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Penlanders: Cathie Murdaugh

Clay student Cathie Murdaugh
Cathie Murdagh in front of the mosaic tile wall she helped to build.

Near the beginning of spring concentration, we posted a story about iron student Amanda Murdaugh, a frequent Penland work-study scholar and auction volunteer, whose mother Cathie talked her into coming up this spring. Charmed by Amanda’s story of her family’s relationship to the school, we asked Cathie Murdaugh if she would also share her thoughts on the Penland experience.  A ceramicist, educator, and artist-in-residence for the State of South Carolina, she too has been up on the mountain many times, as a student, studio assistant, and auction volunteer. This time around, she enrolled in Jane Peiser and Janice Farley’s Festive & Functional Colored Porcelain in the clay studio, her first eight-week workshop.

We sat on the new clay studio porch on a chilly, damp afternoon, to talk about teaching and learning, clay and classes, and what she wants to do when she grows up. She began by taking exception to Amanda’s version of events. According to Cathie, it was her daughter who first talked her into taking a concentration this spring, though she admits returning the favor by convincing Amanda she should come too.

Like many Penlanders who’ve come here again and again, Cathie tells tales that move casually through layers of memory and change, dating events by reference to people’s names and the construction of new buildings, counting the number of auctions rather than giving specific years. Like her daughter Amanda, she will often finish speaking, grin disarmingly, and then stare for a moment into the far distance, as though scanning the horizon for the next part of her story.

How many Penland classes have you taken?
At least 8. Maybe 9. No, it’s 10. I had never done a concentration before this one.

Amanda said she volunteered for the auction first and then started taking classes. But the classes came first for you?
The classes came first. I was a studio assistant, and at the end, when we were cleaning up, the other studio assistants said, “They’re going to have this auction, like the one we had at the end of session, but it’s going to be a big one, and they need volunteers. If you stay, they’ll feed you and put you up for a while.” I could only stay for another day or so, because I had children to get back to. I’m not sure if that was the first auction, but it was an early one. And they said, “Oh yeah, you’ll get a t-shirt, too!” And I’ve been coming… well, I have a t-shirt from 1986, and I had been coming for a while by then. I guess I’ve been to 12-15 auctions, maybe more. Why not? You get to see beautiful artwork, you get to see all of your friends that you see once a year, you get to eat wonderful food, and breathe the mountain air…

I have come since the ’80s, since before Bill Brown left. It might have been 1982 when I first came… I’d have to go to the archives and look it up. I’d never been here before, and Dan Engelke was the instructor, and right away he had us make devices that would arrest the gravitational pull on an egg when it was dropped from the balcony.

You had to make them out of clay?
Yeah. Well, clay and other things, and I thought, “What have I walked into? Who is this person and why am I here?” We found vacuum hoses and all sorts of things to sort of stop the eggs, and then they’d wind up in the bottom, in the clay, in clay troughs and things. And before the session was over, someone went marching around in the woods with bamboo poles and stuck pendants of clay on the end, and made installations on the sides of the mountain, where they would biodegrade.

What was the class about?
Clay. That was it.

Just clay? No particular technique?
No. That was an unusual class, but obviously I came back.

Have you mostly taken clay classes when you’ve been here? Or have you tried a variety of media?
I have been head down, looking at the clay only. I wish I had the motivation to try something different, but I love it. There’s always a different approach, a different instructor. I’ve been wheel-throwing and now I’m hand-building, when I can, and it’s something that I can take home and do in my studio. Glassblowing would be neat, but when I tried it up there…. I don’t have the capacity (laughs). I mean, I blew a bubble, and I’ve kept it ever since. It’s magical, but very small. And woodworking…. I used to watch my father do that, but it isn’t my calling.  Fibers sometimes interest me, because I love color. Sometimes clay doesn’t have enough color, so I work in stained glass, just to experience the excitement of all the different colors, but what we’re doing now, it’s stained glass, clay, murinis, it’s everything, all in one. It’s great.

Jane [Peiser] is… we call her “the Zen Master,” and Janice [Farley] is “Mother Superior.” Janice keeps us in line and tells us jokes, and Jane just looks at us kindly and says, “I think that will work.” She’s so encouraging. Both of them, as a team, cannot be beat. They are  wonderful. This is lucky. Well, maybe luck isn’t it. I’m sure it was planned to be this way.

Do you have a favorite class among those you’ve taken?
I loved making the wall [a decorative clay tile wall behind the metals studio]. Every time I go by, I have to blow the little whistle I made. Carlos Alves taught that class twice, and I came for the second. I saw the first wall, and I just thought it was the most beautiful thing, and so appropriate. It seemed to be the perfect combination of color and line. When I heard that he was coming back, I said, “I’m doing this.” So I wrote a grant, because I was, and am again now, an artist-in-residence for the State of South Carolina, and one of my jobs is to go around and teach art teachers how to use that expensive piece of equipment sitting in their back  closet. Often they have a kiln but they’re not comfortable with it, so I show them how they can set up a clay studio and do small projects that they can finish in the limited time that they have, and how to store them, since they see hundreds of students in a week. I wrote a grant with the arts commission, to take what I learned here with the wall and teach it, and I went off making mosaics, and beautiful sculptures, and bird baths, and paths all around, and we had  a principal at one school who bent rebar and placed it all around and made an archway, and we did the flowers like you see out there on the wall, taught them all how to do that and placed them on the rebar. It’s still there at the school, and they’re very proud of it.

One thing that Penland does for teachers is to let them see all the possibilities of their art. So many of us are just taught drawing and painting, but clay is so fabulous, and the kids turn on to it so quickly, and most schools don’t have support for that. There are so few places left where you can be so nurtured, on a scale of almost one-to-one at times. Each person can have one-on-one time with their instructors with what we have here. I was watching Elizabeth Brim in the iron studio, sitting down with each one of her students today, to talk and make sure that their goals, their wants, their needs, and her desires were being met. You won’t find this out in the other academic world. You can pay more, but you can’t get more.

I was going to ask what keeps bringing you back, but I think you may already have said it?
In this particular case, Amanda told me that she thought I needed to be here. I had not been in my studio for five years, because I had been a caregiver for my husband, her father, and I needed to know – Do I want to keep my studio? Am I still going to be an artist in this fashion? And this has been a wonderful renewal. I still love clay. I still love what it does under your fingers; I even love what it doesn’t do under your fingers, what it makes you redo. Penland has been home away from home, it’s been a place to go and renew. Everything is wide open and possible up here.

This place (gestures toward the meadow and the mountains), and the knoll, have been in so many of my pieces. I have to make the “knoll piece” in every class, in whatever style we’re doing. It’s like Close Encounters of the Third Kind; they kept building that shape. And then I have to walk out on the knoll, and just sort of sit there and relax. It’s like some people like to sit on the beach and enjoy the solitude and the waves. This place has that quality. It’s a bit like sleepaway arts camp for adults, but the “adults” has to be in quotation marks, because most of us are still determining that when we grow up we want to do something, or become something. I think Amanda’s sensed that herself; she’s finding who she wants to be when she grows up, too. We may not always find the exact answer when we’re up here, but we do become more open for what might be the answer when we get back.

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