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Communicating Through Craft: A Profile of Aaron Hughes

portrait of Aaron Hughes working at the press in the letterpress studio

 

Art, activism, performance, protest—for Aaron Hughes, the lines between them are blurred and insignificant. “All my work is about creating stories and sharing stories,” he explains. “I’m trying to find space for people to bridge the divides we have in our world through art and through stories.”

As a veteran who served in Iraq and Kuwait for fifteen months in 2003-2004, Aaron is sharply aware of those divides. His deployment introduced him to a rougher and more complex world than he’d known growing up in the Midwest. “I felt like the ideas from my upbringing, my religion, my country didn’t make sense anymore,” he remembers. “But what did make sense was art. I felt like art was something I could invest in and believe in and put my energy into. It was something creative and not destructive.”

Aaron came home from his deployment determined to use art as a tool to generate conversations and connections about difficult topics like war, trauma, and oppression. In 2006 he graduated from the University of Illinois with a BFA in painting, and in 2009 he received his MFA in Art Theory and Practice from Northwestern University. Then he went on to work with organizations such as the National Veterans Art Museum, Iraq Veterans Against the War, and the Center for Artistic Activism.

 

Drawing from the series 21 Days to Baghdad/Chicago

One of the pieces from “21 Days to Baghdad/Chicago,” a collection of drawings and maps Aaron made after returning to Illinois from his deployment.

 

In the summer of 2013, Aaron came to Penland for the first time with a Windgate Charitable Fund Scholarship. “I had spent so much time helping others to tell their stories and listening to other people’s stories that I had neglected any kind of personal work I needed to do,” Aaron explains. “I applied to Penland as a part of my transition back to focusing on my own art practice.”

He has returned to Penland each summer since to take classes in the printmaking and letterpress studios. “One reason I’m super invested in the printmaking program is that I’m interested in the way printmaking and politics can help to popularize language, stories, and movements,” he says. The connection is clear for Aaron: “Your ability to communicate lies in your ability to execute a craft. That’s what I’ve been gaining each time I come to Penland—the opportunity to develop my craft and to improve my communication skills.”

Aaron readily admits, however, that his time at Penland has been about more than gaining skills in the studio. “Penland is a generous space for me as a veteran,” he explains. “It’s a place of transformation and growth and learning. I’ve been encouraging other veterans to apply there because it’s such a healing, generative space.”

When he’s at Penland, Aaron describes himself as a “studio hound.” “I just want to make, make, make, make, make,” he laughs. But Aaron also values the quieter, more contemplative moments on campus. He describes the short walk back from dinner to the print studio: “There’s a little bench that’s halfway. I’ve often enjoyed sitting there, embracing the evening as it approaches and watching the Appalachian dusk. It’s so beautiful—transcendently beautiful. And I just sit in between all this creativity and embrace the present moment of being there. I feel like that’s healing. That’s wholesome for anybody.”

–Sarah Parkinson

 

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Thank You, Mary Ann!

Mary Ann 1994

Mary Ann Scherr in the Penland metals studio, 1994. Photo by Ann Hawthorne.

We are sorry to report that metalsmith, designer, educator, and Penland’s great friend Mary Ann Scherr died at her home in Raleigh, NC on March 1. Mary Ann, who famously never looked her age, was 94 years old.

She first taught at Penland in 1968 and went on to teach at the school at least 37 times. She served on the board of trustees and contributed to every benefit auction. Her broad knowledge of metalsmithing and design made it possible for her to teach students of almost any skill level or area of interest. She pioneered the use of exotic metals in adornment and received international attention for her development of decorative electronic body monitors. She was known for her work combining drawing and metals, and she had extensive experience in product design and production work. She was able to incorporate all of these interests into her teaching.

Mary Ann was trained at the Cleveland Institute of Art, The University of Akron, Kent State University, The New School, and Durham Tech Computer Center. She served as head of the product design department at Parsons School of Design, and was on the faculty of Duke University, Meredith College, and North Carolina State University. She also taught at Arrowmont and Haystack and led dozens of workshops at universities across the country.

Her work is found in many permanent collections, including The Vatican Museum of Art in Rome, The Metropolitan Museum, The Museum of Arts and Design, The Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, The Smithsonian Institution-Medical Division, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Her work is also in a number of well-known private collections including Liz Claiborne, Helen Drutt, the Knapp Jewelry Collection, U.S. Steel Corporation, and the Alcoa Company.

In addition to her metalsmithing and jewelry design, Mary Ann worked at Ford Motor Company, designing hubcaps, hood ornaments, and instrument panels; she and her late husband, Sam, ran an industrial design firm that produced designs for Tappan, Hoover, and Rubbermaid; she made illustrations for children’s books; and a cookie jar she designed found its way into Andy Warhol’s private collection and then onto the front page of the New York Times when it sold for $19,000 at Sotheby’s.

Mary Ann Scherr at Penland

Mary Ann and her friend Charlotte Wainwright at Penland’s 2008 Annual Benefit Auction, when Mary Ann was honored as that year’s Outstanding Artist Educator. Charlotte was the founding director of the Gregg Museum of Art & Design at North Carolina State University. Photo by Robin Dreyer

Her list of awards includes an honorary doctorate from Defiance College in Ohio, the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Museum of Women in the Arts, the Distinguished Women of North Carolina Award, the North Carolina Governor’s Award, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society of North American Goldsmiths, and she was a fellow of the American Craft Council. In 2008, she was honored as a Penland School of Crafts Outstanding Artist Educator.

Penland has been one of the greatest beneficiaries of Mary Ann’s knowledge and generosity. And for her, the connection was a very personal one. In an interview several years ago she said, “For more than forty years, Penland has remained positively important in my life. As the world moves, so does Penland in its own way, and it offers me an opportunity to grow with it. Each time I go back, I find new ways of thinking.”

Mary Ann was predeceased by Sam Scherr, her husband of 54 years, and is survived by a daughter, Sydney, who lives in Malaysia, two sons, Randy, and Scott, daughter-in-law, Debora, and grandson Dylan, all from Raleigh.

The family asks that memorial contributions be directed to the Gregg Museum of Art & Design (516 Brickhaven Dr Suite 200, Raleigh, NC 27606) or to Penland School (PO Box 37, Penland, NC, 28765) where The Mary Ann Scherr Metals Scholarship has been created in her honor. (You can also contribute to that fund here; just put “Mary Ann Scherr Scholarship” in the “additional gift information” field.)

You can read more about Mary Ann’s life in this article from NC State and in this oral history from the Archives of American Art.

 

Mary Ann Scherr, Neck Lace

Mary Ann’s extraordinary piece titled “Neck-Lace” was presented to the Museum of Arts and Design by a group of donors at Penland’s 2015 Annual Benefit Auction. The piece is made from 14K gold with 50 diamonds. Photo by Mercedes Jelinek

 

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Photo of the Week: TV Crew at The Barns

Seth Gould on Craftsmans Legacy

This crew, from the TV show A Craftsman’s Legacy, was at Penland last week filming in the studio of resident artist Seth Gould (in the gray and white check shirt). That’s host Eric Gorges (in the blue and black check shirt) next to Seth. The weird thing on the tripod is a camera jib. There’s a camera on one end and a counterweight and monitor on the other.

The show is available online and also airs on CreateTV. We don’t know when Seth’s episode will be available, but we’ll keep you posted.

 

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Illuminating a Community

Jack Mackie posing with a handful of the week's glass orbs. At right is a close-up of the glass pieces layered inside one of the metal baskets that will adorn the installation.

Jack Mackie posing with a handful of the week’s glass orbs. At right is a close-up of the glass pieces layered inside one of the metal baskets that will adorn the Burnsville Gateway installation.

 

Jack Mackie does not identify as a glass artist, nor has he studied the art of blowing glass. But this January, he came to Penland for a week of winter residency in the hot glass studio with some big ideas. “I’m a public artist,” he explains. “The project is the medium, and I make the framework.”

The project that brought him to Penland is the Burnsville Gateway, a public art installation planned for the nearby town of Burnsville, NC as part of the North Carolina Arts Council’s SmART Initiative. The initiative aims to use art to build stronger communities and economies, and those goals have been at the forefront of Jack’s mind throughout the design phase. “There’s a deep tradition of craft here, of quilts, of weaving, of pottery, of baskets, and of glass,” he explains. “One of the things that I wanted to help illuminate through this project is the community of glass that is here, to give prominence to something so special about the area that is not always visible.”

 

group shot of the artists outside the studio

The Burnsville Gateway artists. From left: Kenny Pieper, Dave Wilson, Courtney Dodd, Rob Levin, Hayden Wilson, and Jack Mackie. Photo via Courtney Dodd.

 

To that end, Jack brought a team of skilled local glass artists with him to Penland: Courtney Dodd, Rob Levin, Kenny Pieper, Dave Wilson, and Hayden Wilson. Together, they worked to create the first glass prototypes for the Burnsville installation, filling the studio with between 800 and 1000 blown-glass pieces in the course of a week. “This artwork is being made by the people who live here,” Jack states. “I simply am providing—conceptually and literally—the frame that their glass artwork is going into.”

Jack’s vision for Burnsville is expansive and draws on the town’s artistic heritage, mountains, history, and designation as one of only a handful of “Dark Sky” communities in the country. At the center of his plans is the telescope, which he connects both to the town’s past (Burnsville’s founder, Otway Burns, was a naval hero who used a telescope in navigation) and its future (a large public telescope and observatory is being planned for the nearby Star Park). The central feature of Jack’s installation will be six giant “telescopes”—towering columns of illuminated metal and glass that stand at the entrances to the town, three on each side, viewable from the highway as visitors crest the hill.

 

rendering of the Burnsville Gateway installation

Sketch of the telescope columns and surrounding landscape architecture planned for one end of the Burnsville Gateway.

 

It was these telescopes that the team focused on during their week at Penland. Each one measures between twenty-four and thirty feet tall and features “baskets” of blown glass orbs held in by a sturdy wire mesh. At first, Jack envisioned each telescope as a different color, but a sunset one evening changed his mind. “I was driving, and I looked in my rearview mirror,” he tells me. “I saw the colors of the sunset and I thought, ‘That’s it!’” Now, the telescopes on the east entrance to town feature gradations of the yellows and pinks of sunrise, while the western telescopes boast the intense oranges and purples of early evening. From a distance, the reflective rainbow effect of all that glass is quite stunning. “It’s so much more than my color sketches,” Jack comments. “It’s light moving through color held in the medium of glass.”

Up close, the telescopes maintain their power to draw the viewer in. Rather than simply creating smooth, hollow globes, Jack’s team of glass artists created richly-textured shapes—some are ridged and round, while others are curved and spiraling or bulbous or decorated with diamond patterns or delicate bubbles beneath the surface. “I like that each one is different, that they’re tactile and engaging, that people can reach in and experience the glass,” Jack says. “In a society where more and more things are built uniformly and built by the billions, to have these handmade pieces as part of our civic public infrastructure was very attractive to me.”

 

glass artists at work

At left, Hayden Wilson, Rob Levin, and Kenny Pieper at work blowing forms. At right, Courtney Dodd finishing a piece before it goes into the annealer.

 

Over the next couple months, Jack and his team will be busy fabricating hundreds more glass orbs for the project, which will likely involve at least one more trip to Penland and possibly the participation of a few other local glass artists. “We couldn’t make this happen without the vision and ability of these artists and a place like Penland for people to come together to work,” Jack notes. “I want to give these artists ownership of the project and at the same time funnel money into the local community through their work.”

The Burnsville Gateway—complete with the six telescope columns, as well as artistic benches, walkways, and other streetscape elements—is set to be installed sometime in the second half of 2017. When it is finished, it will be a testament to the creativity, skill, and vitality of the Burnsville community and the artists who built it piece by piece. “That’s one of the things that public art can do,” Jack concludes. “It can make a place unique, draw out its special qualities, and illuminate them. In our case, it will literally illuminate the quality of the work and the lives that are here.”

 

For more information on the project, the process, and the artists behind it, we highly recommend watching these two videos by local videographer Chanse Simpson.

Part 1: Telescope Gateways into Burnsville, NC

Part 2: Telescope Gateways into Burnsville, NC

 

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Photo of the Week: A Clay Circus

Janice Farley and her elephant sculptures

Elephant ceramics by Janice Farley

Winter resident Janice Farley spent six weeks in the clay studio exploring both functional and sculptural forms. The unifying theme? Elephants. Above, Janice poses with a selection of her pieces, including statues of circus elephants ready to be placed on starred pedestals, an elaborate bowl with elephants in low relief, and a mug with an elephant trunk as the handle. Two notable pieces in the second picture include a large blue apothecary jar embellished with the silhouettes of elephants and an ornate champagne holder with pink elephants around the base and rim. Elephant-astic!

 

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Black-and-White Photorama with Robin Dreyer

Robin Dreyer, "Wave Runner," silver gelatin print, 11 x 14 inches.

Robin Dreyer, “Wave Runner,” silver gelatin print, 11 x 14 inches.

 

Photography is alive and well at Penland—all kinds of photography. Photography dates back to 1839 and, in the years since then, it has undergone repeated technical evolution, beginning with daguerreotypes and early paper processes and ending up with today’s digital technologies. Along the way, many fascinating and beautiful methods of image-making have come and not quite gone. Not quite, because artists and craftspeople are in the habit of taking an out-of-date technology (like the potter’s wheel or the letterpress) and adopting it for purely creative purposes.

This is exactly what’s happened in photography, and Penland’s photo workshops cover almost every kind of photography that has ever been practiced: salt printing, cyanotype, platinum, color processes, digital processes, and, of course, gelatin silver photography. What is gelatin silver, you might ask? That’s the technical name for black-and-white darkroom photography, which dominated both art and commercial photography during much of the twentieth century. It’s the kind of photography people used to do in their basements using their dad’s camera. It’s the kind of photography that used to be part of high school and college art programs. The profession of photojournalism and the photography collection of the Museum of Modern Art were built on gelatin silver photography.

If you’ve always wanted to explore the potential of these materials or you are nostalgic for that little darkroom you used to have in your bathroom, or if you are a photographer interested in trying out some different ways of working, we have a one-week workshop this spring that may just be for you: Black-and-White Photorama with Robin Dreyer March 27 – April 2.

 

black and white image of oak tree hung with prayer flags

Robin Dreyer, “Prayer Flags,” silver gelatin print, 10 x 10 inches.

 

Robin has been Penland’s communications manager for twenty years, and for much of that time he’s been the school’s main photographer. Although today he makes pictures for the school using digital cameras and a computer, he shot a lot of Penland’s earlier promotional photographs on black-and-white film and printed them in his darkroom. Black and white was his first photographic love, and he’s never lost that interest. His silver gelatin photographs have been shown in galleries in Asheville, Durham, Greensboro, Raleigh, Atlanta, and New York City. One of his prints won Best in Show at The Art of the Auction, a juried show/auction at the North Carolina Museum of Art. He’s taught two previous Penland workshops and is looking forward to sharing his enthusiasm for this still-great method of making pictures.

“It’s kind of cliché,” Robin says, “but darkroom photography can be magical. You imagine something as you take the picture, you have some meditative time processing the film, and somehow these strange, translucent, negative images appear on your film. Then you take that film into this room, dimly lit in orange, that has cool optical devices and trays full of liquids, and, after a little fussing, you stand and watch a picture emerge on an apparently blank piece of paper. Often it’s not quite what you were imagining when you pressed the shutter; sometimes it’s much better.”

 

black and white image of chickens in a tree

Robin Dreyer, “Dawn Patrol,” silver gelatin print.

 

“My idea for this class,” he continued, “is to streamline the technical parts as much as possible so we can focus on the excitement of creating gelatin silver pictures. We’ll make our own pinhole cameras from tin cans to get grounded in the basics of the process. We’ll use them to make paper negatives and positives. Then we’ll expose film negatives using large-format cameras and plastic cameras. Large-format cameras can be intimidating, but they aren’t that hard to use, and the results can be amazing. Plastic cameras are quite easy to use; they give you very little control, and the results tend to be surprising and sometimes great. So we’ll get negatives a few different ways.

“With those negatives, we’ll make beautiful prints using Penland’s excellent enlargers. At the end of the week, everyone will have a little portfolio of new images—maybe wonderful, maybe weird—along with a deeper understanding of photography, black and white materials, and the mysteries of light and time.”

More information about Black-and-White Photorama with Robin Dreyer (March 27 – April 2)

Register for Black-and-White Photorama

 

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The Potential Energy of One Week

samples of shibori-dyed fabrics

Paisley’s fabric samples from her week-long shibori workshop in October make up a rainbow of colors and patterns. (Photo: Paisley Holloway)

 

As a block of time, a week is most suited to building, developing, progressing. It is long enough to see forward movement, yet large progress tends to happen on the scale of months or years. Most weeks blend together with those on either side of them, more marked by variations to routine than by anything truly out of the ordinary.

But what about the rare, uncommon week? For Jackie Dering and Paisley Holloway, a 1-week workshop at Penland this fall was the ideal opportunity to step away from the general flow of life and immerse themselves in a week of something totally different. The result was more than just a set of new craft skills.

Jackie and Paisley work at Valdese Weavers, a North Carolina company that has created jacquard fabrics for over 100 years. When the opportunity arose for two of the company’s employees to take a Penland workshop thanks to the generous support of Penland friend Laura Levinson, Jackie says, “We both jumped at the chance!”

The workshop, taught in October by textile artist Carol LeBaron, focused on shibori techniques with acid dyes. “Carol really brought a new perspective to the class,” Paisley explained. “It wasn’t traditional shibori, and she really let us go wild with what kind of techniques we wanted to use.”

 

textile artist applying pattern to fabric

Instructor Carol LeBaron demonstrating a screened technique. (Photo: Jackie Dering)

 

At Valdese Weavers, Jackie works with patterns as a designer, and Paisley is a colorist. “It was funny,” Paisley tells me, “she and I went in different directions that were very related to our jobs, but we didn’t do it on purpose.” Paisley focused on the play of colors on fabric, experimenting with color mixing and overdyeing in her pieces. Jackie, meanwhile, found herself exploring patterns and design techniques. She tells me how she got excited about clothespins as a way to create resist patterns: “I thought I knew what they would look like before I prepared the fabric, but it came out totally different from what I expected. It was a cool, happy accident, and so exciting!”

Both Paisley and Jackie returned to Valdese Weavers the next week with lots of samples to pin on their walls. “I have some really cool patterns that I want to try as woven fabric,” Jackie says. Paisley adds, “I look at my pieces all the time for inspiration.”

 

Woman holding a clamped fabric; dyed fabric sample

Jackie with one of her intricately-clamped pieces ready for the dye pot. To the right is one of her finished pieces, the pattern created totally with clothespins. (Photos: left by Amanda Thatch, right by Jackie Dering)

 

A wealth of inspiration is a solid result from a week’s work, but I was surprised to hear just how much more both Jackie and Paisley got out of their workshop. Both of them commented on how creatively rejuvenated and refreshed they felt by Friday afternoon. “When you’re designing for a client every day, you can start to feel a little stagnant,” Jackie explained. “It was great to feel so engaged in something new and to know that I’m still a creative individual.”

The class quickly developed a sense of community, too. “There were so many people from different backgrounds who were there for different reasons,” notes Paisley. Jackie commented on how rare that feeling of rapid community can be. “By the end of the week, you feel like you’ve made all these friends. As you get farther along in your career, that doesn’t happen as much,” she explained. “For me, that was a really nice reminder, just feeling like ‘I’m still a human being; I can still make a new friend who’s older than me, who’s different than me.’”

It’s a tall order for one week to serve up personal connections, intense focus, new skills, freedom to experiment, and creative validation. But on those rare weeks when the pieces all come together, surely the only thing to do is to embrace it all.

—Sarah Parkinson

 

 

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