Studio Tour Celebrates 20 Years!

Today marks the start of the 20th annual studio tour in Brown County.  That’s right, 20 years!

In 1999, fourteen Brown County artists joined forces to start something new, an event to  showcase the artwork and natural beauty of the place they called home.

There was plenty of artwork on display in galleries and shops in downtown Nashville, and visitors were coming to see it.  Potter Larry Spears and his wife Jan had moved to Brown County from Gatlinburg, TN, where they had participated in a tour of artists’ studios.  They thought the Nashville gallery visitors would be interested in seeing the working spaces of  artists and learning about how the artwork is made, and that they could replicate a studio tour in Brown County.  The Spears gathered together like-minded artists, and together they decided  to invite the public to their working studios out in the county.

The artists were right, the visitors came, and a tradition was born!  Every year since then, in one form or another, Brown County has hosted a studio tour.

The first studio tour included folk art painter Amanda Mathis, potter Larry Spears, and clay artist Cheri Platter, who are celebrating the 20th anniversary tour by displaying together this year at the studio of Amanda Mathis.  Joining them at Amanda’s studio this year is stained glass artist Anne Ryan Miller, who joined the tour the second year.  Chris Gustin, of Homestead Weaving studio, joined the tour the third year, and still participates with her husband Bob in their studio today.

Studio tour founding artist Larry Spears throwing pots

The first tour also included painter Shelley Frederick; painter Helein Hart; weavers Joan Haab & Kathleen McGow; Denny Heiny; jeweler/fiber artist Peggy Henderson; woodworker Joe Henderson; Gary Pearce; painter Kaye Pool; painter Frederick Rigley; and woodworker William Root.

“The tour was envisioned to promote working artists and their studios,” says original tour artist Amanda Mathis. “We still promoted Nashville, and always considered the tour as an enhancement to all Brown County had to offer.”

Studio Tour founding artist Amanda Mathis working on a painting

Some things haven’t changed. Much like today, the first tour was a grassroots effort by the artists, organizing themselves, creating the brochure themselves, and supported and promoted by the Convention and Visitor Bureau, business owners such as Andy and Fran Rogers, and the Chamber of Commerce.  The early brochures were created by fellow Brown County artist Susan Ahbe.  The first tour was headquartered at Story Inn, which continues to support the tour today.

Just as it remains today, the Brown County Studio Tour of 20 years ago was a refreshing look into life in Brown County, away from the autumn congestion of Nashville.  The artwork was, and continues to be, a wide range of mediums that represents the best of what Brown County has to offer.

Stained glass artist Anne Ryan Miller, who joined the tour the second year, works on a pattern

“Getting a new project of such a large magnitude off the ground is challenging, to say the least,” says Chris Gustin, who joined the tour in year three. “So the fact that the tour is successful 20 years later is a testament to the hard work and vision of the artists involved over all 20 years.  Over time, the tour has gained a reputation of being a great way to see how artists live and what they do.”

Of course, some things have changed over the years.  The tour has grown, for instance, from a dozen studios and fourteen artists that first year to 22 studios and 32 artists in 2018 (our largest tour yet!).  Promotion is still done with the help of the Convention and Visitor Bureau, but is augmented by social media and networking that wasn’t available 20 years ago.  The T.C. Steele State Historic Site has joined the tour, and the headquarters was moved to the Visitor Center in Nashville.  The tour was moved from June to October, and expanded from one weekend to include an entire month.  Gardens have been included in the past, and, though not officially a part of the tour, are beautiful at several studio locations.

“We always look forward to the tour,” says Chris Gustin. “We have people that come back nearly every year.”

Weaver Chris Gustin, who joined the tour in year three, at her loom

Want to join in the tradition?  Every day throughout the month of October, the artists’ studios will be open to the public.  Start with our list of participating artists and our tour map.

As a special treat, you can visit the studio of Amanda Mathis, where this year she is hosting the work of four artists who helped found the tour:

  • Amanda Mathis, with her special unique style of primitive paintings, reproductions, Giclees and cards
  • Cheri Platter, with her precious metal clay in both fine and sterling silver designs, incorporating semi-precious gemstones in her unique style including necklaces, bracelets, and earrings
  • Larry Spears, with his gorgeous  stoneware and porcelain pottery and his custom exceptional glazes
  • Anne Ryan Miller, with her award-winning stained glass/metal overlay designs as well as her “transformed” photography
Studio tour founding artist Cheri Platter, working on precious metal clay jewelry

Behind the Scenes: Kathy Sparks Uses Natural Dyes to Infuse Local Wool with Color

The day threatened rain, but so far was dry, so Kathy Sparks was outside her studio, The Hand Maiden, dyeing wool yarn.

Kathy dyeing outside her studio

She has a graduate degree from Western Washington University in dye chemistry, where she investigated the effects of mordants (fixatives) and temperatures on different fiber combinations, and she treats dyeing like a science.

She pulled out her notebook, which contained pages and pages of notes on temperatures and times, plus calculations of dye amounts for different materials and detailed notes.

Kathy is also a purist, using only dyes she makes herself from natural materials, and dyeing locally sourced wool which she often hand spins herself.  Today she was dyeing with Bazilwood (a purple dye), yellow onions (which will give a golden color), and madder root (which will give an orange color).


Kathy made the dyes herself by extracting the pigment from the natural materials.  She then poured the dye into a vat of water containing the undyed wool and is now heating the mixture to fix the dye to the fibers.  The wool will sit in the dye vats overnight, then will be rinsed and dried.  The resulting yarns will be ready to use in knitting or weaving projects.

The yarn is already taking on color

Kathy has been dyeing with natural materials for decades.  One of her favorite things is dyeing with lichen, often gathered locally in Indiana or in New Hampshire where she goes each year to make baskets.  In fact, she’s always on the lookout for lichen, which she collects sustainably, preferring windfall trees or dead branches, and taking only a small amount from each lichen growth she finds. She can create 28 different colors using lichen alone.

A variety of yarns Kathy dyed using lichen

Recently, she’s been working on what she calls “the project of a lifetime.” In the 1980s, Kathy collected lichen on a graduate school trip to the Arctic.  The lichen has been preserved in a dried state since then and is still viable today.  Kathy fermented the lichen in ammonia to bring out the color or boiled it in water to extract the dyes.  She sourced Shetland wool from Breezy Manor Farms locally, and hand spun it  into yarn. After dying the yarn with the lichen dye, she is now hand knitting the wool into a sweater.

While not all Kathy’s project take sourcing to this extreme, she has evolved over the years to use only wool, locally sourced if possible, and natural dyes.  If you visit The Hand Maiden during the Back Roads of Brown County Studio Tour in October, she’ll be dyeing yarn on Fridays (except Oct 19, when Kathy will be teaching a dyeing class out of town).  She’ll also have hand dyed wool skeins for sale, as well as mittens and other items hand knitted from the yarn, along with her hooked rugs and handmade baskets.

Hand dyed yarn
A weaving project using hand dyed yarn

Behind the Scenes: From Garden to Gourd Art with Rosey Bolte

Artists might talk about making something “from scratch,” but gourd artist Rosey Bolte really means it.  She starts with handfuls of gourd seeds, which she grows in her expansive gardens right next to her studio, The Uncommon Gourd.

Rosey under her gourd arch

She grows a variety of gourd types, from small to large, and in shapes from stout and rounded (for her popular little birds or large roosters) to elongated (for witches and snakes) to lumpy and bumpy (for warty toads, some of her newest work).


She harvests the gourds at the end of October or November, when all the leaves have died back.  At this point, the smaller gourds are fully dry and ready to use.  Larger gourds require up to a year of drying before Rosey can use them for her artwork.

Gourds drying in Rosey’s studio

After thoroughly scrubbing the gourds with metal scrubbing pads, a job she does outside in her garden, Rosey sculpts with Paperclay onto the gourds, adding ears, beaks, tails, rooster combs, or whatever the piece calls for.

Gourd with cat’s ears sculpted from Paperclay

After the Paperclay is fully dry, Rosey sands the piece, covers the entire piece with spray primer, and then sands again.  At this point, the pieces are ready to be painted.

Future gourd birds, ready to be painted

Rosey has plenty of gourds on hand, at every stage of production, so she’s always ready to sit in her workspace and make something when inspiration strikes.

Rosey’s workspace

If you visit Rosey’s Uncommon Gourd any day in October during the Back Roads of Brown County Studio Tour, you too can watch Rosey demonstrate how her artwork goes from garden to gourd art.

Plan your trip now. See art in October.

Though the studio tour is still a couple months away, now is the time to plan your trip to Brown County in October.

The place to start, of course, is our detailed studio tour map.  It has locations, hours and a short description of the artists and studios that will be part of the Back Roads Studio Tour.

To help you choose which artists to visit, you can start with our artist listing.  Click on the name of any artist, and you’ll find an article about them and their work, as well as photos of their work and links to their own individual websites and Facebook pages.

If you just can’t decide which artists to visit and want to see them all, plan for more than one day. Need a place to stay overnight?  One place to start is the Visitor Center website, which lists plenty of options, from B&Bs to cabins to camping.  Some places that we love are:

Story Inn
HIlls O’ Brown
Creekside Retreat
Cornerstone Inn
Slippery Elm Shoot Inn

That’s really all you need to get started. As we get closer to October, we’ll be bringing you some more tips, and behind-the-scenes information.  But for now, get planning, and we’ll see you in October!