As I stepped hesitantly along the darkened flagstone path, a pale, shimmering hand reached out toward me. I was startled until I realized the brilliant white image was just a sculpture. Standing out against the dark night, it seemed a surreal messenger in a world I didn't quite yet understand.
My husband, John, and I had been at Penland, a craft school in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, for only an hour. For the next two weeks, this self-contained little community of 150 artisans would be our home. We already had been divided into groups and introduced to our respective studios -- woodworking, surface design, spinning, metals, ceramics, papermaking, drawing, glass-blowing and forging. So far I could locate only the Pines (where we would dine and live) and the Loom House (site of my studio) in this 400-acre complex in northwestern North Carolina, about an hour's drive northeast of Asheville. I was making my way in the general direction of the Craft House, in search of John, when I was greeted by my eerie messenger.
As it turned out, the greeting was significant. The sculpture -- metal fingers painted white and extending at chest level on a metal rod -- is a symbol of this community, standing for friendship and the work of craft done by hand. I had chosen to come here both for the studio work and for the community spirit. For me, it was a way of being in the world that was not the norm.
Months before, in planning our vacation, we had decided against our yearly trip to Ireland to visit John's family. I wanted to find a craft school where I could concentrate on a fibers project all day, every day. John, a professional machinist who had been using metal lathes and milling machines for 25 years, longed to try wood turning with a wood lathe.
Penland could satisfy us both. In each of its seven two-week summer sessions, classes were available in 12 different studios. With such a diversity, we were able to find something that appealed to each of us -- and with class size kept to around 12 students, there was plenty of opportunity for personal interaction with the teacher. (For those with more time, the four-week special intensive sessions offered in the fall and spring in selected studios offers a chance to study an area in real depth.)
My class, "Shining Cloth," taught by textile artist Victoria Rivers, was described as a look at how cultures worldwide have used shining and iridescent elements in decorating textiles used for ritual and celebration; it would involve the use of dyes, pigments, glitter and beads on all-white or shiny fabrics. John's class in woodworking was taught by woodworker C.R. "Skip" Johnson. Each student was to bring a sketch for his project, and with the instructor's help -- technical advice plus design hints -- complete it.
Three weeks before the start of classes, we received a list of what we were to take: John, enough wood for his project; me, a long list of materials for dyeing, printing and embellishing. Because the nearby town of Spruce Pine had little in the way of art supplies, we were told to bring everything we thought we might need. But when everything didn't fit in the back of our Subaru wagon, it led to some last-minute angst and reorganization as certain items (such as my sewing machine) had to be left behind. When at long last the car was ready, it was packed to the brim with beanbags and duffels stuffed with fabrics, sewing notions and quilt batting.
Penland is about an eight-hour drive from Washington, and although we were delighted by the vistas of deep valleys and receding ridges along the way, we worried about the time. It was late as we approached the school, and we were grateful when the last winding road turned into a valley and Penland was spread out in a semicircle before us.
Just as the final light faded from the sky, we found the building where the evening's introductory meeting was in full swing. Most students, it turned out, were rooming in dormitories. But we'd been lucky: We were assigned to the Pines, to founder Lucy C. Morgan's bedroom when she was director of Penland. It seemed a good omen for the adventure we had embarked upon.
At that first meeting, the 125 students in our group were divided by class and then led to our studios to stake out our work space. For me, that meant a long printing/dyeing table on the third floor of the Loom House; John had his own workbench in the Wood Shop, which was completely stocked with modern machinery.
My classmates ranged in age from 22 to 52, with most of us in our thirties and forties. Our teacher, Victoria Rivers of the University of California at Davis, outlined the schedule for the week: demonstrations and slides for the first three days, then individual work on our projects.
John's teacher, Skip Johnson, had just retired from 25 years of teaching at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. His class got to work right away. John's fellow woodworkers ranged in age from early twenties to 60-plus, and included a hypnotist, retired physics professor, telecommunications engineer, lawyer and cabinetmaker.
The next day a routine established itself. Classes in the morning and afternoon were sandwiched between meals at the Pines; there was a slide lecture each evening, and we made occasional visits to studios of local artists.
Penland, which was founded in 1929, is actually several communities. Living in surrounding Mitchell County, near the towns of Spruce Pine and Bakersville, are a number of people who came to study at Penland and decided to settle in the area. Visits to these craftspeople -- potters, woodworkers, weavers -- are part of the Penland experience. Down the road a bit from the main school are the studios of the artists-in-residence, who are part of a program that provides housing and studio space at minimal cost and helps them establish a craft career. Staffing the school are scholarship students who work at the school in exchange for room, board and partial tuition; studio assistants who help the instructors in the classroom; and core students, who stay at the school for a year or two, assisting in the chores and acting as hosts. There are about a dozen instructors for each session.
That first day, John and I ate a quick lunch, then went exploring. We discovered the library down the main road, and had it to ourselves. John perused the woodworking books until he found a design for the end table of cherry, walnut and Brazilian rosewood that he'd be working on. In the evening, another walk in the opposite direction on the main road led us past well-kept houses and landscaped yards to the visitor information center and gift shop, and the barns containing the residents' studios.
One lazy summer evening we went to an opening at these studios, admiring the array of glass, jewelry, photography and handmade books. We were also entertained by the antics of a cat who leaped into an abandoned bathtub outside one studio and emerged with a mouse tucked snugly in its mouth. We watched as it let the mouse go and caught it again, until there was little life left in the mouse and little light left in the day.
The pattern of work, meals and entertainment was established, the days distinguishable only by the menu of the day, what stage we were in our respective projects and the instructor whose slides were being shown that evening.
From the first, students and staff members alike were friendly and enthusiastic. We were all here to learn, and anyone who had tried something new was encouraged to talk about it. The dialogue was unceasing as we kept tabs on one another's works-in-progress. In the first week, we watched work on a group of collaborative teapots, ones where each part was made by a different person -- body, spout, handle and lid -- in Judith Salomon's "Handbuilding" class. During the last week, a group of ceramics students stayed up all night stoking the wood-burning kiln so that they could fire the wheel-thrown work made in Ken Sedberry's "Wood Fired Stoneware" class.
The first few days in my "Shining Cloth" class were hectic. Victoria Rivers gave daily demonstrations in how to use pigments, dyes, glitter and beads; showed decorated cloth from India; and gave slide presentations of Peruvian, Mexican and African embellished cloth. Finally we had a full day to ourselves and our projects, and I approached it with enthusiasm, mixing my chosen colors and laying down the first layer of dyes for my "Swimmers" design -- a quilted and beaded wall hanging.
John's try at wood turning had gone well, dubbed by his teacher "a real fine job" for a first turning, and he was encouraged to see that his experience as a machinist translated into working with wood. That second night, as we settled into our room, John confided, "I wouldn't mind coming back here next year." I knew we were onto a winner.
In the second week, as the end of the session neared, a kind of panic began to set in, as we each labored to finish the projects we had started. The euphoria of the first week -- that feeling of endless possibility -- was replaced by the cold, hard reality that this session too would end. We became preoccupied not only with finishing our work but also with experimenting with new techniques.
But panic was displaced by excitement as we prepared for the midweek Fourth of July and its parade, picnic and fireworks. The parade was a wonderful spectacle. A marching band of woodworkers with cut-out painted wood trombones (with kazoos for noisemakers) was followed by whistle-blowing metalworkers. Ceramicists banged their wooden buckets with mallets, followed by us surface designers carrying a banner, "Art a` la Carte." "Art" appeared in a vintage strapless prom dress, followed by her entourage of brightly festooned art-carts.
The last morning, we all gathered on the lawn in front of the Loom House and proudly displayed our work. My "Swimmers" wall hanging, dyed in shades of pinks and corals on a turbulent blue sea with iridescent pigment accents and shimmery beads, sparkled as it wafted in the breeze. Watching it from a distance, I felt excited by its energy and color. And John's end table and turned rosewood lamp were displayed with a sense of pride and accomplishment.
It was hard for us to leave the school, but my fellow surface designers and I already have held a reunion here in Washington, John has bought a wood lathe, and we continue to see friends we made in our workshops. So Penland never really ends. It just changes venue.
Ann Corbett is a Washington writer.