Nothing had quite prepared me for my first view I had of the Penland campus in North Carolina. You leave the main road at the town of Spruce Pine and thread your way up through the trees for what seems like miles (but is, in fact, only one) You pass a monumental ‘Hoss Haley’ steel sculpture and Penland’s colonial-looking, white painted gallery (complete with painted porch and rocking chairs) then the landscape opens out dramatically with a horseshoe arrangement of different buildings wrapped around a grassy ‘knoll’ and lining the sides of a valley. It is clear that you are in a unique sort of environment though hard to say at that point in what way, maybe it is the instant feeling of calm having travelled so far to get there, maybe it is the well-considered architecture with its many porches and chairs inviting conversations or the beautifully designed and executed iron handrails that line steps from one studio level to another or maybe the road names on small wooden signposts begging the question that burned its way into my brain for much of my time I was to spend here…
How on earth does a road get to be called ‘The road to heavens above’.
I had been my dream to get to Penland School of Craft for many years. I think names such as Rick Smith, Hoss Haley, Elizabeth Brim and Steve Yusko had been in my head since days spent at the (then named) National Ornamental Metals Museum in Memphis Tennessee back in 1992. There was an undeniable association with good craftsmanship and a creative community that made me curious so in July 2022 when a post popped up on my Instagram, I applied for one of their winter residencies thinking I could combine it with a visit to my daughter who was working in Canada (Geography never was my strong point …). On the application I had to give an outline of the project that I wanted to pursue, why I was interested in the residency program, what studio equipment I would need and some references. There was also an option to apply for various subsidized options such as fellowships, studio assistants, or operations assistantships which I did.
By the end of October, I heard that I had been awarded a two-week residency in the larger Iron studio (there is also a smaller metal studio). Only about a quarter of all applicants are accepted so I was pleased. I didn’t get any of the subsidized options so there was a fee for studio use and accommodation which came to $850. I thought $60 a day was worth paying for such an experience. There were two, two-week winter residencies and I was on the second starting on the 22nd of January.
Of course, a comprehensive history of Penland is on its website but briefly, it was founded in 1929 by Lucy Morgan, a weaver who came to Penland as a teacher at the Appalachian school to teach classes in some of the buildings that are still in use at Penland today. She held a strong belief in the simple value of “the joy of creative occupation and a certain togetherness working with one another in creating the good and beautiful’. When ‘Miss Lucy’ retired in 1962 the school was taken over by a man called Bill Brown who expanded the school, bought in new teachers, and added (amongst others) the glass and iron studios. Bill Brown expanded the teaching and resident artist programme. People come to Penland for all sort of reasons but in my case, it was something of a productive retreat or as worded in the drop-down menu of the application form ‘I’m an art professional who needs time away from daily responsibilities and distractions to focus on a creative project’. My proposed project involved making larger copper forms with a focus on pattern making, developing textures, and joining the various components by TIG welding. All are aspects of my practice that through a lack of time due to teaching and course preparation recently I felt I’d neglected.
Arrival and studio
Having arrived at about 3.00 pm and found my room in a log cabin-type dorm house called Radcliffe. The first evening there was a short presentation in Northlight (one of the communal buildings) by Mia Hall the director of Penland about what we should expect from the residency. On one evening all residents would give a short slide show of 4-5 minutes on their slides that they had sent with their application. There would be one evening to visit the long-term resident artists’ studios in ‘The barns’, a potluck supper to which all residents were encouraged to contribute, a food van on campus selling Tacos once during the week. Apart from these few fixed points your eating times and habits are your own. The café on campus served great coffee and amazing soups and I had hired a car so could easily get to Ingles supermarket in Spruce Pine. How little or much time you devoted to your project was up to you.
Following the presentation, we met Autumn Brown, the Iron studio assistant (which in the UK would probably be called a studio technician). She showed the six of us around the iron studio. My fellow creatives for the next two weeks were to be Chris who made large scale steel sculpture from San Diego, Nathan, a recent graduate and performance artist from Memphis, Kyle, an automata and installation artist and two interns Mo and Jordon (Core Fellows) who stay at Penland for two years helping with the running of the place but also develop their own creative practice and networks. It is a testament to Penland that apparently 80 % of core fellows remain in creative careers. It felt like there was a strong support network of people to call on for help from materials to equipment. You could pre-order materials before arriving. In my case I ordered copper once I had got there.
Nadia, the metals coordinator was a wonderful bridge for me between the two metals studios as my work plan overlapped (needing both larger hammers and smaller anvils and swages for sheet metal work). It felt a little strange having to begin the very personal business of getting down to making with a small group of strangers but slowly conversations about making started getting easier. A couple of times we all ate together using a barbeque on the terraces of the iron and glass studios and it was interesting getting to know other creative people from around the globe especially post lockdown. I think it is all too easy to get ensconced in your own workshop and though I was rusty at it, it felt great to open what had been (for quite some time) just an internal conversation to talk freely about my own (and other artists) work.
Weather and environment
If you like all things weather- wise Penland’s the spot for you. Set on the side of a hill in the Appalachian Mountains you have huge sky views. It was fascinating to experience the dramatic changes in weather there. The short days normally began with stunning sunrises. I had expected really cold weather and even built the expectation of minus temperatures into my work plan (to experiment with ice in steel forms) but we only had two of these deep freezes at the end when my work was ready enough to take advantage of it , for the remainder of the time the weather went from a dense peasouper of a fog to clear but crisp blue-sky days. You never knew what was going to appear on the horizon. As quite an outdoorsy type of person I did find the long days in the studio (often from 8.00 am to 8.00 pm) started to take their toll so after a couple of days I got proactive, and every morning made it my mission to walk up and down the steep hill behind my dorm halls three times while listening to a Spotify daily mix. At the top of the hill were three huge circular cement tanks that took on the bizarre persona of my three children and gave my mini aerobic pilgrimage some meaning.
An interesting extracurricular part of the residency was an outing to the resident artist’s open studio called ‘The Barns’ on Day 5. These residents differed hugely from those of us who just had dropped in for a two week ‘enrichment’. A short evening walk down the dark road and into the woods led to the old, converted horse barns, here residents can spend one or three years setting up their own studio completely, advance their own studio practice and networks and work out the practicalities of making a living. I had been following the raising work and amazing making development clips of Adam Whitney on Instagram for a while and loved seeing his studio in the flesh, along with his immaculate polished hammers, swages, and stakes. Also, it was useful to see how he had organised his working area/circle being able to skid between different anvils or swages on his chair with wheels. Another resident artist whose work I particularly connected with was that of Daniel Garver, a ceramicist who made slip cast vessels. It was hard not to be impressed by the professional commitment of the resident artists and also to see how being surrounded by other creative people working to a high standard upped the general game.
My favourite things were…
The Penland gallery. An inspirational exhibition space with both larger work showcasing artists and a more affordable commercial section with cards and small gifts as well (just to remind you that there is an outside world that might need attention when you get home) Work in all media of course and I particularly loved the work of Dan Mirer, (fussed cast glass), Lyn Duryea, (ceramic work that to me slightly mimicked metal) and Andrew Hayes,( intriguing mixed media work in paper and steel)
The final night when we showcased the work that we had been making, it was as if suddenly, like rabbits everyone came out of their warrens to play on a warm summers evening. Some studio groups (particularly of the print making and textile variety) wore items they had crafted for the occasion giving the whole evening a fun, slightly surreal atmosphere. Lots of the local creative and wider Ashville community came to support too and I even got to say a quick hello to the infamous Elizabeth Brim.
If I had the chance to go again (which I would love to) I would like to take a bit more time to visit some of the other artists and studios (all 16 of them). Particularly the glass and wood. Possibly even apply for a residency that overlapped glass and metal.
I would most probably be a little more relaxed and more experimental within my proposed work schedule. Although I had worked with artists in their studios before this was the first time that I had really undertaken a residency in the truest sense. The environment at Penland feels very inclusive, fair, and kind which also means that any sense of judgement seems to fall away. I do think it is important to have your personal goals quite clearing defined and as Nadia Massoud said at the beginning ‘To reconnect with your intentions’. This was a time, to walk away from domestic clutter and despite having a lot of that in my life at that time the environment at Penland did enable me to be the artist I aspire to be.
I wouldn’t hesitate recommending applying for a residency at Penland. There are more posts about my time there on my Instagram feed and please feel free to contact me with any questions.