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From iPhone to I, Photographer

Mercedes Jelinek teaching at Mitchell High

Mercedes Jelinek explains to her Art 1 students how to edit images on their phones.


“Photography is not like painting. There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative.”

—Henri Cartier-Bresson, 1957


Although darkroom photography is no longer part of many high school art programs, photography itself is more prevalent than ever. These days, most high school students walk around with camera phones in their back pockets, and snapping photos is almost second nature. As a visiting artist at Mitchell High School in Spruce Pine, NC, Mercedes Jelinek’s goal was to show students that these photos could be more than just a way to record and share—they could be a form of creative expression.

“Photos can mean a lot more than just representing likeness,” Mercedes tells her students at the beginning of class on a Wednesday morning. The students are seated in bright yellow chairs around a projector in Jennifer Robinson’s Art 1 class. On the screen, Mercedes is advancing through portraits they took of each other yesterday, each original photograph shown next to an edited version. “What makes this one so good?” she asks. Her students respond with their thoughts about composition, lighting, framing. Despite being taken with simple cellphone cameras, the photos do look good—really good. There’s personality coming through in each one.


black and white portraits of three Mitchell High School students

Three of the many portraits Mitchell High students took of each other during their photo classes with Mercedes. From left, images by Tanner, Kassie, and Billy.


As a resident artist here at Penland, Mercedes has years of professional photography experience—both film and digital—to share with her students. Her three-day visit to Mitchell High was part of the Professional Craft Study for High School Students, one of Penland’s Community Collaborations programs to bring creative experiences to students in the surrounding counties. During her lessons, Mercedes started with basics such as camera controls and simple editing, but her students were soon talking about how to interact with subjects to make them comfortable and relaxed and how to set up a shot to lead the viewer’s eye.


Mercedes photographs a student

During her class, Mercedes set up a photo booth to take portraits of all her students.


On her final day of teaching, Mercedes used the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson as an inspiration for her students. Cartier-Bresson is known for The Decisive Moment, a book of black-and-white street photography. “To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression,” he wrote.

In asking her students to take photographs of “decisive moments” as their final assignment, Mercedes enabled them to bring together the technical concepts they had practiced such as lighting and exposure time with their own view of the world. “Go set up the shot absolutely perfectly, then have somebody walk through it,” she instructed them. “You decide the perfect moment to take your shot.”

There was nothing uncommon about the laughter that followed, or the knots of two or three teens talking in groups, or the students wandering on the grassy stretch in front of the school. What was uncommon was the particular care and attention taken to document it all.

—Sarah Parkinson


black and white photographs by Mitchell High students

A few of the “decisive moment” photographs taken during Mercedes’s class. Clockwise from top left, images by Rylie, Madison, and Devlin.


See more photographs from Mitchell High School Art 1 students on the MHS Art Instagram.

All of Penland’s Community Collaborations programs are funded by grants and donations. The Professional Craft Study for High School Students is able to bring artists like Mercedes to Mitchell High School thanks to the generous support of the Samuel L. Phillips Family Foundation Education Partnership Endowment.


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Photo(s) of the Week: Community Open House 2016

The following blog post is a photo slideshow. We recommend viewing it in an Internet browser.

Learning to blow glass is one of the most popular open house activities.
This blob of hot glass became a juice glass after a few minutes' work.
In the letterpress studio, visitors printed masks on the Vandercook press.
Cutting out eye holes in a freshly-printed mask
If you see one of these creatures around, it's probably been to the letterpress studio!
In the clay studio, visitors learned to throw on the pottery wheel.
All sorts of fun clay creatures being made at the handbuilding tables.
Getting clay pointers from one of our great volunteers
Making a clay mask while wearing a letterpress mask
In the iron studio, everyone got to try their hand at forging a J hook.
These two are adding a decorative twist to finish off the hook.
Visitors to the Ridgeway building decorated paste papers.
Sometimes, fingers are the best brushes!
Hands-on fun!
Who wouldn't want to join in on some whistle mania?
Visitors to the wood studio made their own train whistles.
The whistle process involved some precise sawing and drilling.
These two young visitors made a whistle—and it works!
In the flameworking studio, visitors made glass beads.
Here's a mother-daughter flameworking duo.
Each bead is formed by melting colored glass onto a metal rod.
The photo studio was all about crazy portraits.
This visitor is getting her photo taken as a tiger.
Edwina poses with her gold-sequined portrait.
Resident artist Jaydan Moore demonstrated his printmaking process to visitors.
In the metals studio, visitors learned pewter casting.
After the pewter is melted, it's poured into this two-part mold.
Unmolding the pewter revealed a tiny hammer and anvil!
Visitors to textiles learned to weave at the looms.
Everyone went home with a rag-rug coaster they wove themselves.
Visitors to the school store got to embellish Penland postcards
Thanks to the 700+ people who came out to visit us for the Community Open House!
And a big thanks to all our volunteers and staff!


This year’s Penland Community Open House was another big success! Over 700 people from the Penland community came up to try their hand at a new craft. Artists young and old alike were busy forging in the iron studio, flameworking beads in the glass shop, making colorful portraits in the photo studio, creating wooden whistles, and lots more. We’re grateful to all volunteers for helping us to share this fun day with our community, and to all the visitors who join us with such enthusiasm.


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Art is activism: an interview with Ruganzu Bruno




Last week I talked with visiting artist Ruganzu Bruno outside of Penland’s wood studio. It was Ruganzu’s second week at Penland—a time for making his own sculpture after a wild week of collaborative effort. During that first week, Ruganzu and volunteers handpicked by Penland and the McColl Center for Art + Innovation in Charlotte built an eco-friendly play area behind Penland’s Ridgeway building. The rapid evolution of the play area (which stars a soaring Luna Moth) can be viewed in the slideshow above.

Thanks to the efforts of Penland’s community collaborations team, Ruganzu and his volunteers attracted and involved the energies of many in the Penland community, including students in Penland’s Kids Camp. Their playground now includes the bamboo-frame Luna moth filled with recycled bottles and coffee cans and a new tire-swing structure.—Elaine Bleakney


How are you finding your time at Penland?

The space, the quiet, being away from the city and chaos—this is more like a world for artists, and I feel privileged to be here. Having come with students from Charlotte from different backgrounds for a week to work on an eco-playground was rewarding. We got here and we got moving and working together—and then the students found it hard to leave. The knowledge of people at Penland—everyone has so much knowledge and experience, it’s a rare feature.


How did you all decide on the works that would be part of the playground at Ridgeway?

It was a collective decision. I had visited Penland last December. I was making another playground plan in Charlotte for a neighborhood project called Brightwalk that had the same principles. In May I met again with parents and teaching artists, and they were so fond of the Luna moth that I switched my design, working in this idea. I consulted the kids in camp at Ridgeway too—they told us how they love to swing, and so we thought about how much of the playground we could create for swinging. I met Tom Dancer and Matt Anders—they knew all the types of wood and how lasting it was, even how old the wood was. So I call the new swings ‘The Dancer Swings’ after Tom: he’s the one who told me that locust wood might work instead of a chain I had designed for the tire swing. When he told me this I was thinking ‘Okay, how do I change my design?’ But in the end we discovered that the wood worked, and so there was new innovation.


How did you make the leap from studying painting, such a solitary act, to working collaboratively on public art?

I trained in painting and sculpture, and was finding collectors—it was selling. But it was not rewarding. Art needs to be in a community. Sometimes as artists we think that all we can do are pieces of aesthetic value for rooms, museums, galleries. For me, I got interested in environmental issues, especially in my country—Uganda is one of the countries affected most by climate change. It’s so hard because Uganda is so green; it’s hard to convince even a local person that we’re being affected. Most people don’t really care, so I was seeing art as an entry to activism. It also happened that when I was at university I saw that artists were communicating to other artists or to the people who collect art—the elite, people who have been to good schools—but it didn’t really go to a local person. So for me this was the realization.


What was your experience with art as a child like?

I grew up in a district of Uganda where the mountains and nature were all around. We had lots of potters—and that environment nurtured me. I had a really good artist mentor, teacher, and friend, so I started surviving on art. I grew up as an orphan. I was selling my small pieces, working on what I would call commercial art, and that was my background. I don’t know when it was I started drawing—I’m not one of those artists who can tell you that. For me, the economics in my district taught me about art because I could see that artists could actually make money. So I had a way of finding my feelings about my losses as an orphan and I knew that art would be my solace.


Is making art still a solace for you?

I think so. I think my need to make playgrounds relates to my childhood—there was something I was missing—it wasn’t play, it was more the economy, the need to have enough. I see a lot of kids in the U.S. with so much and they feel like they have no choices. I had so little and I saw that I had to choose what would make me happy.

I find in my work that I’m trying to address the consumerism. I’ll be doing a project in Denmark next year called What Is Eating You. I’ll be using some African rituals to show how we can solve issues. Back home, if I wrong you, it’s possible that we don’t rush to court, and we go to the chief. One of the tribes in Uganda actually uses food as conflict resolution. That’s what I’ll be doing in Denmark, in schools.


Thank you so much for being here with us.

I would love to come back. I want to try out everything here! I would love to see a Penland structure in Uganda, there would be so many people lining up to enter.



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Field Trip


We spied a batch of sketchbooks sitting out in front of the Pines dining hall last week (not an unusual sight at Penland, but still, we wondered who belonged to them.)

After lunch the artists appeared: eighth graders from Harris Middle School, visiting Penland as a final field trip before summer vacation.

Some of the students showed us their sketches–Penland trees, artworks they had seen being made in the studios, buildings on campus, and a real or imagined owl–before heading off with Penland’s community collaborations director Stacey Lane and Leslie Dickerson, their teacher, for a walk to Cynthia Bringle’s studio.


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Community Open House

Our studios will be ready for action on Saturday, March 1, when we host our annual community open house. Everyone is welcome to take part in free activities in clay, iron, glass, metals, photography, printmaking and letterpress, textiles, and wood. There will be a special paste painting activity, as well as postcard-making in the school store. The Penland coffee house will be serving up special fare, and we’ll have information about our summer workshops and Kids Camp, too.






More information about this year’s open house can be found here.

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Open Mic Night


Last Friday in the Pines, Penland’s own supply store clerk Stephanie Ott hosted an Open Mic event organized by Community Collaborations Manager Stacey Lane and spoken-word artist Pierce Freelon (you’ve met Pierce on our blog before) to celebrate the success of Pierce’s week-long artist residency in a local high school. Pierce and his students performed spoken-word pieces individually, and shared a collaborative work as a group. Penland staff members, neighbors, and students rounded out the evening’s lineup, filling a few fabulous hours with wonderful exhibitions of local talent, live-cast worldwide by IT guru Mark Boyd. Thanks to Mark for the video.

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Camera Obscura: Pinhole Workshop at Penland

Pinhole camera workshop

Students pose in front of a handmade pinhole camera during a one day photography workshop at Penland School of Crafts, taught by Robin Dreyer. From left to right: Anina van der Vorst, Hope Henson, Priscilla Bonner, Megan Banks, Abbigayle Atkins, David Martinez .

When we take a photograph, we are capturing the light that is reflected off of something. Imagine a person wearing a cap. The sunlight hits the cap in a straight line and bounces off the cap at a 90 degree angle. The light that bounces off is the image that we see. When we take a photograph it is that light that exposes photosensitive chemicals to make an image.  This all might sound very theoretical, but when working with a pinhole camera, the basic functions of photography become exposed (no pun intended). Recently, Mitchell County high school students were invited to participate in a free photography workshop on the Penland School of Crafts campus. The workshop, conducted by Robin Dreyer, focused on pinhole photography. The Penland photography studio was set-up with equipment for students to take, develop, and experiment with pinhole photography.

To make your own camera obscura, follow these simple steps:

1. Cover the inside of a large aluminum can with black spray paint.

2. Drill a ¼ inch hole into the side.

3. Cut a 2 x 2 inch piece of pie tin and poke a tiny hole in it with a needle.

4. Sand the hole to remove any debris.

5. Place the pie tin over the larger drilled hole and secure it with masking tape to ensure light is only coming through the tiny pin hole.

6. Place a removable piece of tape over the pinhole to temporarily block light.

7. Create a top using an opaque material secured with a rubber band.

8. Inside a dark room, Place photo sensitive paper into the can and secure the lid on the can.

9. On a sunny day, find a brightly lit scene and pull back the removable piece of tape for four seconds exposing the pin hole.

10. Find a friend with a dark room to develop the photo.

11. Enjoy your pinhole picture!

Shannon Moon, Community Collaborations

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