Thursday, September 29, 2011

Penland Educators' Retreat

North Carolina's Penland School of Crafts has exerted a huge influence on me ever since I first attended a workshop in the summer of 1997. When I look back on the pieces I've made at Penland--however crude, however experimental--I can see dozens of little kernels that eventually grew into my "real" work. What would I be making now if it weren't for Penland?

Over the years, I've been a work-study student (washing dishes), a scholarship recipient, a studio assistant, and, finally, an instructor: Penland was where I taught my very first wood jewelry class, back in 2007.

And now I've had the thrill of experiencing Penland from yet another perspective, as a participant in the 2011 Craft Educators' Retreat. When I opened the email inviting me to apply it was almost like getting one of those "YOUR NAME HAVE WON 60000GBP" messages. A week in the woods with 100 other teachers, talking and learning and teaching in any of a dozen well-equipped studios? Too good to be true!

It was a whole lot of silver lining stuffed into one small dark cloud: my inability to attend three demos simultaneously. Other than that and self-imposed sleep deprivation it was an overwhelmingly positive experience. I deeply believe that one of the most important qualities a teacher can possess is indiscriminate generosity, and this week hammered that idea home. Not only was I surrounded by people who are at the top of their game, they were unanimously willing to spill their secrets, whether in scheduled demos or informal tutorials sparked by a lunchtime chat.

Mark Gardner taught woodturning and Stoney Lamar shared his signature surface texturing and finishing technique (that's metalsmith Suzanne Pugh looking on).

Sculptor Sabiha Mujtaba (my awesome roommate) showed us how to transfer a design from model to block in preparation for power carving. Dean Pulver wowed silversmith Julia Woodman with an impromptu demo of the "Ming Ding".

Sculptor Critz Campbell shared a low-tech trick for steam-bending wood, and I ventured out of the wood studio to see papercut artist BĂ©atrice Coron's overview of materials and tools.

Perhaps even more inspiring than the expert instruction was seeing the experts take a risk on trying something new. The hotshop schedule quickly filled up as teachers like master blacksmith Jim Cooper jumped at the chance to blow some glass.

I hadn't blown since last year, but to my surprise some of the skills I accumulated at Pilchuck came back to me, while the overriding anxiety didn't. Patiently coached by gaffer extraordinaire Sami Lipscomb, I made a hip flask that's a big step up from my last attempt.

I took advantage of tools I don't usually have access to and made a little progress on my ongoing doll project. Mark Gardner helped me to turn some tiny wood versions, and Ben Elliott showed me how to make similar shapes in flame-worked borosilicate glass.

And I finally got to cast some glass rings that I'll eventually clean up and carve into signets.

I brought along a handful of empty vitrines, which turned into mementos of this very memorable experience: a sample of Dolph Smith's "forged paper" technique reminds me to be a generous teacher, a collage of leaves and mica simulating the Penland view reminds me to me resourceful, woven shavings from Stoney Lamar's turning demo reminds me to enjoy the process as much as the product, and a set of wings removed from a squashed bee reminds me that aiming for beauty often involves overcoming squeamishness. Quite a lot of lessons from just a week in the woods!

Thank you so much to the funders, my fellow retreaters, and everyone at Penland who worked so hard to put this amazing experience together.

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