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Art Camp for Big Kids

Left: the pond that I awoke to each morning from my tent. Right: my work station for the week.

This August I was fortunate enough to be one of 38 artists participating in the 11th Annual Frogwood Collaborative. Frogwood started in 2007 as a small gathering of woodworkers wanting to get out of creative ruts and stretch the artistic possibilities of their work. It has morphed into a community of artists working in a variety of mediums—paint, fiber, wood, metal. And within those mediums there are coppersmiths, blacksmiths, jewelers, weavers, printmakers and painters. The idea is to spend a week collaborating on projects.

Given that most of us work alone, the idea of collaborating can be a challenge. Even if you crave an exchange of ideas and diving into a new medium, knowing how to start a project with someone you don’t know isn’t easy. One place most of us started was a huge table piled with donated items from participants. Fine wood scraps, project boo-boos, plastic, animal bones, glass, you name it. It was all there for the taking.

What struck me over and over is how similar our tools and materials were even if they were at a different scale or malleability, such as these metal scraps and weaving materials.

Veterans came with ideas. Newbies like myself wondered how to start a project. Not to mention the pressure (self-imposed) of creating a piece worthy of sale at a silent auction that took place at the end of the week in Portland. On this Frogwood auction information page, you’ll find photos of all the completed projects at the bottom.

Watching people work is a delight, and hands can’t escape your attention.

Like most experiences that involve people, it’s the people that make it memorable. I don’t know if every gathering of a few dozen artists and craftsmen always yields good results. But I have a pretty good idea that it does. One thing that kept coming back to me during the week was this feeling of relief, of being understood. While there was little time for much in-depth conversation, I took comfort knowing I was surrounded by people who obsessively absorb their surroundings, wondering “what if,” dreaming up that next creation. Check out the 2018 participants.

2018 Frogwood Collaborative participants.
An amazing tribe of familiar strangers.

We were in the beautiful wooded setting of Camp Colton in Oregon. Even being in cell phone range, it felt like the middle of nowhere. Time was divided into clear chunks—breakfast, work, lunch, work, dinner, work, sleep. I never slept so well in a tent as I did at Frogwood. Working 12-hour days helped. I kept thinking I’d want to wander the woods, sit and read a book or sketch. But all I wanted was to return to my bench and keep working every day.

I didn’t expect such a professional set up. The big modern barn, with concrete floor surrounded by enormous patio space, was filled with every tool imaginable. Nothing like this comes together with ease. Thanks to woodworker Tom Willing at the helm and his trusty board, there wasn’t a single thing lacking in this space. Well, except for nails when it came to securing hanging devices on the backs of finished pieces. All those tools and not a single nail!

Woodworker Jesse Felling and jeweler April Ottey at Frogwood Collaborative.
At left: Woodworker Jesse Felling, with mixed-media sculptor Carole Murphy’s assemblages in the foreground. Right: Jeweler April Ottey pours molten bronze into a casting mold.
Left: Printmaker Palmarin Merges discovers paper cutting with a pasta machine. Right: Woodworker Tom Willing takes over carving a whale started by wood carver Rebecca Welti that later became an instrument. Whale song anyone?

I went with a goal, despite not knowing how the collaborations would work, that I wanted to work with wood. I’d been craving working with a more gentle material than metal. Most of my collaborations involved self-generated projects, getting inspiration from materials I found on the table and getting invaluable help from others. Without exception, someone would drop what they were doing to show you how to use a tool, hammer a copper head for a spoon or help figure out how to connect materials. My go-to wood guy was instrument maker Adam Mendel of Joyner Instruments. Having been a teacher, he would sprinkle each interaction with invaluable tips that I know I’l tap into if I get more serious about wood. Below are a few projects I worked on with his help on the wood parts.

Sculpture and necklace collaborations.
Left: A bleached madrone tube discarded by wood artist Christian Burchard, snatched by me, that I attached pierced copper pieces and a padauk wood foot to. Top: Copper spoon head by Greg Wilbur that I pierced antlers into and attached to a bone handle. Bottom: Pendant assembled with glass piece by artist Angelita Surmon, padauk wood and silver-inlaid ebony with sterling silver hanging mechanism and choker.

In all, it was a truly memorable experience that I recommend to any artist if you can find a collaboration near you. Or better yet, start one in your community. The rewards of having three dozen new artists/craftsmen/makers/friends in my circle who I know I can reach out to is invaluable. I’m inspired to keep experimenting and being open to new materials and processes, not to mention collaborations when we’re not at Frogwood. Once a year isn’t nearly enough!