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A Wood Studio Jam About Ellie Richards


Ellie Richards is up in the wood studio this winter, making tables.


She started with one, commissioned for the exhibition Dining and Discourse, curated by Kathryn Hall at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft. One of the exhibition’s aims is to examine how the lavishness of our decorative arts past might surface in today’s “artisanal” and “farm-to-table” dining culture. With this in mind, Ellie designed her table. She painted bands of color on the apron and legs–the shape of the legs riffing on a Queen Anne cabriolet style. “I was thinking about the cover of an album by A Tribe Called Quest,” she says about the polychrome surface. “It had all kinds of geometric shapes working with and off each other.”



Ellie Richards’s “Polychrome Dining Table” in progress via Instagram


Cover image of A Tribe Called Quest’s album, released in 1990.


A Tribe Called Quest’s People’s Instinctive Travels & the Paths of Rhythm has the song “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo,” on it. In the song, Q-Tip tells an epic story of driving west out of Brooklyn with his friends in a Dodge Dart while his mom’s away on an ocean cruise. Out west, one friend drinks the fruit punch while our hero enjoys the enchiladas. Inevitably, all encounter a “beautiful wicked lady.” Q-Tip is mightily distracted. He loses his wallet. He’s got to go back.


When Ellie Richards went west after finishing undergraduate work in Ohio, it was to make sculpture in the graduate program at Arizona State University. She liked the quickness involved in sculpting–the impulse to create, fast. But she missed being in a woodshop, and sought out ways to become more facile at making furniture.


“I walked out of graduate school more of a construction worker than a woodworker,” Ellie admits. She went back east, looking for something she hadn’t forgotten (both her grandfather and great grandfather kept woodshops) and wanted to pick up again.


As Ellie talks about making a leg for a new table from a square, tapering and sawing new shapes along the path, she sounds like she’s exactly where she needs to be.


When Q-Tip repeats “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo,” you’ve got to pick it up.  Your ear, heart, in hook, in rhythm: “I gotta get it, I got-got ta get it.” A play on another hit written in Brookyln, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” “I Left My Wallet” is about getting your gold–whatever real thing you need most–and losing it, finding it, losing it again. Meanwhile, traveling with friends who love you is key.
























Ellie, on her own instinctive travel following graduate school, picked up residencies and studio assistant gigs at Peters Valley, Arrowmont, and Anderson Ranch–experiences that would bring her in direct relationship with her material and tools. Eventually, she landed a residency at the Appalachian Center for Craft. Now, as Penland’s wood studio coordinator, she’s managing a shop, and enjoying the collaboration to be found there. She’s making tables. She’s making totems. She’s getting her gold. “I’m still discovering what can be done with wood,” she says, showing us a new table she’s making with a curly maple top, and a few totems on a high shelf.




You could call Ellie Richards’s jam “Geometric Shapes Working Off Each Other.” You could call it an ongoing play between woodwork and sculpture. You could call it losing your wallet in El Segundo–and being game for losing it again.–Elaine Bleakney. Photographs by Robin Dreyer (except where noted above).



View more of Ellie’s work here and process shots for her Houston table here.

Listen to A Tribe Called Quest’s “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo” here.



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Photo of the Week: Make a Bowl from a Tree


Winter resident Wyatt Sievers with a large bowl he’s been working on in the wood studio. The bowl started as a section from a downed tree. Wyatt rough-turned the piece in his shop in Kentucky and brought it with him to finish the turning at Penland. Right now, he’s keeping in a plastic bag to slow the drying and keep cracking and checking to a minimum. There’s more sanding to be done, then finishing, and he’s thinking about covering the rim with copper leaf. Whatever he does, we know it’s going to look good.


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Begin Again




Begin again. Two words woven into fabric. The weaver is Amanda Thatch. The words belong to her and, as with any communication, quit belonging to anyone the moment they are formed.


Amanda is alive to this fact. As one of Penland’s most voracious readers, she’s interested in language as its own material. In her recent work, words, prefixes, and suffixes surface in the fabric. Text in textile. It’s a linguist’s dream: “text” appears in English from French and Latin, and in “textus,” we have the printed word and its style; “texture” and “textile” deriving from the Latin “texere” (to weave). Writer and weaver have long been in etymological entanglement.




In Amanda’s textiles, textual elements blur and waver. She ties the warp threads to create the letters; they resist the dye. The result is clear and distorted. You can run your hand across the fabric but someday the suffixes above may be cut and displayed separately.


Last summer, Amanda played with ikat–tying the warps multiple times to make these pieces. She doesn’t have the heart to place them behind glass yet. Or iron them, for that matter. “I’m attracted to things that are problematic to presentation,” she says. “Books and textiles.” Works that need to be touched and have a history of being touched. An invisible history.


Begin again.


If I could begin this essay again, I’d start with the term “resist,” and how, in order to be visible, the words Amanda intends to make in fabric must hide from the dye. Then each thread is woven and, Amanda reminds me, thought about as a group performing the structure. The process takes forever, if by “forever” we mean more time than most things take. There’s something spectacular about the weaver in the age of the IPhone. Tedium and loneliness are givens; the loom’s technology provides for an embodied solitude. Hours of it. Alone with warp and weft.


“I don’t like it when I can’t touch the material directly, and I’m not interested when I can’t see the material transform,” says Amanda. “Or when, as with clay, substance goes through a hypermaterial change I can’t touch. I don’t want to give that control of material over to the kiln gods,” she says.


“For me,” Amanda says, “it’s all about the loom. Maybe I should have been an organist?” she quips.



“Only lonesomeness allows one to experience radical singularity, one’s greatest dignity and privilege,” writes novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson, a writer important to Amanda. When I look at Amanda’s fabrics, spread across the table, I think of Robinson. It’s hard for me not to. In this short essay, my essay, Amanda Thatch and Marilynne Robinson text each other without using phones. One, in Iowa, writes a sentence in a book. The other takes her hands to a loom overlooking the Blue Ridge Mountains. It’s winter. Both believe in the “radical singularity” to be experienced in art and solitude, in reading, in the act of thinking, writing, weaving.


Begin again.


Amanda, does the imprecision of language disturb you?


[Amanda laughs.]


“What’s disturbing to me is to be a singular consciousness,” she says. “I want a possibility of communication that’s complete. But it’s not possible. Apart from regular speech, I think there’s a role that art plays in bridging the gap.”–Elaine Bleakney


Amanda Thatch is a former core fellow and the Textiles, Painting & Drawing Studio coordinator at Penland. View more of her work here.


Photographs by Robin Dreyer.


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40 Candles


Photo above courtesy of Dan Price. Photos below by Elaine Bleakney.


This month, former core fellow Dan Price returned to Penland as a winter resident to make forty candles in the iron studio. Of course, we needed to know why.



Dan, would you tell us about the piece you’re making? 

It’s part of a series of sculptures I am making that involve contingencies. In the works, the components are all interconnected–tied together, stacked, leaning and interdependent–and the components are lifted from memorable moments in my life. This one is about my wild 40th birthday party.


How did Penland fit into your plans for making this piece? 

I actually do have a forge in Chicago, but no power hammer, so I needed to use the smithy at Penland to make the candles.



What are the next steps in your process with the sculpture? 

I am going to a manufacturer in Chicago to have a bunch of plate glass cut with a water jet cutter for the next part of the piece: a cake.


Okay, we have to ask: what was “wild” about your 40th birthday party?

It was two years ago. My neighbors roasted a lamb in the backyard. They built up a fire pit out of firebricks, and I made a steel spit in the smithy at school. We roasted the lamb and invited about 80 people. It was generally a kind of a wild party. The craziest guest shot off fireworks, throwing lit bottle rockets with her bare hands–that kind of thing. My brother was good enough to drive her home, and returned with a funny look. “Never again,” he said.


Dan Price lives and works in Chicago, where he is Chair and Assistant Professor of Sculpture at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Read more about Dan and his work here.


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April in Iron



April Franklin is back at Penland this winter, and for the first time, her job is simply to make what she likes. A former core fellow, April has previously appeared at Penland as a work-study student, a studio assistant, and an instructor. For the past week, she’s been a winter resident in the iron studio, making (among other things) two Damascus rings:




The rings, we’re happy to note, are for April’s marriage next fall to ceramic artist and frequent Penland instructor Kathy King. The couple makes their home in Watertown, Massachusetts, with April visiting Providence to forge and teach at the Steel Yard, while Kathy teaches at “that school in Cambridge.”

April and Kathy met during Penland’s spring concentration in 2012. During the concentration, Kathy (instructor in the clay studio) broke her hand and underwent surgery. All is well now, and the accident “slowed Kathy down for me,” said April, half-joking.

During our visit to the studio, April helped current core fellow Meghan Martin with some strategy for a buckle. She also took some time to give a knife-sharpening demonstration this week. April had a dose of dry wit for fellow blacksmiths who specialize, as she does, in knife-making. “Do not tell anyone that you know how to sharpen knives. People will show up with a bag of them.”

We’ll have more posts here about our winter residents in the coming weeks. In the meantime, you can keep up with the flurry of studio activity on our Instagram account.


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Something About Susan

Does anyone remember Jago? Handsome, brooding, and mysterious, Jago (pronounced HA-HO) was a Penland core student in the late nineties. He missed every changeover. Every meeting. He never appeared in the studios, as far as anyone knows.

Jago was the invisible hot mess invented by Susan Feagin and Kara Ikenberry during their core fellowship. He was, Susan recalls, a character in a romance novel that was read, out loud, during a Kathy King class. When Susan left Penland in 1998, Jago left too, probably in pursuit of an aging heiress in the south of France. Susan remained stateside, pursuing other inventions, mainly in clay.

As a core student, Susan fell for ceramics, printmaking, and Jago-fiction as independent media. After core, Susan moved to Athens, Georgia, working in production at the now defunct Athens Banner-Herald. For the next four years she served as the newspaper’s last paste-up artist before continuing her clay (and screenprinting on clay) activities in graduate school at the University of Florida.



Screens by Susan Feagin in the Penland clay studio. Photograph by Robin Dreyer


Paste-up artists are now extinct. For those of you who don’t remember life before desktop publishing, allow us to explain: at the Banner-Herald Susan set type in columns by hand, adhering the columns to photo paper. The completed camera-ready pages were then photographed to make negatives that were then used to make plates for printing. Susan spent hours inside of rigid borders, looking at text in terms of column inches–adding, removing, and also sizing photographs. It was collage on a deadline. Not a job for the likes of Jago.

But the paste-up experience suited Susan fine, and her taste for text as a shiftable visual element can be found on the pots she makes today.



A Susan Feagin creation. Photograph by Robin Dreyer


Recently, Susan made a few screens from a manuscript, a history of great moments in aviation that her dad, an aeronautical engineer, wrote for teens and never published. She will print selections from his typed pages on clay, handbuilding a vessel with his text layered in.

susan“It’s more liberating for me than working at the wheel,” Susan says, “I’m free to explore as I go.” Susan makes colored slabs, draping them on molds to shape her asymmetrical works. Surfaces are spaces where text or prints along avenues of underglaze can appear, and when the clay hardens, there are strips for sgraffito.

A flimsy romantic fiction like Jago probably wouldn’t get Susan’s choices, in life or art. But Rabulette and Maynard, Susan’s friends in Penland’s clay studio operation, do. Rabulette, a stuffed bunny rescued by Susan from a departed copyeditor’s file cabinet back at the Banner-Herald, is a somewhat high-strung conceptual artist assisted by the small and dedicated plush bison, Maynard. (For those of you who haven’t met these two tiny beings, they are real, and thanks to Susan, real presences at Penland.)



Rabulette and Maynard on vacation. Photograph blatantly stolen from Jane Crowe on Facebook.


“I adore Susan,” Rabulette says. “For Susan, pattern is a place where invention happens. But you should really ask Maynard to fill in for you all the details, as it’s time for my lunch.”

This winter, Susan will let go of surface control a bit–firing colored porcelain vessels in the salt kiln with Penland winter resident Janice Farley. She will also take a short break from her coordinator duties at Penland to teach, in late January, a screenprinting on clay workshop at Clay Works in Charlotte.–Elaine Bleakney


To watch Susan Feagin demonstrate screenprinting on clay, please take some time with two videos by John Britt here.


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Photo of the week: Flashdance, 1984



Our archivist, Carey Hedlund, has been settling into the Penland archives this winter, finding gems like this photograph taken by Dan Bailey during the fall of 1984. The photograph was later used for a Penland catalog, and Dan left a note: “It was taken at night and each window was a separate flash exposure. Probably took a couple of hours to do.”

Each week, Carey sends us a photograph from the archive to post on the Penland Instagram account as part of #tbt or “throwback Thursday” (one of those new-fangled Internet hashtag phenomena you may already know about). Scroll through our Instagram feed here to see more of Carey’s selections.

“Somehow, window-dancing struck me as a lovely way to ring in the new year,” Carey notes about Dan’s picture.


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