Weekend warriors need not apply

Llamas.

That’s the first thing I picture when I recall my days at Penland School of Crafts. It was a dozen years ago, to the month, and in my 19-year-old wisdom, I decided I wanted to make jewelry for a living. So I signed up for a two-month intensive in my chosen medium and left my home in upstate New York, bound for the North Carolina mountains.

But I didn’t become a jeweler.

To be honest, I wasn’t even particularly good at the craft — maybe because I was far more focused on hanging out with newfound friends, hiking and discovering the beautiful flora and fauna of the surrounding area. And the latter included llamas, which were kept at a nearby farm.

All of those pleasures were essential aspects of the Penland experience for me. But the esteemed school and gallery obviously didn’t make it to age 75 by offering natural wonders alone.

Che Rhodes heats up the glass studio

Penland instructor Che Rhodes heats up the glass studio

Most people approach their time at Penland far more seriously than I did. Take sculptural book artist Dan Essig, for example, who happened to be a core student in the spring of ’92, the same time I landed at the school.

Essig was studying photography at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale — where he was also starting to make books — when a fellow student told him about Penland.

“I went for two weeks the first summer and then six weeks the second summer, and took whatever classes I could,” Essig tells me as we sit in downtown Asheville’s Ariel Gallery, an upscale craft cooperative that’s among the many places he now shows his work.

But during his early days at Penland, Essig’s chosen medium wasn’t generating much interest — classes were being canceled for lack of enrollment. It was Essig’s friend Julie Leonard, a former Penland student in the school’s two-year “core” program, who later got the book-art track up and running.

So Essig became a core student himself, entering Penland’s two-year program where dedicated craft students work for the school in exchange for their taking classes. They all live together in one of the campus’ oldest structures, the Morgan Building (named for school founder Lucy Morgan), and they’re able to rent studios cheaply.

“It was less than $50 for a studio when I was there,” recalls Essig, who went on to assist with classes, and began teaching at Penland in ’99.

“It’s a full circle,” he remarks. “People mentored me, so it’s satisfying to have come around — to be able to give back a little of what I was given.

“I teach at a lot of craft schools,” Essig adds. “But at Penland, it’s more of an honor.”

No depression in (craft) heaven

That idea of coming full circle would likely have pleased Lucy Morgan, who started the school in 1929. Of course, in those days there were no summer sessions, no spring concentrations, and no core students or resident artists — just a lush piece of land in the shadow of nearby Mount Mitchell.

Morgan grew up in Franklin County, though she went to a teachers’ college up in Michigan, reports Penland Director Jean McLaughlin.

“Lucy was in college at the time of John Dewey and the Social Reform Movement,” McLaughlin elaborates. “Her relatives were interested in community service and social concerns.”

Morgan’s brother, Episcopalian missionary the Rev. Rufus Morgan, was a botanist by hobby, and loved exploring the ecosystem surrounding the town of Penland. He was familiar enough with the Mitchell County area to know that the small community was home-schooling its children, and thus he encouraged the Episcopal Church to build for them the Appalachian Industrial School. Once it opened, his sister was invited to teach there.

In the early 1920s, Lucy Morgan decided she wanted to help the impoverished community of Penland beyond just in the classroom: She hoped that revitalizing the local craft-making tradition would provide local women with added income. So Morgan procured some looms, placing them in the women’s houses and teaching her eager students what she knew of the trade. It didn’t take long before the budding crafters had learned all Morgan had to offer, compelling their teacher to hunt for additional resources.

“She looked back to Chicago and found Edward Worst, a leading weaver and Dewey follower,” McLaughlin reports. “She invited Worst to teach in the Penland community.”

But when craft enthusiasts outside the area heard this renowned artisan was going to teach, they also wanted to study with him; Morgan began to get inquiries from around the country.

Consequently, she used the Appalachian Industrial School buildings to host weaving workshops — and that’s how Penland School of Crafts eventually came to be.

Necessary objects

The school’s predecessors used three-quarters of a century to perfect Penland’s almost aristocratic reputation among institutions of its kind.

Fast forward to 2004 — the school’s 75th-anniversary — and Penland’s current VIPs are slated to fill the year with celebratory programs, including Penland Retrospect, opening there this Friday.

Potter Leah Leitson just returned from a weeklong faculty retreat at Penland, where former instructors had been invited to work in the studios, reconnect with their peers, enjoy the school’s secluded atmosphere — and even learn a thing or two.

“I had the opportunity to try things I’d never tried before, like flame-work,” she admits. “It made me see the importance of being able to educate the public on the process of what goes into a piece.”

One major difference between our current cultural climate and the pre-Penland era is how few people today know the ins and outs of artisan-ship. Basketry, weaving and ceramics used to be necessary means to forming the products used in daily life. Now, in 2004, we merely stop by the store and pick up an acrylic blanket or a set of plastic tumblers — end of story.

But this trend dates to long before Tupperware was a household staple; the post-Industrial Revolution marketplace demanded mass production beginning in the late 1700s. Thus, by the early 1920s, the idea of “craft” as an artistic or educational — i.e., non-necessary — endeavor was already deeply rooted.

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts writer and editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs.

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