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The Nature of Craft and the Penland Experience
July 3, 2004 - January 30, 2005
(above: Jacob Fishman, Penland, 1993, neon)
Sculptor Bob Trotman
The Penland School of Crafts is set on 400 acres of splendid isolation among the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. Originally established by Lucy Morgan as a settlement program to preserve weaving skills and provide mountain women economic opportunity, Penland celebrates its 75th anniversary in 2004 having evolved as a national center for alternative craft education with programs in fourteen studies encompassing traditional and contemporary craft. To artists and students, Penland is a craft mecca where total immersion workshops taught by a rotating group of guest instructors create a community of exchange -- in ideas, skills and support. (right: Fed Birkhill, Jr., Blue Skies, 1997, glass)
The Penland School's unique niche in contributing to the evolution of American craft is celebrated through the exhibition The Nature of Craft and the Penland Experience, on display July 3 through January 30, 2005 at Charlotte, NC's Mint Museum of Craft + Design. Featured are 137 works made by artists affiliated with Penland School as instructors or resident artists. All media taught at the school -- books and paper, clay, drawing and painting, glass, iron, metals, photography, printmaking, textiles and wood -- are included. The work spans all eras of Penland's history. Exhibition co-curators are Ellen Denker and Penland program director Dana Moore.
Denker views Penland as representative of the Arts and Craft movement that has been continuously growing in America. "The face of it may have changed, but its heart is constant," she wrote in her catalogue essay. ". . . using process as the basis of definition rather than style -- is to see continuity in the past 125 years of the history of craft and to understand that the principles of the Arts and Craft movement have thrived for more than a century."
"Schools like Penland and Haystack Mountain (Maine) continue to be important because their small scale and flexible structure allow them to experiment and develop programs in a way that can't be done within the more formalized structure of universities and art schools," stated Paul Smith, Curator Emeritus of the American Craft Museum (now the Museum of Arts & Design) and a former Penland trustee. "At Penland you learn by watching others and that's very important. That community of exchange and sharing is hard to document, but it's part of why Penland exists." (left: Alida Fish, Walking with Pygmalion, #5, 1998, photography)
The exhibition is organized around three themes -- Skill: Mastery and Transmission; Sources: Where Ideas Are Found; and Expression: No Boundaries. "Skill" celebrates mastery over material and examines the role of oral traditions in developing competence. "Source" looks at environment, the body, spirituality, and play as the foundations of creativity in craft. "Expression" demonstrates that craft communicates ideas, transcending the traditional boundaries of gender, ethnicity, age, and religion. All hand-made objects embody these three elements to some extent, while some show one aspect to a greater degree than the other two.
In craft, skill is expressed as the facility to transform elemental materials such as wood, clay, metal and fiber into objects that inspire reflection and admiration by mastering the choreography controlling the material -- carving, turning, blowing, hammering, weaving. Universities and craft school have supplanted artisan guilds in passing the oral traditions of skills developed over centuries to new generations. Work featured in Skill: Mastery and Transmission begins with Edward Worst's Table Cover, ca.1930s. Worst, a Chicago educator and follower of reformers Thomas Dewey and Francis W. Parker, co-founded the Summer Institute for Weaving at Penland in 1928 that became the Penland School of Handicrafts the following year. The section features works by ground-breaking innovators such as glass artist Harvey Littleton's Sympathy, 1978; wood artist Wendell Castle's Blanket Chest, 1963; clay artist Don Reitz's She Broke Her Leg, Not Her Heart, 1985; Penland's first metal instructor Brent Kington's Weathervane, 1978; and fiber artist Billie Ruth Sudduth's Fibonacci 21, 1996.
Source: Where Ideas Are Found amply illustrates that inspiration is found everywhere and that artists have an unique ability to explain ideas visually. Nature can inspire (Marc Petrovic and Kari Russell-Pool's blown glass Blue Vase with Birds and Honeysuckle, 2003), be replicated in a range of material (Michael Sherrill's stoneware Shining Rock RhododendronRhodondendron, 2000, and Stephen Dee Edwards' glass Tripod Sea Form, 1985) or serve as an element of an object (Robert Ebendorf's Necklace, 1994, made of twigs, pearls and 18K gold).
Other inspiration includes manmade environment (Boris Bally's P is for Platter, 2003, incorporates recycled aluminum traffic signs and recycled deckplate), body, self and others (ArlineArlene Fisch machine and hand knits copper wire and fine silver into a hand-in-sleeve Bracelet and Glove, 1999) spirituality (Junichiro Baba's cast and acid etched glass The Memory of Shadows, 2002, casts a mystical sense) and play (Lenore Davis' whimsical Mermaid Parade Float, 1976, made of cotton velvetine on wood or Rob Levine's blown glass, fruitful play on words Cup with Appeal #3, 1980). (left: Arline Fisch, Bracelet and Glove, 1999, metals)
The exhibition's third theme Expression: No Boundaries illustrates the dissolution of artistic boundaries as artists employ craft and mixed media in commenting on politics, gender, religion, ethnicity and the human condition. Examples include Peter Gourfain's terracotta tribute to the civil rights movement, Powerful Days, 1992-93, and Alida Fish's reflection on the classical portrayal of women in art in her altered photograph Walking with Pygmalion #5, 1998. (right: Beverly McIver, Dance with Me, 1999, painting)
The Nature of Craft and the Penland Experience includes a display of work made in response to Penland as its own inclusive culture as a place and community. Objects include a selection of Easter eggs made of clay, metal, glass and other material for Penland's annual Easter Egg hunt, outlandish croquet wickets from the Blacksmith's Croquet Game and the gate from Penland's iron studio that opened in 2000 incorporating memorabilia, demonstration pieces, objects donated by instructors and small pieces made by each member of the initial iron class.
The magic of Penland opens people to each other and their hands' work. Not surprisingly, a craft community has grown around the school with over 100 working studios within 15 miles. Penland School of Crafts director Jean McLaughlin summarizes that the exhibition and accompanying publication (Lark Books, available in July at Barnes & Nobles nationally, Penland Gallery and the Mint Museums Shops) explore many of the ideas the Penland community believe are central to craft -- "that learning, creativity and play are integrally linked; that craft is informed by ritual, celebration and function; that the hand and physicality are key influences in the making of craft and there is a chorography to studio activity; that the natural environment, community expression and oral transmission are of great importance to craft traditions; that craft has a relationship to the body, to beauty and to spirituality; and that craft, a universal language, is used cross-culturally by artists as a means of inspiration and communication." (right: Michael Sherrill, Shining Rock Rhododendron, c.2000)
Edited exhibition check list