For University of Tennessee professor Scottie McDaniel, her research is a way of unearthing the wisdom inherent in rural life. Her research and design exhibit, “Rural Ways,” recently on display in the College of Architecture and Design’s downtown Knoxville showcase, explores familiar items from her small-town, western North Carolina upbringing.
McDaniel developed the project through a tour of heritage sites, museums, and auctions in the Blue Ridge Mountains. She made a list of 20 mountain artifacts that kept surfacing again and again, then researched five of them. The exhibit focuses on three: taxidermy, quilts, and gourds. To create the pieces, she delved into historical context and practical skills, while also reimagining these ancient crafts.
Taxidermy: Rural Wisdom
Perhaps the most “rural” of the techniques, and potentially the most misunderstood, is taxidermy. McDaniel’s wood bodies are crafted from scrap lumber wrapped with cheesecloth and twine. They are neither animal nor meat, but are reminiscent of a deer poised to jump and a ham hanging to cure. Their clean lines make the work more approachable for urban viewers.
The accompanying text poetically explains the intimacy of the craft. “Taxidermy resides on the edge of societal acceptance, a nearly bygone practice tied to the kinship of hunting that connects land to sustenance. The mounted specimen is often typecast as a trophy or souvenir, but can also host primal interconnections between species and generations…The taxidermic artifact carries the ability to transport us into the landscape. To the day of the hunt…To days sitting with your grandfather in the cold before sunset…The shadows of taxidermy deeply root rural culture to the land, whispering timeless tales of connection, wonder and reverence…”
McDaniel hopes that rethinking the practice as an intimacy between people, animal, and land, might lead to a greater acceptance from those not familiar with the process — and that viewers might also appreciate the innate knowledge embedded in it. Through the exhibit, she said, “I am seeking rural logic, the ways self-reliant communities figure things out.”
Quilting: Learning Through Making
While McDaniel had a childhood surrounded by these artifacts, she had no experience with the skills until she created the exhibit pieces. She learned them in a deeply rural way — through practical, hands-on experimentation.
A large white quilt with topographic imprints was constructed like an embroidery sampler; each square was an attempt to master material and process. She experimented with stiffeners, like extracted potato starch, and tried various techniques for drying the thick layers of cheesecloth. The result wasn’t mastery, but a work-in-progress.
“There is no right way to make a quilt,” she said. “Quilting relies on being littered with flaws, and it taught me it is okay for things to be imperfect.”
Another quilt is made from white button-down shirts — a common piece of clothing in many rural homes. McDaniel crafted it like a duvet, with the buttons holding in stuffing material. Historically, people would put in whatever was handy, like straw or milkweed floss, and replace it as needed. This one is filled with dried corn husks, though she wondered aloud in our interview how pine straw would look.
“Making something by hand made me confident of my own research,” said McDaniel, appreciating the blend of the practical and academic.
Gourds: An Evolving Culture
Through her research, McDaniel became captivated by the story of purple martins. The birds were first domesticated by Native Americans to help with pest control in crops. The rise of industrial agriculture has made the birds obsolete. A contemporary movement to save them involves training bird landlords to provide homes and habitat.
The birds’ preferred nesting sites are natural gourds, clustered near people. While many of the modern gourds McDaniel saw in her research travels were purely artistic, she was attracted to their practical use as purple martin residences.
“The cycle of care — growing, drying, assembling — is interesting to me,” she said. “The gourds serve as a visible advocate of their necessary use in our on-going relationship with purple martins.”
The gourd clusters in the exhibit are asymmetrical and precise. What viewers can’t tell by looking is that the assemblages — like all of the displayed artifacts — are a hybrid of hand-crafted skill and advanced technology.
While each individual gourd was carefully preserved and prepared by hand, the clusters were engineered with 3D digital software and fabricated by a robot. This allowed for the perfect matching of seams and placement of holes. The University of Tennessee’s architecture department has one of the most advanced fabrication labs on the east coast.
“We pride ourselves as a tech hub in Appalachia,” she said. “I like the idea that everything is a hybrid, the natural and digital entangled, with current conversations about culture and technology mixed with nostalgic rural practices. It is important that people know rural cultures are evolving.”
Rural-ing the Academic Discipline
Landscape Architecture, McDaniel’s area of study, is ultimately about where and how culture meets land. Learning about and experiencing some of the rich cultural elements of southern Appalachia is a way to gain insight into the complexity of the southern landscape and the importance of place.
While the term might conjure up pastoral, rural views, McDaniel said that much of the best landscape architecture work is currently carried out in cities. Through her research and projects like “Rural Ways,” she has realized the importance of her rurally-focused perspective in academic circles and the broader discipline.
McDaniel experienced the tension between urban and rural sensibilities in this project. Her research was funded through a Rural Urbanism Seed Grant, awarded by the College of Architecture and Design. While she deeply appreciates the ability to explore this, her research challenged some of the assumptions embedded in the grant. “It didn’t sit well with me that the rural was analyzed through urban practices,” she explained.
McDaniel is more interested in rural work, like the elegance of farmers who create a sun shade to capture humidity and water their crops. Or envisioning the development of Appalachian mine sites with post-occupancy uses in mind.
This is work she is undertaking in the classroom. In one particularly elegant example, a student mapped coal seams and developed a plan that dictated extraction elevations. Actively mining the site would create the hills and swales of a completed golf course.
“Rural Appalachia does not need to be fixed, it needs to be better understood,” said McDaniel. “I thought I wanted to be a silent academic, just out doing good stuff in the world, but I realized I have to develop a bigger voice for rural environments. I want to make rural people feel seen.”