This post is dedicated to my friend, master metalsmith and teacher Chuck Evans (1940-2015)
It is early Saturday morning and I really should be lingering in bed in a haze of lovely weekend sleep instead of sitting here typing on my computer. It can’t be helped: I cannot get Penland out of my mind.
I erased everything I have written in this post up to now because it is saying what I want (or mean) to say all wrong. A clean slate is the only solution and I feel better already. Sometimes fixing something is a lot more difficult than starting anew, so here goes.
I have found an excuse to write about Penland School of Craft numerous times in this blog because it is so easy to attach it to food, which in turn I can attach to people, and the people who you meet at Penland are well-worth talking about.
This August at Penland will standout as one of my very best visits.
Connecting a life in Ireland in 1986 and finding another life in the United States took two things: Grennan Mill Craft School and Penland School of Craft.
While going to school in Ireland it was impressed upon me that if you didn’t draw, you were not an artist or artistic. This was certainly the parochial view, where I grew up anyway. If you wrote, you were are writer, but if you fiddled around like I did making jewelry out of electrical wire and other scraps I found, it was not really anything – just kind of crafty.
So I did what I was advised to do after secondary school and studied business in college – no Art School for me!
I actually loved college though. I’m just one of those people who love the feel of a classroom. Think about it, you get to sit somewhere or be somewhere all day long where other people (teachers) feed you information. I suppose when you attach the word “learning” to the experience it feels like work.
Nowadays when I ask my kids “well what did you learn in school today?”, I really want to know…..like what did you learn, because I want to know that too!! Ha, I just cannot help myself. They put up with me though and are used to my wanting to be involved (home schooling them for years took care of that!)
This summer my son had to read a book, The People’s History of America by Howard Zinn for his upcoming history class, and write a synopsis of the book as he read. He was daunted, and I was exciting. This was the perfect opportunity for me to learn the history (albeit, a point of view of history) of the United States for once and for all. I had learned lots of bits and pieces over the years but I wanted a clear view, a timeline, and this book was the answer.
We read the book in all sorts of places over the summer and discussed and argued. I was completely fascinated from beginning to end and highly recommend it to anyone who wants to read a history book but doesn’t want it to feel like school.
Oops – getting off track a bit, but back to me and my connecting the dots of my life. After college I was still itchy to “make stuff” as I referred to my little diversion. I got a friend to make me a big wooden board that closed up like a suit case from which to hang and transport my wiry earrings and necklaces and proceeded to hawk them on the street in town – very “hippie” thing to do in those days, but I was quite serious about making money to live on while satisfying my desire to create.
I heard about Grennan Mill through my then boyfriend (still friends – hi David!) and so I decided to check it out. It was in its infancy but it had the clout of Kilkenny Design Workshops behind it (famous for its tradition of silver and silversmiths).
A group in Ireland called AnCO ( it is/was a Training Advisory Service set up by the government to promote skills development within industry) was sponsoring an all silversmithing course at the mill for the first time (up to then students studied a wider range of crafts while there – ceramics, metal, textiles). It was full-time and the students got a small stipend so they did not have to work while studying.
Most everyone applying was involved in some way with art and/or craft so I went to the interview full of angst and apprehensions. I took my giant wooden suitcase with me and sat across a desk from the then director the lovely George Vaughan and my prospective teacher, the wildly talented and quirky Peter Donovan (he was head of the metals program for 30 years – only recently stepping out of the role). What was I going to say to convince them that I belonged in that class??
To be quite honest, I don’t remember what I said but after showing them my work (if you could call it that) and saying whatever I said, I was one of the twelve chosen to take the course. These two men knew talent when they saw it – ha!
But on a serious note, I think they could actually see my passion and desire coming through because I really didn’t have anything else going for me at that point. My business degree would be put to use later I told my anxious mother and off I went to Grennan Mill Craft School in Thomastown, County Kilkenny.
It changed my life.
It was there that I discovered a part of me that was itching to be discovered and it was also there that I found the company of the most interesting people I had ever come across. My kind of people, and for the first time in my life I had found a community that I totally and utterly belonged to. Yep – dramatic thing to say, but true.
I am so thankful for that time in Thomastown as it wasn’t just the course of study that awakened me. I got to mingle with painters, potters, weavers and sculptures, all working on being the best they could be. I made friends for life, and that happened to me all over again when I took a class at Penland School in Western North Carolina seven years later.
Moving from Ireland to the United States was a culture shocking experience, especially in the late 1980’s when the connections to other countries were not as instantaneous as they are today. It is so much easier today to get the sense of a foreign place with the click of a button. It is not like being there of course, but it does help you prepare if you are planning a journey, or as it turned out for me, a more permanent move (you always leave thinking you are coming back).
But, this was also the part of me that needed to be satisfied; my never-ending curiosity about everything and everybody. What makes a place tick? It turns out no matter where I go, the answer to that question is the same; it is the people.
I will ignore my NYC story of where I lived for seven years before venturing further (plenty of posts to read about that if you are curious) and skip right to Penland. I went on the recommendation of a friend who could see I needed to get back to my creative side (I took classes at Parsons School of Design just to keep fresh and I was renting a little studio in a dingy basement on 6th and 2nd Ave).
What can I say? It was like Déjà vu, only Penland was a scarier prospect in that I felt totally intimidated and out of my comfort zone: very good ingredients to thrive in I’d say. What I mean is if everything comes easy and there is no challenge or apprehension involved, then what is the point? The day you feel comfortable is the day to make a change.
Creativity is something that is pulled from you and it takes a certain kind of work, although I hate to use that word. Maybe courage and effort are better descriptors.
Penland gave me a place where I could work with tools and materials that felt familiar to me. That was a good start. But the difference here is that there were no traditions or rules to upkeep. At least not with my instructor, Chuck Evans.
At Grennan Mill I learned how to use tools correctly, and techniques that I would call upon forever. Here at Penland people were doing whatever the heck they felt like doing, whether they had the knowledge or not. They would try anyway and see what happened.
I warmed to Chuck Evans immediately. He had a rough and tumble kind of friendliness, no frills, no bull. Sometimes politeness is overrated when you find yourself as an instructor having to coax a timid person into being more courageous. Chuck bypassed all of this when he saw me fretting over a box I was trying to solder, “well what are you waiting for, light the damn torch and start putting that thing together!”
It was a two-week class whose purpose was to bring me back to myself and it succeeded. How could that happen in a short two-week period of my life?
Well, Penland is not real life that’s why. Not even for the people who live and work at Penland. They know this fact too. Because, the moment they drive down the mountain and away from the school, a different kind of reality hits them; the real world.
The really good news is that after being there, you take a bit of the place with you and the real world takes on a different color or tone. You come away a better artist for sure, and with a happiness that just lingers. YES CORNY – and I am certainly not corny so I will defend myself.
Penland proved that it is a catalyst for sparking creativity and happiness. People travel all over the world looking for these sometimes elusive things: going on retreats, pilgrimages, sitting on the top of mountains with fantastical views looking for inspiration for their work and their life.
It is in different places for different people, unexpected places at times. I didn’t go to Penland expecting anything but a way to use a good studio space with a teacher whose reputation preceded him.
I found out that the irreverence to traditional approaches and techniques (at least that it how I saw it the first few days) did not disregard good craftmanship, rather it was a way to show students that objects could be created in many different ways, using others modes or means of getting there.
So the big lesson for me was: there is more than one way to skin a cat!
What a revelation (and a philosophy to be applied to anything really). Without being technical, the time I spent in a studio which was open 24-7 was invaluable, because of my crazy talented teacher and because of the other students in my class.
The transformation did not stop when I stepped from the studio. It was happening all around me. I got to hang out in other studios and watch other artists doing the same thing I was doing, pushing themselves in a place that encouraged daring at every turn.
What happens when you come back from a really amazing vacation or pilgrimage, or retreat, or some sort of holiday which made a big impact on you? You get all mushy about it right? You become the champion for that place or that thing. The feeling does wear off or is eroded by the daily grind and that’s only natural, but these warm fuzzy things happen.
It is 22 years since my class with Chuck and I maintained that fuzzy feeling by becoming a full-time metalsmith, and that is how I have been making my living ever since.
I forgot to mention that Chuck’s aspiring assistant became my husband! He was already a seasoned Penlander ( a good name for us all) and had just completed his masters in Metalsmithing & Jewelry at Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia.
He will tell you to this day that Penland is where he received his true education and the place were his craft was allowed to flourish with no limits.
We are both in the art business and I do most definitely consider it a business too as it has to be viable if we are to remain doing what we love. (Consolation to know my college years were not a waste of time!).
Since then we have been back to Penland many times together to visit and to teach.
This August Dave taught the 6th Session Upper Metals class ( I opted out of teaching simply because I wanted to hang out with our now two teenage kids on campus for this intense two weeks, and because I wanted to take a break from actual work) and the visit was the most memorable ever.
Reconnecting with all of my friends and fellow artists as well making new friends was the glorious highlight of my whole year. (There was a little teaching done when the students found out in Dave’s class that I was also a metalsmith and willing to offer any advice if asked. This is why I knew I could not teach too: our kids would never have seen us!)
This was also the first time Calder and Íde lived on campus as semi-adults and were able to completely immerse themselves and have that “Penland experience”.
They spent their days exploring studios, hanging out getting to know instructors and students, watched their dad do demos and visit the Coffee house for delectable treats on a whim. We also made several trips to Asheville to see old friends and to eat yummy food.
Now of course they are dying for the time when they can take a class (you have to be 18). In the meantime they can look forward to a long visit in spring 2017 when Dave will be teaching the Spring Metals concentration.
I could really keep going about how Penland and Grennan Mill changed the course of my life. There are so many stories left to tell, so many more people to include, but hopefully this taste will make you want to click on the link to the school and take a wild and wonderful adventure and see it for yourself.
It will not disappoint.
I could not close without mentioning the Caretaker of Penland, Jean McLaughlin (real title being Executive Director). She has a quiet way of being a truly powerful advocate for the school and it’s mission, to support individual and artistic growth through craft. She has done, and continues to do an admirable job and I hope this little ode of mine serves to demonstrate some of her accomplishments.