All those years living on the East coast and I never made it to Penland, until now. It’s too easy to put off what’s most needed in life, like two weeks of complete immersion away from everyday obligations. That’s exactly what you get at Penland, or any school like it.
Set in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina about one and a half hours outside of arty and foody Asheville, Penland is a sprawling wooded and meadowy campus where mist shrouds the mornings and huge variety of mushrooms dot the wooded paths.
I took a 2-week metals class, but at various times, I wished I’d been felting wool, throwing pots or carving a block of wood for printing. This open and cross-discipline nature is one of the magical things about Penland—being, not only allowed but, encouraged to wander through other studios. In fact, one of the current artists in residence, Andrew Hayes, a metal sculptor, had an epiphany during a book arts class. This led to his current body of work combining books with metal to create harmony between two opposite materials. At Penland, you can’t help but be drawn down different paths—literal and figurative—as you see the possible connections from one medium to another and how you could apply that to your own work.
Of course, this happens in your own practice if you’re eyes are open enough. But there’s something about Penland, where you’re cut off from distractions, that this is able to sink in in a more profound way. We often feel pressure to focus on one thing, put all our energies into that. When I have an urge to work on a collage but I know I should work on jewelry, I’m more apt to question that now, knowing how important cross pollination is.
And then there are the tools of the various trades, which are as interesting, if not more so, than the work created by them. Artist’s spaces, work in progress and strewn tools have a delightful immediacy. They’re inclusive and provide a peek into the mysterious process of art making, unlike a finished piece of work. There’s also an inherent irony—the access to process makes you feel like you, too, could do this and at the same time it reveals the challenge of the creative process.
Below our studio was the art of Japanese metal craft where students were making, among other things, these handmade garlic and ginger graters, using handmade tools. Next door, mesmerizing objects with sprouting from the felt class.
But like many experiences in life, it’s not the place or the things, but the people. One of the first people I met was a young woman from a kibbutz in Israel who teaches art to special needs people. I had a dream of two foxes while I was there and it turned out she was “drawing” foxes with a sewing machine in her felt class and had been dreaming of foxes all her life. A woman I spent my last night with in Asheville was a fellow graphic designer from Bermuda. My roommate was a gifted book artist from Alaska. And a classmate from Tokyo who was making ethereal jewelry, could speak very little English but we managed quite well to have fun. Despite the far-flung nature of the student body, I could count on one hand the number of non-whites at Penland.
I went with no specific purpose in mind, except to come home with some clarity or deeper sense of direction after having been at this jewelry thing for a little over a year. I can’t say that happened, but I did embark on some work that, while it shares some formal qualities with work I’ve been doing, it was a bit more colorful and whimsical. Where it will go is anyone’s guess.
I brought a big piece of ocean-tumbled plywood (above) that I turned into a little homage to the Pacific, with vitreous enamel seaweed and bubbles, and from there, a brooch and beginnings of a neck piece (below). The brooch was inspired by these mesmerizing sand patterns you find on the Oregon coast, where the tides create a vast pockmarked surface.
At the end of the two weeks there was a rousing auction of student- and instructor-donated objects, and the final day there was a show and tell from each workshop. What a body of work!
While I will not miss the humidity, I have a soft spot for that symphony of crickets and cicadas every night.
Want to see more? Check out my Flickr Penland album. Thanks for reading!