The Penland school of crafts

schoolThis has been an amazing summer, and I feel incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to explore my passions.  After working hard through temperature indices in the 100’s in May and June building an additional room on my studio (more on that in a future post), I got the chance to go fishing with good friends for two weeks in Montana.  It was an amazing trip, and I’m hooked on fishing for wild trout on big waters.

Long before I committed to the fishing trip, Amy and I had made plans to visit Ireland as part of a bead making retreat arranged by my friends Terry Hale and Marjorie Langston.  I’ll describe that trip in another future post, but suffice it to say it was everything we hoped for and more.

The icing on the cake was when I found out Wesley Fleming was going to be teaching sculptural flameworking at the Penland school of crafts.  Penland had been on my radar for years, and I’d admired Wesley’s work since I first discovered his web site, so I couldn’t pass up the opportunity.  I hesitated a moment before applying, because the course ended the day before we left for Ireland, but I’m so glad I made the decision to attend.

Here’s a bit about Penland, lifted directly from their website:

Penland is an international center for craft education dedicated to helping people live creative lives. Located in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, Penland offers one-, two-, and eight-week workshops in books & paper, clay, drawing, glass, iron, metals, photography, printmaking and letterpress, textiles, and wood. The school also offers artists’ residencies, community collaboration programs, and a gallery and information center.

Some of the greatest names in studio glass have taught at Penland, and a number of current and former instructors and resident artists have moved to the area and operate studios nearby.  The nearby town of Spruce Pine is known for “Spruce Pine Batch”, a glassblowing supply company started by Harvey Littleton, one of the founders of the american studio glass movement.

The course started with check-in and orientation Sunday afternoon, followed by dinner, and then an introductory session in the studio.  I was assigned a room with a shared bath in a log cabin that was quite comfortable and modern, and only a short walk from the glass studio.  Wesley turned out to be a modest and generous teacher, starting out Sunday night by sculpting a simplified beetle, and I knew by the end of that session that I was going to learn an enormous amount.  He was willing to put in several hours a day demonstrating his techniques, and he was assisted by another talented artist, Jupiter Nielsen, who flew in from Hawaii just to assist the class.  There were 8 other students in the class, with a range of experience and interests, from lampwork beads to boro sculpture, and two of them were in the middle of academic programs in glass.  The flameworking studio was fairly well equipped (we were using Nortel Minors, but they also had Smith Little torches for detail work, and Carlisle CC torches for those who wanted them), and we all got plenty of time to try the techniques that Wesley demoed.

I was in heaven.  I learned an enormous amount from Wesley, not only from his demos but also from watching him work even when he wasn’t narrating his actions, and got quite a bit from Jupiter as well.  We had a good vibe in the class, and there were very few moments when I was tired or even ready for a break.

A benefit I hadn’t anticipated was the hot shop class, located in the same building.  Monday morning I woke about 6am, ready for coffee, and found to my dismay that the school coffee shop isn’t open until 9am.  Breakfast was at 8, but I was ready for coffee.  During our intro walk-through the night before I’d noticed a kitchen area in back of the glass building, and I heard music coming from the studio, so I walked up the hill and found the hot glass class in full swing.  Penland’s got an impressive facility, with 3 glory holes, but with about a dozen students they had to establish a work schedule that ran from 6am to midnight, and the first teams were already hard at work.  I prowled around in the kitchen area, found a small coffee pot and a couple of tablespoons of coffee in a crumpled bag, and brewed 4 cups.  Then I watched the class work until breakfast.  I ducked out later in the day to buy more coffee and beer (I’d neglected to bring any), and my routine for the rest of the week was established.  I’d start the day watching the hot glass class, eat meals and attend our class, and spend the rest of my time watching the activity in the hot shop whenever I was done torching for the day.  The hot shop class for that session was also natural form sculpture, taught by the lively and talented Karen Willenbrink-Johnson and her husband Jason Johnson.  They’ve got decades of experience working with top artists, and watching them sculpt birds of prey out of hot glass was a joy.  And the highlight of their class was when one of the students who worked with raptor rehabilitation arranged for owls and hawks to be brought to the shop as live models.  Rumors the birds were coming had gotten out earlier in the week, so there were a number of students from other disciplines that dropped by the hot shop that day.

Our class was treated to an equally amazing bonus near the end of the week, when sculptor Shane Fero stopped in to see how the class was going.  He and Wes decided to do a collaboration as a demo, and created an amazing female/bird/insect hybrid sculpture.  I was riveted, watching Shane’s slightly different approach to the same material that Wes had been working with, and how the two of the bounced ideas off of each other.

I haven’t spent any time in my home studio since I took the class, but watching world class artists like Wesley, Shane, Jupiter and the Willenbrink-Johnsons really opened my eyes to the possibilities of sculpture, and my time at Penland is going to have a profound influence on my work.  It was a mind blowing week.