So I left Ohio behind via Cleveland airport and headed down to Asheville, North Carolina, from where I had booked a car to go check out Penland School of Crafts. Why? Well, good question. I had time to kill, and I have accumulated a long list of friends who have been involved with Penland as both residents and teachers, so being an inquisitive type I’ve been looking for an opportunity to go and check it out for myself. When I met Elizabeth Brim in October last year we talked about Penland since she lives in the surrounding hills. Finding out that I had never been, she kindly volunteered herself as tour guide if I wanted to head over sometime. I knew I had the Richmond trip on the horizon, and despite it being the off-season down there, she said that it was worth the trip at any time. So off I went!
After taking suggestions from another friend of what to do and where to go in Asheville I stayed the night with the remarkable Gwynne Rukenbrod, and had dinner with her and the irrepressible Marthe Le Van. Before dinner we called in to Mora – Marthe’s jewellery gallery downtown. It’s a huge space with some impressive glass cabinets in the centre of the space and lit painted wooden ones lining the walls. There’s a lot of work in there, with the potential for more, so Marthe’s considerable curating expertise is being utilised as she slowly acquires more artists.
It was a glorious day to be in Asheville, which was happily repeated the following for my day at Penland. I’m not big on driving in show so the well-above-freezing temperatures and full sunlight were much appreciated. I hit Elizabeth’s place, just a few miles from Penland, around 10 am and I followed her further into the hills for a tour of the school. We went all around, through the studios and into the store and coffee shop, as well as a quick visit into some of the resident artist studios including that of glass artist Micah Evans, who welcomed us in for a chat.
It’s a picturesque sprawling campus, much of which overlooks a grassy valley, where, I was told, just a couple of weeks earlier many of the Penland and local residents had been tobogganing and snow-tubing down the hill. Elizabeth is very knowledgeable about the history of the place, and its former inhabitants, so she was the consummate tour guide. I was taken through all of the studios. They are uniformly beautifully set up and maintained. To be honest, they looked better than their counterparts in most of the universities I have seen. I don’t know if this is a maintenance thing (which everyone seems to take pride in) or the age, but just, well, wow.
Over lunch in the small cafe, a guy who I had met earlier in the blacksmithing studios told me that it’s simply the best place to learn. He said something like; ‘You learn more here in 8 weeks than a semester, hell probably more, in college.’ It was then that I finally ‘got’ what the system of craft schools here is all about. It’s uninterrupted vocational training by people from industry, in a near-to-perfect learning environment. No distractions, good facilities, classmates equally keen to suck up knowledge.
Given this example of the form – and might I add, Penland is considered one of the originators and its schedule is rumoured to fill the quickest – (check out my paper that discusses these schools for some of the other examples) this education system makes a compelling use case. Mind you, this is coming from someone who is yet to fully experience such a place as a learning environment…