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Ellie’s Studio

 

Resident artist Ellie Richards in her Penland studio

Right at the moment, Ellie Richards’s Penland studio is a riot of color, texture, and a bit of chaos. Her large shop tools are tidy and in order, but the tables are strewn with garden tools, toys, games, hoses, and other materials not usually found in a wood studio. On the wall behind her bench are a group of hybrid objects including a shovel that is completely covered with magnetic plastic letters.

Ellie is making work for a two-person show at the Vision Gallery in Phoenix, Arizona titled Play Hard. Each piece, she explains, combines a tool (of the DIY suburban garage variety) with materials of play (the kind that might be part of summer games: bubbles, blocks, balloons etc.), in an effort to create something new, maybe something absurd, certainly something imaginative. “Ten years ago,” she says, “I started exploring how the opposing worlds of work and play could be interrelated.  Since then, my work has gone in many directions, but each series seems to maintain a connection to each and their effect on the other. This exhibition is an opportunity to explore this exchange more directly, working in the format of ready-mades and altered found objects.”

Mixed media sculpture by Ellie Richards
Works in progress in Ellie’s studio.

“Life’s responsibilities and too many other barriers stand in the way of simply allowing oneself to have ‘free’ time,” she continued. “In other words, play doesn’t always come easy and usually there is a cost. However, it is my belief that free time, free from expectations and free from obligations or even an agenda, makes way for an increased sense of curiosity and connection with the tangible world.”

Ellie joined the resident artist program in September, 2020, and she was Penland’s wood studio coordinator from 2014 to 2019. Needless to say, she’s a highly skilled woodworker, so this current work might be surprising to some. “For a time all I wanted to do was learn how to build well made structural objects, and in that pursuit I picked up some valuable technical skills. It has always been my intent and one of my biggest challenges to have those skills supplement and support my ideas but not overstate themselves or hinder a more raw form of expression. This balance of seriousness and spontaneity is at the core of my practice.

Mixed media sculpture by Ellie Richards
Works in progress in Ellie’s studio.

“In this work, the place where two objects merge is the site where I’m focusing on the specifics of craft. Whether that happens with a traditional joint, JB Weld, or a special knot, these tactics of making connections are done with an equal amount of care and sensitivity toward the intent and outcome. This language used to transition one object into another serves as a conversation starter between the materials and new forms created.

“My identity as an artist has always been rooted in using wood as a raw material and woodworking as a field for its historical and technical context.  At this juncture, I’m keen to use these experiences in woodworking as a framework for translation into other materials and modes of expression.”

With Ellie at at the beginning of her three-year residency, we can’t wait to see where this takes her.

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Ellie also just concluded an imaginative multimedia sculpture/furniture installation in Charlotte, which is featured on her website.

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Photo(s) of the Week: A Most Distinctive Wall

 

Ian Henderson and Daniel Beck with tile installation
Ian Henderson and Daniel T. Beck with the nearly-completed tile installation in Penland’s new core house.

Way back in 2012, Penland School was planning a new house for its core fellows: those energetic and committed artists who live and work at Penland–taking classes and doing work for the school–for two years. They amaze us, we fall in love with them, and they move on to other things. Fortunately, as illustrated in this picture, some of them move on to things that keep them at Penland.

The design for the new house, by architect Louis Cherry, includes a feature called a trombe wall, which is a dark-colored masonry wall that collects and radiates solar heat in the winter. Jean McLaughlin, who was Penland director at that time, along with the design committee for the project proposed that this wall should also be an artist-generated design feature.

The artist selected was Ian Henderson, who had completed the core fellowship earlier that year. Ian is a bit obsessive about pattern, and he had done quite a bit of slip casting while he was in the core program. Out of those interests grew a proposal for a relief tile installation with an underlying design based on a set of shapes known a girih tiles, which are the basis for a centuries-old system of ornamentation used throughout the Middle East. Ian readily points out that it is a derivative design. “Plenty of people before me have been exploring these same shapes and patterns. If the design for this installation is innovative, it is in the creation of a topography for each tile that is made up of triangular facets.”

Ian Henderson and Daniel Beck working on tile installation
Ian and Daniel at work; no masks because they decided to “pod up” for the duration of the project.

With able assistance from fellow core alumni Daniel T. Beck, Andrew Hayes, and Mark Warren, Ian made about 1,000 ceramic tiles during a 2013 residency at the Kohler factory in Wisconsin. He documented that residency in a fascinating blog that covers both the design process and the making of the tiles. At the end of three months, the tiles were packed up and shipped to Penland where they were put into storage to wait for the house to become a reality.

Tile wall installation
How do you keep something like this aligned? Laser levels are especially helpful.

This took a little while. Construction at Penland always waits for fundraising, and then it takes as long as construction takes. Fast forward to February of this year, and the house had finally reached a stage where the tiles could be installed. Ian Henderson is now Penland’s director of operations, and Daniel Beck has been iron studio coordinator for almost a decade. Their plan had always been to install the tiles together when the time came, and when the time came, they were both working at Penland.

The wall sits just inside the front entrance where future generations of core fellows will walk past it as they retreat to their lovely house for some much-deserved rest or head up to campus to work on some equally ingenious project.

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In the time since the Kohler residency, Ian has also created a concrete-tile installation with students in Guanajuato, Mexico and another for the Center for Craft in Asheville, North Carolina.

If you would like to learn more about girih tiles, they are beautifully explained in this lecture by Peter Lu, whose work has greatly increased contemporary understanding of the system.

tile wall installation
The installation looks especially fabulous at night with some raking light on it.

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Because we can’t invite you over…

Alena Applerose in the Penland kitchn
Alena Applerose in the Penland kitchen.

In a normal year (yeah, we’re saying that again), we’d spend the first week of March getting ready for our annual community open house. We can’t do that this year, but we’d still like to offer up some creative family fun. Every Saturday in March, we’ll post a video of a Penland artist teaching an activity that can be done at home, by young and old, using easily available materials. 

We want you to get in the mood with some Penland snacks so we’ve already posted videos featuring Penland’s baker, Alena Applerose, showing how to make two coffee house favorites: gingerade and gluten-free peanut butter cookies. 

Our first craft activity is a perennial open house offering: paste-paper painting with Meg Peterson. This is a little like finger painting and uses colored paste to make durable, decorative papers that can be made into book covers, envelopes, wrapping paper, or just displayed on the wall. So put on your aprons, roll up your sleeves, and join us at the kitchen table. That video will be posted on Saturday, March 6.

You can find the videos with material lists (and recipes) at penland.org/openhouse.

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Adam’s Studio


Adam Whitney in his Penland School studio

Metalsmith Adam Whitney’s resident artist studio is a small building just behind the old dairy barn that houses five other resident studios. You can tell when he’s working by the ever-present sound of a hammer tapping on a metal sheet. “I think they put me back here so I wouldn’t drive everyone else crazy,” he laughed. 

Although Adam joined the resident artist program last fall, he is no stranger to Penland. He has taught in the metals studio several times, he’s participated in every winter residency, and he was the school’s metals studio coordinator from 2007 to 2011. 

He has experience in many kinds of metalsmithing, but his true love is raising: the craft of making hollow, three-dimensional forms from sheets of metal. His current projects are inspired by drinking vessels and the space program. He has made a series of cups that resemble a spacesuit helmet, and he is methodically developing a complex form based on the rhyton of the ancient Mediterranean. This is a horn-shaped vessel with a drinking hole at the bottom. The hole was often part of an animal head or torso fitted onto the end of the horn. Adam remembers seeing these forms in museums when he was first getting interested in metal work. “They were the metal shapes I was in awe of,” he said. 

 

Adam Whitney's raised metal forms
Adam’s current work. On the left are two prototype rhyton horns. On the top shelf are his series of space helmet cups. Below them are a clay model and several copper tests of the space suit form that will fit onto the end of the horn.

Adam’s rhyton will end with the torso of a spacesuit. While he is currently working on prototypes of the vessel and the suit in copper, the final piece will be silver. Raising the intricate form of the spacesuit is an admirable technical challenge, but that’s not the only thing that drew Adam to this image. 

“I think the spacesuit is a phenomenal piece of technology,” he said. “It’s actually a vehicle. It’s the tiniest possible vehicle for a person, and it’s used in the harshest environment. 

“Nobody really knows why the drinking horn with an animal on it exists, but it probably had to do with some kind of embodiment of the animal’s power through drinking. I wanted to put something on mine that would represent the culture I’m in now. For me, space exploration is the most fascinating thing that has happened in a long time. It’s a new frontier where we have just barely scratched the surface, and the space suit encapsulates that and puts it in human form.”