It’s the season of change for two of Western North Carolina’s craft institutions. In May, John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown named Jerry Jackson as its new executive director. A month later, Penland School of Crafts in Penland announced that Maria “Mia” Hall would take the reins as director, effective Jan. 1.
“Many schools are transitioning as their leadership ages out,” says Jackson, who began his new role in August after Jan Davidson retired at the end of a 25-year tenure. Similarly, Hall is following in the footsteps of Jean McLaughlin, the former director who grew Penland’s endowment from $2.1 million to $17 million.
Preserving contemporary craft
Hall has plans of her own. “I don’t see the core mission of Penland changing. It’s a craft school, and it will remain a craft school,” she says. “However, I do see the field of craft changing.”
Hall, who creates furniture and mixed-media sculpture, says that makers are devising new ways to use basic materials, such as ceramics, fiber, wood and metals. In 2011, for instance, New York City artist Malika Green hosted a leatherworking class at Penland. Rather than create knife sheaths or belts, the students cobbled footwear — “shoes with the same modern sensibilities as jewelry or chairs,” says Hall.
As director, Hall wants to push more programs that are both unconventional and a reflection of Penland’s traditional crafting roots. It’s a balance she strives for when creating art, too, considering her own roots.
Hall was raised in a remote Swedish village where her grandparents were makers — her grandfather was a woodworker and her grandmother fashioned mittens, lampshades, blouses and the like. But it wasn’t until Hall moved to the U.S. at 18 that she followed suit.
“I rediscovered making later on,” she explains. At the time, she was an undergraduate student in interior design. “I realized that I am less interested in interiors and more interested in the objects inside them.”
In graduate school at San Diego State University, Hall studied furniture design and art, experimenting with utility and the expression of femininity. Soon after finishing the program, she and her husband, metalsmith and educator David Clemons, moved for faculty positions at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. In her time at UA Little Rock, Hall secured more than $20 million in funding, much of which financed the 65,000-square-foot Windgate Center of Art + Design.
“I always felt it wasn’t asking for money; it was about creating relationships with donors and opportunities for students,” Hall says of grants administration.
UA Little Rock receives keys to the Windgate Center of Art + Design on Nov. 1, just weeks before Hall leaves for North Carolina.
Hall says she is looking forward to living in a rural area much like her hometown (just 200 full-time residents live in the community of Penland, which runs along the North Toe River in Mitchell County). Of course, she is also eager to assume the directorship.
“I met Jean [McLaughlin] eight years ago, and I remember telling a friend that I wanted her job,” she notes. Her husband had taught metalsmithing at the school.
“There’s this difference in attitude here. [The students] want to make things and lead a creative life,” she says. “I want more people — all walks of life — to discover Penland.”
Before coming to John C. Campbell, Jackson served as deputy director at Penland, where he was “responsible for all aspects of operations, including student programming, financial accountability, dining facility, housekeeping, building maintenance and construction … and played a key role in support of Penland’s recent $32 million capital campaign,” according to a press release. By happenstance, he was also involved in hiring Hall as the new director.
“It’s funny — I’ve been on both sides of the fence,” he says.
Jackson’s backstory isn’t unlike Hall’s. Raised just east of Charlotte in Peachland, he remembers watching his grandmother sew. “We lived in the middle of nowhere and were very poor,” he explains. “So, whatever we needed, we made.”
He became a maker while studying art at East Carolina University. As an undergraduate, he worked under a ceramicist and later, while pursuing a master’s of fine arts degree, discovered painting as a quicker way to create imagery.
Once out of school, he took a curatorial job at The Imperial Centre for the Arts and Sciences — formerly Rocky Mount Arts Center — and, after three years, assumed the role of executive director.
But in 1999, he was faced with Hurricane Floyd, a Category 4 system that moved up the coast and devastated Rocky Mount’s infrastructure. Wanting to rebuild, Jackson sought out an industrial space once occupied by the Imperial Tobacco Co. and Braswell Memorial Library. The restoration process took two years and afforded what is now considered the largest historic preservation site in the southeastern United States.
“It was the crowning moment of my career,” Jackson says of opening the revitalized building.
He has since hit the ground running at the Folk School, drafting a long-range vision for stability and sustainability.
“Our goal is to create a plan that will last the school for several decades,” he explains. “So we almost have to rewind and think: Who are we and what’s the mission of our institution?”
Besides revving up financials, Jackson is calling for the continuation of John C. Campbell’s diverse programming. He says the sheer breadth of classes — from basketry to book arts — distinguishes the school from others in the area. Still, it’s the strong sense of community that keeps students coming back. In fact, it’s what sold him on the position.
“Our students continue to enroll because of the people. That much was evident when I took a class here,” says Jackson. As part of the hiring process, all candidates were required to enroll in a course. He picked organic gardening.
Jackson continues, “I have joined a community that is hugely committed to this school and that has accepted me with arms wide open. Everything has come full circle.”