Here are their finished chairs at show-and-tell.
Here are their finished chairs at show-and-tell.
A few weeks ago, students in Penland’s spring session had a special meal that included lentils, chick peas, and other dishes cooked using methods reconstructed through artifacts from the late Minoan civilization of 1200 – 1500 B.C.E. The dishes were cooked over glowing coals in earthenware pots made by students in Cynthia Bringle’s spring workshop. The project was led by Jerolyn Morrison, who was a guest teacher for two weeks.
Jerolyn’s history with Penland goes back to 1996, when she came as a student just after finishing her B.A. in ceramics at Baylor University. She spent most of the next four years at the school, serving variously as studio assistant, coffee house manager, breakfast cook, and volunteer coordinator for the auction. During this time, she says, she became interested in the “life of the object.” This interest led her to a Masters in anthropology, a Fulbright for study in Greece, and, most recently, a Ph.D in archeology from the University of Leicester in England.
The teaching and cooking she did this spring at Penland were based on her Ph.D. project, which involved reproducing both Minoan cookpots and cooking. Drawing on 100 years of archeology, she began reproducing the cookpots using the local clay in Crete. Then, working from studies of charred food remains, burnt seeds, and residue extracted from 3,000-year-old pots, she assembled what she refers to as the Minoan grocery list. “The clay, the pots, the wood that was burned, the food that was being cooked: once you have this,” she said, “then it’s interpretive.” Which is to say, there’s no way to know exactly how Minoan food tasted. She also had to learn, through experimentation, how to cook in the three-legged earthenware pots. Present day residents of Crete, she explained, still cook on open fires, but they have forgotten how to cook in ceramic pots.
Having completed her Ph.D., Jerolyn continues to live part of the year in Crete where she runs a business called Minoan Tastes that caters special events using the pots, techniques, and recipes she developed through this work. A cookbook is in process. “It mixes anthropology and archeology in a way that’s informative rather than academic,” she said.
Her recent stint at Penland was literally a dream come true. “I had this dream, an actual dream,” she said, “ that I was doing this at Penland. So I called Cynthia Bringle to ask her if there was any way I could make this happen. She was, at that moment, planning her spring workshop and invited me to join her for a few weeks.”
“It was great,” she said. “We got to talk about archeology and pottery as we were working. The rest of the workshop was throwing and these pots are all made with handbuilding techniques, so it expanded the scope of the class that way.”
There were benefits for Jerolyn as well. She appreciated that her Penland students did not stick to reproducing traditional Minoan cookware. “They decorated the pots, which the Minoans didn’t do,” she explained. “And they had no cultural constraints about what the pots should be. It was freeing, and I’d like to work a little more like that. This was a gift they gave back to me.”
And there was consensus that the dinner was delicious.
Betsy DeWitt has an image.
The image, an idea, pulls her slowly through weeks, sometimes months. Eventually, she takes a photograph of a house, and makes a digital negative. There’s no rush to Betsy’s process. By the time we visit, she’s made some tests of white-gum prints featuring the “becoming-dilapidated” dwelling–white-on-white prints. She’s making one now. We watch her reach into a box-like space lined with black trash bags. She reaches in as if to pull out a bird, a rabbit, something alive–a wood case. She unlatches the case, lifts the print.
“Photography, for me, is a back door to chemistry and to printmaking,” says Betsy as she washes the print in water. The orangey rust color, Betsy explains, is the potassium dichromate she’s applied. It will soak out eventually, leaving white pigment in the hardening gum arabic. This is nineteenth-century magic, and Penland’s photography studio is a technical juke joint packed with the stuff of present and past: small dark bottles, baths, brushes, large-format cameras, every kind of camera, a pod of Macs, printers, white spaces for setting up, wires and wires, sweet class portraits on the walls, dags and cyanotypes, strands of tiny rooms, stacks, cupboards, and a shifty, haunted-house hallway into the big dark. Betsy manages it all.
In one of the small back rooms, Betsy shows us more of her work:
“I didn’t know what I was looking for,” says Betsy about making these small, intimate portholes. “I was thinking–I have been thinking–about memory and family. I don’t know all the stories in these photographs. But as I framed them, the images began to talk to each other.”
The images, Betsy explains, were made by looking into a microscope through the viewfinder of a digital camera. “I moved the image until something made me stop,” Betsy says. When a halting feeling arrived, she took a photograph. Here’s her set-up:
“Warmth” is a word that artist Amanda Lee uses to describe Betsy DeWitt’s work. You might not expect how right this word is, seeing the set-up, above. But Betsy’s work glows. She turns on the digital camera to show us her process with the microscope. As she moves a scanned photograph with her hand, dropping us into the family album, another kind of intelligence, a story about an artist’s intelligence, begins. Watch:
—Writing by Elaine Bleakney; photographs and video by Robin Dreyer
Instructor Dan Estabrook and student Cynthia Cukiernik discussing the fine points of exposing black-and-white film. (On a fine spring day.)
Jay Fox places his work on the table: a hammer. A caulk gun. A much smaller print depicting a screw. The prints cover the table. Black lines and markings play against pale, considered colors. The tools without a box float in the flecked and thready shades of handmade paper. A carpenter’s tools, images of tools; why this kind of care for representing them?
The litho/relief prints, Jay tells us, were part of his MFA thesis exhibition at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, a show he put up while transitioning into his new role as Penland’s print, letterpress, paper, and books studio coordinator. The show, called “From the Ground Up,” turned the gallery into a transitional work space–fresh paint smell and all. Viewers encountered custom-sized drawers that Jay made to house the stacks of just over 300 tool prints. He set up an “honesty box” for anyone who wanted to buy, and he priced each image (printed on 50/50 cotton/abaca paper that Jay made himself) with the retail price of the tool the print depicted. The print’s sale, then, echoed the object’s actual purchase.
The tools in these prints belonged to Jay’s father, “and had been sitting around in Morganton since my dad died fourteen years ago,” Jay says. The prints are titled. “Shrapnel,” is the name of the screw. “Long Pull”–the caulk gun. “Pocket Full of Worry,” is a print of an unwrapped, unfinished roll of antacids. In the prints, a pause for each object’s singularity and an indifference to any narrative beyond what might be suggested in the titles. When I ask about them, Jay doesn’t skip a beat. “I was thinking of the titles as somewhere between action and idea,” he says.
As one of the newest members of Penland’s band of artist-coordinators, Jay is happy to report that he has found in his role a reliable flow of print nerds. Bourbon nerds, too. Penland also marks Jay’s homecoming to North Carolina after his years of undergraduate and graduate work. “In Georgia [as an undergrad at SCAD] I was ‘the guy from the mountains.’ In Milwaukee, I was the Southerner that everyone came to look at, and I felt like it was my duty to portray it well,” he says in a half-jesting way.
Now, when he’s not tending to Penland Print, or getting hitched (Jay and his wife, Molly Evans, married last January), Jay brakes for curious road signs. He plans to work on a series of prints based on signs like the one on the plate above, spotted near his wife’s parents’ house in Georgia. “I love the homemade quality to this sign, says Jay. “I’m thinking about making work in the region I grew up in rather than making work about where I’m from.” Jay pauses. “That’s where I am with it, at least for now.”
—Elaine Bleakney; photographs by Robin Dreyer
More about Jay Fox’s thesis show, “From the Ground Up,” on Printeresting.
The word first appeared in Middle English in the 14th century, gaining a negative connotation: the secondary definition of “tinker” is “an unskillful mender.” As travelers, outliers, and knowledge-bearers, tinkers became shadow figures—ones to beware. Ian Henderson, Penland’s metals studio coordinator, came across the word in a fantasy novel called The Name of the Wind. In the book, Ian remembers, it’s bad luck not to buy something from the tinker.
Penland’s tinker is skillful. (That’s an understatement.) And he’s not be feared. Unless you fear “preposterously laborious processes.”
Producing art work in step with a marketplace doesn’t shine for Ian. When he’s not working on something with one person in mind, Ian adventures in the Realm of the Absurd and Obsolete, “collecting ideas and techniques” rather than working within a goal of refining them.
Ian’s role at Penland provides space and support. Problems he encounters managing the studio dovetail with his own love of problem-solving. To talk with Ian about what he’s made and why is a bit like watching a stone skip across water– this, then this, then this–each work sets off sentences about the flash of invention, delivered in a joyful, skittery style.
“Everything I start I think it’s going to be My Thing, from the time I started Tom Spleth’s slipcasting concentration as a core student,” Ian jokes when we stop in to look at the things he made this winter. Penland’s tinker is someone who puts his whole boundless inquisitive self into what he creates, from an elaborate tile wall piece to a batch of kefir. Take a look.
Photographs by Robin Dreyer; writing by Elaine Bleakney
To view more of metalsmith, ceramicist, mixed-media artist, and tinker Ian Henderson’s work, visit ian-henderson.com. Photograph of kefir not included.
Slideshow above, with pictures of Bobby Hansson by Dana Moore, Robin Dreyer, and Wes Stitt. Artwork by Bobby.
Here at Penland we will long remember Bobby Hansson (a.k.a. Professor Bobo) who died of Parkinson’s disease last week at a care facility in upstate New York. Bobby was a photographer, author, teacher, tin-can art genius, filmmaker, blacksmith, musician (of sorts), incomparable fashion maven, mail artist, renaissance man, teller of good stories and bad jokes, generous human being, and one of Penland’s great instructors.
Bobby was a photographer of craft and sculpture for thirty years, during which time he was the principal photographer for catalogs produced by the American Craft Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and he taught photography at the School of Visual Art. He started making sculpture, objects, furniture, and musical instruments from found objects in 1955. In 1996, he produced an excellent how-to book titled, The Fine Art of the Tin Can. It was a bestseller for Lark Books and a second, expanded edition was published in 2005.
Bobby started teaching tin-can-art workshops at Penland in 1997 and taught regularly until 2011. He also taught workshops at Arrowmont, Campbell Folk School, Haystack, Peters Valley, and Touchstone. His workshops were rollicking affairs that included metalsmithing techniques, design ideas, musical performances, long stories, piles of junk everywhere, and some of the most inventive work ever done by Penland students.
Bobby was a man of tattoos and loud (LOUD!) clothes. He was a continuous, walking performance. To call him a colorful character would be a serious understatement: nobody ever mistook him for anyone else. He was also a deeply creative person sincerely motivated by a desire to make something useful or interesting out of material that was being thrown away. We’ll miss him.
Bobby’s family has suggested that memorial donations be made to the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research.
From a letter to Bobby Hansson from Betty Oliver which appears at the end of Bobby’s book:
I was in a supermarket in Blacksburg, Virginia, thinking about your book, and what I might say about tin cans, when I saw a little boy carrying a big can of tomatoes for his father, who had just rounded the corner into the next section. Finding himself alone, the boy set the can on its side and
used his foot to roll it the rest of the way down the aisle. When he reached the end of the aisle, he picked up the can and disappeared around the corner.
How could I express our nearly worldwide impulse to create any better than this little boy’s spontaneous gesture of invention? From his hand to the floor, from the floor to his foot–in those instants, a can became a wheel.