Drive too fast through the tiny town of Thomas in West Virginia's Potomac Highlands and you'll miss it. The old mining village is only a few blocks long and the faded brick buildings appear to be mostly empty storefronts. Slow down, though, and you'll notice something odd: large plywood murals of theater works such as "Moulin Rouge" and "Swan Lake."
The murals surround the dilapidated, historic 450-seat opera house, which is being renovated, and they also suggest what visitors to the area might not immediately grasp: In addition to its scenic beauty, the Potomac Highlands has a flourishing art community and a rich artistic tradition.
It's hard to imagine worn-out little Thomas, with its crumbling balconies and deserted feel, as an art town. But residents are hoping that one day their community will be a cultural destination. Meanwhile, visitors have a variety of ways to experience the region's artistic side as well as its natural attractions.
It's easy to see why the Potomac Highlands - a roughly four-county area in the eastern part of the state - attracts more than half a million visitors annually. Bisected by the Allegheny Mountains, which boast some of the highest peaks in West Virginia, the northern section of the highlands sits at the upper end of the Monongahela National Forest, a 900,000-acre tract of oaks, maples and poplars. Hundreds of miles of small streams course through the forest, which feed into the headwaters of five major rivers, including the Potomac.
"Right outside my door, I have meadows and forest," says musician and wood carver Becky Blackley. "When I'm carving or staining wood, I can hear the river."
At Blackwater Falls State Park, gentle hiking trails lead through patches of rhododendron to thundering falls and canyon rims where raptors crest overhead. Outdoor enthusiasts test their mettle scaling the face of Seneca Rocks or navigating the deserted paths of the Dolly Sods Wilderness and the ski slopes at Canaan Valley Resort State Park.
Artists are drawn to the area because of the rugged beauty and also because of the lower cost of living and the area's rich cultural history. Some are longtime residents carrying on family traditions with quilts and baskets. Others are retirees embarking on new careers in photography and painting. Still others are West Virginia natives who left to study theater or music and then returned.
The region's art, much of which can be bought in shops and cooperatives, or sampled in community theaters and summer festivals -- varies widely, from mosaic table tops to honeysuckle baskets, from traditional Shakespeare to avant-garde performance art.
Caddis fly art
Begin exploring the area in Davis, outside the entrance to Blackwater Falls State Park. Settled by 19th-century lumber magnates, Davis now primarily serves park visitors and skiers from nearby Canaan Valley, who come for the pizza and down-home atmosphere at Sirianni's restaurant, or to stay in one of the quiet B&B;'s.
The Art Company, a large gallery on Williams Street, features the works of its 125 members, predominantly West Virginia residents. Among the ceramics, quilts and paintings, you'll find color reduction woodblock prints of local landscapes, hand-carved sassafras headboards and bins filled with photographs of nearby landscapes.
The most eclectic item in the shop sits in the front display case: gemstone jewelry made from caddis fly cocoons. The caddis fly is an aquatic insect that uses sticks and stones to build its cocoon. Combining art and science, the artists, who are also wildlife biologists, substitute garnet, pyrite, abalone and other stones in a simulated stream environment. After the adult caddis flies have hatched, the artists harvest the gemstone cocoon clusters and transform them into earrings and necklaces.
About a 30-minute drive northwest from Davis, a documentary photography exhibit by Volkmar Wentzel, a National Geographic photographer and lifelong local resident, opens July 15 at the Community Building in Aurora. The exhibit showcases local his-tory -- farmers at work, women quilting, country auctions.
Head south to Elkins and enjoy the unfolding landscape -- the mixed northern hardwood forests and meadows of wildflowers, the quiet Black Fork of the Cheat River snaking alongside the highway, the undulating pastures flattening out into farmland.
Elkins, a town of 8,000 along the Tygart Valley River and seat of Randolph County, is known primarily as the gateway to the Monongahela National Forest, but it's also a thriving art town. Its most popular art attractions are the annual classes on traditional folk music, dance and crafts offered by the Augusta Heritage Center.
Elkins also provides an ideal home for its resident artists.
"It's a place we can come and do our work, undisturbed, with no rivalry, no pretensions," says watercolor artist Kathryn Gillispie. With some estimates placing 10 percent of the population of Elkins connected to the arts, it's no wonder the city was ranked 28th in the book "The 100 Best Small Art Towns in America" by travel writer John Villani.
Settled in the 19th century, Elkins retains much historical flavor. Downtown, a mix of large turn-of-the-last-century Victorian homes and Arts and Crafts-style bungalows intersperse with brick rowhouses.
Elkins may be an art town, but it is not necessarily an artsy one. Shoe stores and supermarkets are far more apparent than upscale galleries. A walk through Elkins is like a walk back in time. Drivers stop at the crosswalk long before you step off the sidewalk, and downtown parking meters cost 5 cents an hour.
Small crafts, gift and antiques shops line the historic downtown district, and you can easily spend an afternoon browsing. On Davis Avenue, Mullins Signs and Antiques carries local memorabilia and rare books, many about the Civil War and Randolph County history. Owner Paul Mullins, who has run the business for more than half a century, will be glad to share his wealth of local history.
Nearby Lai Wan Jewelry carries more than 3,000 types of beads. This is a nice place to pick up a gift from among the handmade necklaces, ankle bracelets, eyeglass holders, healing stones and glass eggs.
The Artists at Work Gallery, also on Davis Avenue, is managed by its mostly local 20 artist-members, so don't be surprised to find whoever is tending the register also working on a drawing or wood carving at the front table.
A few blocks away on Second Street, weaver, woodworker and basket maker Laurie Gundersen credits the "primitive spirit of wasting not" as her motivation to fashion textiles and baskets from scrap materials. Welcoming visitors to her new studio and retail outlet, Appalachian Piecework, she describes the process of creating her work and may even sit your child on her lap to let her run wool through the spinning wheel or one of the looms.
Like many artists in the area, Gundersen draws her inspiration from the rich Appalachian tradition that originated with 18th- and 19th-century settlers. These early migrants, primarily German, Swiss, Irish, Italians, Eastern Europeans and Africans, fused their own cultural heritage with mountaineer skills such as quilting, pottery, weaving and wood carving.
In the early 1970s, concern that traditional techniques were disappearing inspired elderly residents of Elkins, in conjunction with the faculty at nearby Davis & Elkins College, to hold the first Augusta Heritage Arts Workshops.
Today, the Augusta workshops, having run for almost 30 years, have been instrumental in attracting artists to Elkins, as well as raising awareness among local artists and residents about the need to preserve traditional arts and crafts. Gundersen hopes to use her new studio as a space for people to work on older textile techniques.
"Some of these arts are dying out," she explains, "and I want to reach into the community to people who I know are working on these hook-and-braid-rug hand techniques."
Augusta's summer workshops, which run from mid-July to mid-August and bring more than 2,000 students to town, are held all over campus. Strolling through the college grounds, you'll hear musicians working out new riffs on their banjos or old-time tunes on their fiddles. Tuesday and Thursday evenings, and on the final Saturday of the workshops, the music instructors perform concerts open to the public.
The final weekend of the workshops, the Augusta Center sponsors the Augusta Heritage Festival, a three-day party of puppet shows, folk dancing, music and food in downtown Elkins City Park, for the entire community.
Residents of Elkins like to joke about the first workshop attendees in the 1970s -- old ladies and long-haired hippies. Referring to the latter, Sharon McQuain, a retired business teacher born and raised in Elkins, remembers that at first, locals were unsure about the type of people the workshops had attracted.
"It was a who-are-they, what-are-they-doing type thing. But, she adds, "I have never heard a bad word said about Augusta. The businesses have benefited from the crafts people, and it's made people more aware of the arts." Augusta and the influx of artists have brought the town together in other ways, says McQuain, referring to "Pickin' in the Park," a spirited jam session held every Wednesday evening.
For other performing arts in Elkins, try the Boiler House Theater at Davis & Elkins College and the downtown theater, the Old Brick Playhouse, home to the Elkins Area Community Theater group, who moonlight as "Wild West bandits" and last year staged a mock robbery of one of the mountain trains that pass through the scenic area.
The train rides are a popular tourist attraction. Near Elkins, the Durbin and Greenbrier Valley Railroad offers three trips that pass through more than 100 miles of mountain track, including the Cheat Mountain Salamander, a little yellow "railbus" that travels through wilderness areas and past an old logging town, and the new Tygart Flyer, which pulls riders along in 1930-era lounge cars.
If you prefer to self-propel, rent a bike and head up the new rail trail along the old Western Maryland Line. Eventually the trail will continue all the way to Thomas, but for now, you'll have to turn around in Parsons, about 20 miles from Elkins.
For a spectacular ride, start at the other end of the trail in Thomas. As you descend along the crushed gravel through Blackwater Canyon from upland pine forests to more temperate stands of maple and oak, watch for the wild turkeys and black bears that occasionally cross the path.
About a mile outside Thomas, before the canyon entrance, you'll see semicircular brick structures known as the Beehive Coke Ovens, a reminder of the bustling coal mining operation that once thrived in the region. As you watch the North Fork of the Blackwater River churning by, it's easy to imagine the workers shoveling the coal into the fiery ovens and then offloading the coke onto the waiting trains.
Settled by immigrants of more than 20 nationalities, Thomas was once the area's cultural center, a busy community of some 7,000 people anchored by the opera house and a large Italian population.
It's a far cry from the Thomas of today, but perhaps not for long. In conjunction with the restoration of the opera house, efforts are under way to redevelop Thomas using arts as an economic engine.
The Vandalia Heritage Foundation, a West Virginia nonprofit organization assisting with the opera house, also recently renovated the historic Buxton and Landstreet Building -- the old company store -- for MountainMade.com, a gallery and Internet warehouse featuring quality West Virginia arts and crafts.
If all goes according to plan, the renovated opera house will be the anchor of Thomas' redevelopment, according to Walt Ranalli, president of the Alpine Heritage Foundation, which owns the building. "We're hoping to make it like Stratford in Ontario, where people come specifically for the theater," he says.
But you don't have to wait until the opera house renovation is complete in 2003 to enjoy a performance in Thomas. On summer weekends, the small Valley Ridge Theater performs Shakespeare and locally written works celebrating the town's diverse cultural history. Step inside and local playwright and actress Robin Pyle will greet you with a broad smile and a brochure. Last year, she wrote and acted a performance art piece depicting the life story of a local, elderly Italian woman.
"West Virginia has a sense of uniqueness," Pyle says, "like a modern frontier. As an artist, I'm thrilled, because the raw material -- the people, the history, the natural setting -- are a living source of inspiration, right at my fingertips."
WHEN YOU GO...
Getting there: Davis, Elkins and Thomas are about six hours from Baltimore. By car, take Interstate 70 to Frederick, then Route 340 west to Winchester, Va. In Winchester, take Route 50 west to Route 219 south to Elkins.
Augusta Heritage Arts Workshops, Davis & Elkins College, Elkins (Augusta Heritage Center)
* Phone: 800-624-3157
* Online: www.augustaheritage.com
* July 8-Aug. 12
* Traditional arts -- crafts, dance, folklore and music -- organized into weekly themes including Blues week, Irish week and Jazz week. The actual festival takes place Aug. 10-12
The Art Company of Davis, Route 32, Williams Ave., Davis
* Phone: 304-259-4218
* Online: www.geocities.com / SoHo / 5562
Mullins Signs and Antiques, 320 Davis Ave., Elkins
* Phone: 304-636-0296
Lai Wan Jewelry, 302 Davis Ave., Elkins,
* Phone: 304-636-5922
Artists at Work Gallery, 329 Davis Ave., Elkins
* Phone: 304-636-8083
* Online: www. randolphcountywv.com / core.htm
Appalachian Piecework, 120 Second St., Elkins
* Phone: 304-637-6702
* Online: www. appalachianpiecework.com
MountainMade.Com, Front Street Circle, Thomas
* Phone: 877-686-6233
* Online: www. MountainMade.com
Tucker County Convention and Visitors Bureau
* Phone: 888-782-2775
* Online: http: / / canaanvalley.org
* The bureau provides a list of motels and B&Bs; in Davis as well as general tourism information.
Elkins / Randolph County Chamber of Commerce
* Phone: 304-636-2717
* Online: www. randolphcountywv.com.
* Lodging, dining and general tourist information
Blackwater Falls State Park, Davis
* Phone: 800-225-5982
* Online: www.blackwaterfalls.com
* Lodge rooms ($63-$88), cabins ($73-$145) and campsites ($18-$22) are available.
Warfield House, 318 Buffalo St., Elkins
* Phone: 888-636-4555
* Online: www.bbonline. com / wv / warfield
* Rates: $99-$109
* Turn-of-the-last-century inn with wraparound porch, friendly cats and friendly owners.
AN IDEAL DAY
8:30 a.m.: Breakfast at Brewhaha Bistro in Elkins. Take a walking tour of downtown historic Elkins. Visit Artists at Work and other downtown shops.
Noon: Drive to Davis on Route 219 through Parsons and get sandwiches to go at Sirianni's (Courtland Lane, 304-866-3388) for a picnic lunch in nearby Blackwater State Park. Hike to the falls. Stop by the Art Company of Davis and MountainMade.com in Thomas.
6 p.m.: Head back to Elkins on Routes 32 and 33 through Canaan Valley, stopping for dinner at the renowned Cheat River Inn (reservations suggested; Faulkner Road, 304-636-6265).
8 p.m.: Coffee and live music at the Posten House in downtown Elkins.
11 p.m.: Fall into bed at Graceland (100 Campus Drive, 304-637-1600), a beautifully restored, ornate Victorian mansion once belonging to the families of the prominent Davis and Elkins families.