Kathy Norcross Watts JOURNAL NOW
Sugar Valley Airport: A Craft and Aviation Hub
March 15, 2015
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  • MOCKSVILLE — Located at a dairy farm-turned airport, a collection of service-oriented, creative people use extra space in airport hangars as craft studios. Adults paint in the aviation office/dining hall, while home-schooled students make pots in the nearby dairy barn. Everyone’s creating art together in what feels like a family reunion of sorts.

    Glenda Gayle, a weaver who lives at the Sugar Valley Airport, explains it simply: “It’s an opportunity to be of service, to be artistic, to be with artists and to serve together.”

    Sugar Valley Craftsmen evolved when a group of friends, many of whom were pilots and were retired, shared a common goal of serving others. They had worked as volunteers serving in a variety of areas, including nursing, hospice, mediation, respite care and with developmentally disabled children.

    They formed a nonprofit to pursue their vision for a service-oriented community and purchased the Sugar Valley Airport, a private, general aviation airport that had been previously owned by Piedmont Bible College. Now, approximately nine volunteers keep the airport running smoothly. The owners of the 13 airplanes on site pay a monthly hangar fee, and several artists who use space for studios pay for a portion of the power and fuel oil to cover their expenses.

    The craft community has grown organically over the last several years as local artists found the often peaceful airport — which averages approximately six flights a week, mostly on the weekends — to be a welcoming space to teach others and to fine-tune their own skills.

    “It’s kind of like paving the cow paths instead of making a path,” said Patty Bailey Sheets, a portrait artist who has a studio at Sixth and Trade in Winston-Salem and who teaches an advanced painting class at the airport.

    “It’s such a good opportunity to share,” she said. “You give and get at the same time. If you don’t have a supportive group of artists, you will wither and die. This group is very supportive. Everybody just wants everybody to get better. It raises the level. Everybody here just lives from their heart — to be in the world, but not of it.

    Behind the dairy barn, upstairs in the loft in the blue hangar, which houses airplanes and the offices for the Civil Air Patrol squadron, Joanna White paints silk. In the brown hangar, Billy Carter and Bernie Gerstemeier restore various old World War II planes and other planes. A carport was added to the aviation office to create a dining hall, and it doubles as a painting studio, thanks to its north lighting and concrete floor.

    Craig Richards, the founding member of Triad Outdoor Painters and vice president of Muddy River Arts Association, teaches classes at the airport on Friday evenings.

    “It’s not just an artistic community,” he said. “It’s just kind of a family.”

    According to the website, there is active work taking place in pottery, silk painting, woodworking and copper enameling. Plans call for adding lapidary, glass work and metal work.

    “I think the synergy happens when everybody is making art together,” said Sue Rose, who recently retired and lives in the area.

    In the old milking room of the dairy barn, Deborah Leighton and Julie Lauwers teach pottery skills to children.

    “It’s just really fun to see their imagination come to life,” Leighton said.

    Home-schooler Sophie Breckenridge, 11, has been creating art there for more than two years and especially enjoys making plates and cups.

    “You can almost make anything,” she said.

    Ray Travis, a raku potter from Advance, helped the youth class by making a template for a raku teapot. Meanwhile, he also seeks painting advice from Craig Richards.

    “It’s just a great group of people,” Travis said. “Everybody critiques everybody else and helps everybody else out.”

    “When you come out here, you just get this feeling something’s going on — the same feeling I got from Penland (School of Crafts).”

    The airport still serves as a functioning airport, and there, too, the aura of service prevails with pilots who “pay it forward” by offering free aviation ground school classes throughout the year.

    Airport classrooms and other facilities are used to support the education of pilots by providing them with the FAA Wings Pilot Proficiency Program credits, and a Civil Air Squadron has been established. Airplanes housed here are being used to support organizations like Remote Area Medical and others that provide needed services.

    Visitors enjoy the natural beauty with its lake and green pastures, and the facilities are available for Scout camporees, cookouts, camping and weddings.

    “It’s sort of like spokes of a wheel how people came together,” said Susan Park, one of the three airport managers. “We were looking for a way to create a community of people who were just wanting to give back. It’s become a melting pot of creative learning. I think it really boils down to community.”