A Tradition of Innovation

A Tradition of Innovation: While remaining true to its past, the world-renowned Penland School of Crafts never stops exploring the reaches of contemporary art
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When Lucy Morgan stepped off the train in Penland in the summer of 1920, the people of Appalachia had barely emerged from the previous century. While the rest of America celebrated the dawn of the Roaring Twenties, Morgan turned away from the departing locomotive and walked into a backcountry of mountain laurels, banjo-picking balladeers, and hardy women who still knew how to card wool and weave the blankets that kept their families warm.

She had come to teach at her brother Rufus’ remote Appalachian School, an Episcopalian outpost intended to bring first-class education to the region’s youth. Yet as she went about her duties, a greater mission began to call from the misty hills and hollows. Ten years later, she was still in Penland. No longer under the wing of her brother, Morgan had founded an institution of her own—Penland School of Crafts.

From its humble beginnings as a weaver’s guild, Penland grew to embrace the many facets of the local craft tradition—pottery, metalsmithing, and glass blowing, to name a few. Miss Lucy, as she became known, worked to connect weavers with big-city patrons, helping to preserve the vernacular traditions that were at risk of fading into antiquity as Appalachia modernized.

Still nestled into the hills above the tiny town of Spruce Pine, Penland has grown into a world-renowned center for contemporary craft, offering a 400-acre campus where more than 1,500 students, instructors, and practitioners collaborate each year in an international melting pot of art and community.

Inspired Tradition
Nearly a century after Morgan first trudged up the dirt track to what is now the Penland campus, textile artist Rachel Meginnes labors over a tapestry that has just come off the loom. She’s painting an intricate pattern onto the fabric, her brush strokes blurring the distinction between the colors and textures of the cloth and those of the paint on top of it. “The textile structure determines how the paint lays on the piece,” says Meginnes, who uses a sandpaper technique to push the paint into the fabric. “It’s a marriage of both mediums.”

Meginnes is one of the seven artists-in-residence who occupy a cluster of converted barns on the south end of campus. Each receives an attached studio and apartment at subsidized rates for a three-year stretch—a spacious time intended for emerging artists to “take risks, work bigger, and work through things that would have been almost impossible” with a day job, says Meginnes. She is very much aware of the school’s history and how her own work is an expression of its evolution.

Across the dusty dirt track from her studio, amid a tangle of cleome flowers and crimson-colored bee balm, is an ancient wood-clad structure known simply as the Weaving Cabin. This is where Miss Lucy first set up shop.

“I look at it every day when I wake up,” says Meginnes. “It’s pretty special to me to be somewhere that textiles have mattered. The school has totally changed, and is much more contemporary in its approach of what craft is, but I think [the history] affects everyone who comes here whether they know it or not.”

Appropriately, at least in a metaphorical sense, the Weaving Cabin is now the office of Leslie Noell, Penland’s programs director, who is charged with merging the many strands of modern craft into a meaningful whole. Social media and digital technologies are as much a part of that picture as the traditional materials of wood, glass, clay, and metals that have always been integral to American craft.

“We want to represent the full spectrum of craft, from very traditional techniques to very innovative approaches,” says Noell, who spends a lot of time traveling, scouting for the next artist-in-residence or instructor for a weeklong workshop. She sifts the craft world for practitioners who “might be using a very traditional process but are looking at it in a way that feels very current.”

Noell says the school evaluates the technological capacity of each studio on a regular basis to consider any new equipment purchases or staff training that may be needed to keep Penland’s facilities on par with the needs of artists who want to push the envelope of craft.

“I really respect and revere the history and tradition,” says Noell. “At the same time, the school is constantly evolving and becoming the best version of itself for today. When someone comes back after 20 years, we don’t want them to find the exact same place with a layer of dust on it; we want them to feel that sense of familiarity but also be excited about what’s happening and where Penland is in the contemporary field.”

A Grand Design
A walk around campus is full of windows into different worlds. The Lily Loom House is sunny and tranquil, the high ceilings of the second floor weaving room opening out onto expansive views of a verdant meadow and blue-tinged ridgelines in the distance. Inside, the quiet conversations between weavers as they work and the scuffling of shuttles and treadles across cloth adds a breath of domestic warmth to what otherwise feels like an austere, almost monastic space.

Below the Lily Loom House is the Dye Shed, a pioneer-style cabin where weavers once boiled vats of bark, roots, and berries to color their threads in the school’s early days. Across a wide lawn is The Pines, Penland’s iconic dining hall, where the portico is clad in the woven willow branches of a Patrick Dougherty installation. This central spine of the campus also includes the Craft House, the first building erected for the Penland School and one of the largest traditional log structures in North Carolina, the clay and metals studios, a coffee shop, the school store, and most of the administrative offices. This is the core of community life on campus, but tucked amid towering oak and hickory trees on the slope above are a web of pathways and buildings where other facets of the Penland cosmology are composed daily—some are painted and some are printed, while others are carved or sculpted. Some are hammered out noisily with a fervor approaching that of miners seeking gold.

The glass, wood, and iron studios are next door to each other, which is good because they’re the loudest places on campus. Inside the iron studio, Makena Henriksen bangs on a tortured looking bar of metal. “I’m working on a lamp modeled after an ocean plant: a bullwhip kelp,” she says.

Henriksen, an aspiring metalsmith from Washington State, says she’d heard about Penland from craftspeople in the small agricultural community where she grew up and was encouraged to make the pilgrimage. “Every time I spoke with someone about the school, their eyes would light up. They would have great stories to tell and a lot of enthusiasm. … It was clear to me that it’s a very supportive and inspirational place.”
Sustainable Community
The global craft community is a tight-knit bunch, and the retreat-like immersions offered at Penland seem to be a well of energy that strengthens those bonds. Henriksen is one of the work-study students, a coveted deal that allows young people to afford the privilege of being there. Each weekend of her eight-week sojourn is spent making sure the dining hall is spotless and the salad bar restocked.

Another way to be at Penland, for which the competition is even greater, is as a core fellow. In exchange for two years of free lodging, tuition, and meals, core fellows work part-time as cooks, supply truck drivers, and gardening staff, supporting all the behind-the-scenes work that keeps the school running on a daily basis. One of the main duties of the nine core fellows is to oversee the work-study students, an arrangement that often kindles a long-term relationship with the school. A high percentage of core fellows have been former work-study students; many of the artists-in-residence have been alumni of one or both programs; and many of the staff and teachers wore other hats at Penland before receiving a paid position.

Noell is one of those people who kept coming back, having first arrived as a work-study student fresh from a degree in graphic design at N.C. State in the mid ’90s and later returning as a core fellow. “Penland is an energy that is happening all around you, and you have to feel comfortable moving in and out of that whirlwind,” she says of the school’s dynamic social ecology. “You have to know how and when to step out of it to be productive and take the time that you need at your bench or in your studio.”

Some people study at Penland, then teach, and then never leave. The dappled lanes around the school are dotted with artists’ studios. Nick Joerling, a ceramist who lives down the road, first came to Penland in 1980 to work with Barking Spider Pottery’s Rebecca Plummer and Jon Ellenbogen—former students themselves who fell in love with the place, and each other, while taking classes in the ’70s.

“When I got here and someone started telling me what the school was about, they said they were in classes with mixed levels—so you may have had a person who was making a living at their craft sitting next to someone who was touching the material for the first time—and I remember thinking, there is no way that would work,” says Joerling. “But what I came to find out is that it works,” he adds emphatically. “There’s an intensity, but not in terms of competition. It’s a single-mindedness that you get to have and an ability to work around the clock.”

Joerling’s is now one of nine pottery studios in the surrounding area and, like most of the other artists who have become fixtures in the community, he has served several tours of duty on the Penland board of trustees. Composed of artists, bankers, lawyers, civic leaders, and other public allies, the board, according to Joerling, is like a small army sustaining the “Penland heartbeat.” Each evolution in studio programming and every nuance of the Penland experience, from the choices in the dining hall to the design of a new studio building, are wrought from the conversations among its 32 members. Board weekends, says Joerling, “are deadly serious yet filled with laughter.”

The more time one spends at Penland, the more one understands the sense of connectivity and pulse of mystery that’s hard to define to an outsider. Though almost everyone who visits can agree there is a certain magic to the place. “There’s a removal from the day-to-day that happens when you have to drive up and up and up, and then up some more into the mountains, and you come around a corner and there’s that valley with the studios behind it,” says Steve Miller, another trustee who runs the MFA program in book arts at the University of Alabama and has taught at Penland 14 times. “That remove, that temple at the top of the mountain phenomenon—it moves me every time.”

Pillars of Penland
The Penland formula is not a result of pure happenstance, though the breathtaking setting certainly doesn’t hurt. There is a thoughtful design at play, helmed by the trustees and staff and enlivened by the colorful community of neighbors, teachers, and long-time Penland supporters.

There is a literal design for the school grounds that reflects its vision for the future: A team of architects, preservationists, ecologists, and landscape designers have been developing Penland’s master plan as an ongoing project since 1999. As a guiding document that emphasizes the historic integrity of the campus and its relationship to the natural environment, the plan is known to relatively few visitors, but everyone who comes to Penland enjoys the results. This year, major renovations to The Pines and Horner Hall, the original site of the Appalachian School, are being carried out with painstaking efforts to modernize the buildings without sacrificing their well-worn character.
While there is much to be said on the practical side of what makes Penland tick and the finely curated buildings and exhibits that comprise it, the sense of place that hums above the landscape here comes even more from the people who work and live out their lives in it. These are Penland’s pillars, the unofficial stewards. People like Bill Ford, whose grandmother was Penland’s first weaver and who lives in the house he was born in, now a bed and breakfast where guests are bathed in stories of Penland’s history, told in his gentle mountain parlance. There are the Bringle sisters, twins Cynthia and Edwina—ceramic and textile artists, respectively—who’ve been part of the Penland community since the ’60s and are an eclectic institution unto their own. And then there’s Pearl Grindstaff, matriarch of the Penland kitchen, who started setting tables in The Pines dining room in 1933 at the age of 11 and barely missed a day of work until her passing in 2013.

Even Terry Boone, the man who mows the great grassy field that never fails to fill Steve Miller’s lungs as he arrives each time around that momentous final curve, adds a pinch of unexpected spice to the school’s creative pot. Every spring and summer, his job is to cut a path so that students can get from the main campus to the dormitories without walking on the road. But about five years ago, someone suggested that he consider liberating himself from the straight-line approach and Boone discovered that he, too, had an artistic side. Every year, a new meandering, spiralling trail is carved into the meadow, leading students on a slightly convoluted but perhaps more thought-filled journey as they move from point A to point B. “I just start driving and let the mower go,” he is known to say, humbly, of his handiwork.

In a way, his statement sums up Penland’s course over the years. Lucy Morgan began with the intent to harness the unassuming creativity inherent in a practical task—weaving—to improve the lives of a few families. She’s been gone almost 50 years and never could have imagined the exquisite imprint her efforts have since embroidered on the Western North Carolina landscape, much less how much she stoked the global craft movement.