, stores, and institutions from the parts of Kentucky that have no representation at present. The following is a map showing the current deficit of information from several counties.

Photograph courtesy of Thomas Adler

2. Authored Essays

I encourage website visitors to consider writing a short comprehensive introductory craft category essay if they have particular knowledge of any craft genres in the KCE. These signed essays can replace or rewrite my own brief and general comments about any craft category.

3. Link-Checking

For the KCE, there’s always a need to check external links to see that they still function. Links may become useless when crafters pass away, retire from their work, or abandon their custom websites in favor of free Facebook or Etsy pages. Even major craft institutions and organizations frequently go “off-line,” temporarily or permanently. Site visitors can help keep the KCE up-to-date!

4. Additional Editors

I would be very pleased to add additional editors to the KCE, who would have the ability to make changes directly. While the “look” of the KCE is constrained by still-evolving possibilities permitted by Google programmers, it can be always be updated, especially since “New Google Sites” allow for multiple editors in addition to the site’s “owner.” This would be especially helpful if editors have a special area of interest, whether that’s an existing genre category like “Wearable Art” or a new perspective such as “Newcomer/Immigrant Crafts.”

Once new editors have been oriented and trained regarding the protocols and formats established for the KCE, it would be beneficial to the website’s value and longevity to have partners augment the site’s content and scope, as well as suggest design aesthetic improvements as well. 

5. Marketing of the Website

I hope to publicize the Kentucky Crafts Encyclopedia and to suggest its value as a model for other states or regions of the nation. This was a key notion for the original proposal by KCHEA, and it is certain that other states or regions would benefit by implementing their own similar websites, which would ideally exceed the common state government intent to commercially promote and market its current cultural resources to tourists.

For more than a century Kentucky has been recognized widely as the source of a whole world of crafts, and for its history and heritage of craftsmanship. From the late 19th century years of Berea College’s student craft programs, through the early 20th century founding of settlement schools, on past the 1960s legislation creating the Kentucky Arts Commission and today’s active Kentucky Arts Council (sponsor of the annual “Kentucky Crafted” market and of a varied program of Folk Arts Apprenticeships), crafts and craft work have been a central aspect of life in the Commonwealth.

As with these earlier developments, the Kentucky Crafts Encyclopedia helps to continue and broaden the documentation and celebration of crafts and crafting. You can join more than a thousand prior viewers of the site to boost that goal. Please take some time to explore the KCE and help to share it with others using all means available!

1 The Kentucky Craft History and Education Association is a Lexington-based craft-advocacy group. The KCHEA initially proposed an idea for the KCE in 2013, though it soon abandoned its organizational efforts to develop the site.
2 I take as a wonderful model the author-signed entries in the amazing Electronic Encyclopedia of Chicago, created by the Chicago History Museum, the Newberry Library, and Northwestern University.
3 I can always be contacted at

Thomas A. Adler, born in Chicago in 1947, studied folklore in the 1970s at the Cooperstown Graduate Programs for his MA and then earned his PhD at Indiana University. After teaching at the University of Kentucky, he worked in a variety of information technology positions, including electronic publishing, digital video, and website creation before becoming the first Executive Director of the International Bluegrass Music Museum in Owensboro, Kentucky.
His lifelong devotion to bluegrass music led both to his participation in a lengthy series of active bands and to the 2011 publication of his book-length history of Bill Monroe’s music park in Bean Blossom, Indiana.
Now retired from the University of Kentucky, Adler stays active in folklore research and consulting. He is a close supporter of the Kentucky Craft History and Education Association. Adler plays a 5-string banjo built by renowned Kentucky craftsman Frank Neat and also continues to perform in the central Kentucky area with the four-piece Blue Eagle Band.