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“When it comes to letters, we agree.”

Generous instructors exploring their craft with students of all ages and all levels
“Brush Lettering and Sign Painting” with Jon Bocksel and Kenji Nakayama

Friends and Collaborators
Jon Bocksel and Kenji Nakayama, co-instructors of summer session three workshop “Brush Lettering and Sign Painting” are friends, collaborators, and kindred spirits when it comes to their creative practices. Both are sought-after sign painters and fine artists with a focus on lettering. They met about 10 years ago as participating artists in a group show. Perceiving a kinship between their work, the curator made a point of introducing them.

“At the time,” said Jon, “I had a gold leaf job in about three weeks. I was pretty nervous about it, so I asked Kenji if he would be willing to work with me…. So we worked together and stayed up late and had a lot of fun and made a lot of jokes, and we became good friends.” Since that time, the pair has continued to work together, keeping in touch despite a four-hour journey between them. In the summer of 2022, they had a two-person show at the same gallery where they first met.

When Penland approached Kenji about teaching a workshop, he knew immediately that he would like to collaborate with Jon. “When it comes to letters,” said Kenji, “we agree.” Both are interested in single stroke and legible letters. Informed by calligraphy and ancient lettering, their practices focus on the kinesthetics of brush strokes and embrace the beauty of the human hand. Neither focuses their efforts on decorating and filling in the negative space, preferring instead to allow the letters to speak for themselves. 

“Eyeballer,” a collaboration between instructors Jon Bocksel and Kenji Nakayama, including crushed mica collected from the North Toe River near Penland. The piece was donated and auctioned off in support of Penland’s scholarship program.

For two weeks at Penland, Jon and Kenji demonstrated techniques, guided their students, and made several collaborative pieces. The workshop focused on brush-written letters and sign-trade techniques, with lots of hands-on exercises to help students improve their “eyeballing” skills, sensitivity to shapes and lines, and light/dark balance. As with any Penland workshop, this class was immersive; students focused exclusively on brush lettering and sign painting, improving quickly over two weeks. Students in the class could not say enough nice things about Jon and Kenji, noting their clear instruction, endless patience, contagious enthusiasm, and generosity with their time.

All ages and all levels
Jon and Kenji’s workshop was open to students of “all levels.” At Penland, this means that the class accommodates beginners, intermediate, and advanced students. Beginners are introduced to a whole new practice and intermediate and advanced students further their skills. The group really gelled,” said L.A., who has taken a number of Penland workshops. “Even though we are different ages, different backgrounds… that usually happens here at Penland.” Studio assistant Andy Ferro remarked that working with some beginners allowed him to step back and articulate some of the foundational things that have become muscle memory in his sign painting practice. “You become aware of them again and reteach yourself,” he told us. 

“They worked a miracle with me.”
“I had never really used a brush,” said Sally, a student in the class who is currently enjoying her retirement. On the last day of the workshop, Sally reflected on how far she had come as she placed the final touches on a metal sign reading “Be Still My Heart.” “Last Monday this was inconceivable,” she said, “and now they worked a miracle with me.”

Sally went from never using a brush to creating work she is excited about.

“Mom was so right about Penland.”
Perhaps the best illustration of the rich, intergenerational exchanges that happen at Penland was a mom and her twin children, recent college grads, who took the workshop together. L.A. has been coming to Penland for about 10 years (even relocating to the area about two years ago) and was excited to share the experience with two of her children. The family entered the class as peers and enjoyed competing with one another to create the best work they could.

“I wouldn’t say I was the most creative or artsy person, so I didn’t think I was going to love it,” said Jaya, L.A.’s daughter who recently graduated from the University of Pennsylvania. “But it has just been the most amazing and magical experience, and I understand why my mom loves this place so much and literally picked up her life to move down the road.” Jaya’s brother Naveen, who recently graduated from Trinity College, agrees. “We feel like this class and these teachers are insanely special,” he said. Soon, Jaya will move to Los Angeles. and Naveen to London. In the meantime, they plan to do a lot of practicing and expanding their newfound artistic outlet. “I am so glad we got to experience this together,” said L.A.

Left to Right: Jaya, L.A., and Naveen; two recent college grads took the workshop with their mom

“We will all be able to make much more effective and beautiful signs.”
Studio assistant Andy Ferro, who first met Kenji four years ago when Kenji was the studio assistant for Andy’s first brush lettering workshop, experienced a full circle moment at Penland. These days, Andy is a sign painter in New York, often working alongside Jon.

For Andy, who is a big admirer of both Jon and Kenji’s work, the two-week workshop (where he was also a student) was a profound experience. Andy believes that the real strength of the class was the deep way in which Jon and Kenji were able to explain the importance of the balance of contrast, whether that be color value or stroke weight in the letter. “We will all be able to make much more effective and beautiful signs now,” he said.

Studio assistant Andy Ferro learned so much from Jon and Kenji.

Jon and Kenji left behind some very helpful signage for the Drawing and Painting studio.

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Elizabeth Brim, Outstanding Artist Educator

Elizabeth Brim will be honored at this summer’s Penland Benefit Auction.

If anyone can be said to be one of “Penland’s own,” it would be blacksmith and sculptor Elizabeth Brim. Although she started out working in ceramics, a Penland jewelry workshop in the 1980s sparked a lifelong interest in metals that quickly turned into a passion for working with hot steel.

Elizabeth was Penland’s iron studio coordinator from 1995–2000 and then settled permanently into a house and studio just a mile from the school. Over three decades, she has taught many workshops at Penland and other craft schools including Peters Valley in New Jersey and Haystack in Maine. She has demonstrated at numerous blacksmithing conferences, organized two symposia at Penland, and been a role model and inspiration for countless aspiring blacksmiths.

Elizabeth Brim is known throughout the craft world for her life-sized, steel replicas of traditionally feminine objects such as hats, dresses, pillows, and flowers; for her expressive and fluid use of the material; and for her facility at inflating steel forms with compressed air.

Her work has been exhibited at the Mint Museum in Charlotte, North Carolina, the North Carolina Museum of Art, The Houston Center for Contemporary Craft, and the Metal Museum in Memphis, Tennessee, which named her as their 2009 Master Metalsmith.

We are proud to honor Elizabeth Brim as this year’s Penland School of Craft Outstanding Artist Educator. In honor of the occasion, we asked her a few questions about her long relationship with Penland.

“Gothic,” inflated steel pillow by Elizabeth Brim


Did you always like to make things?

Yes! My mother and grandmother made frilly dresses for me and my sister. We played with the scraps of fabric they had left over and made things from those. Our mother encouraged our creativity, and we took private lessons in painting. Instead of commercial paper dolls and coloring books, Mama got blank paper for us to draw on and cut up. When I majored in art in college, I thought teaching at the college level would be the ideal job for me. So I continued my studies to get an MFA in printmaking.

Young Elizabeth celebrates her birthday

How did you end up at Penland?

The head of the art department in my hometown told me that there was going to be a job available teaching ceramics and encouraged me to go to Penland to learn how to make pots. I did that in the spring of 1980 and I got the job teaching. I also fell in love with everything about Penland. I loved the mountains and being fully immersed in making things. I especially loved and became addicted to being around interesting, creative and fun people from places all around the world. So I came back as often as possible and started taking classes in metal and jewelry making.

Elizabeth Brim and her first metals instructor, Marvin Jensen

How did you discover blacksmithing… and when did you start wearing your iconic pearl necklace?

In the spring of 1985, I was taking a concentration with Marvin Jensen in metals. A core student who was in my class got an opportunity to apprentice with an artist and decided to leave the core program early. I was asked if I could stay at Penland for the summer and fill in as a core student. My job was to get dinner out on weeknights and clean up the kitchen afterwards. I could take classes during the day. Without that opportunity, I doubt if I would have ever taken a class in blacksmithing! When I told my mother, a very proper Southern woman, that I was signed up to take a blacksmithing class she got quiet for a minute and then said, “Elizabeth, I DO NOT approve of that. Blacksmithing is NOT a ladylike thing to do.” I was concerned but still wanted to take the class. I told my friend, Tom McCarthy, who was also a core student, what Mama had said. Tom immediately replied, “Elizabeth, just wear a string of pearls and you will be ladylike.” I’ve been wearing them ever since.

Elizabeth wears her iconic pearls in the Penland Iron studio in the eighties, while working on one of her sculptures.

How did you help grow the Penland iron program?

In 1987, I heard from Penland’s leadership that they were concerned about low enrollment in blacksmithing classes and that the future of the program was far from secure. Hunter Karhier was assistant director at the time and thought it would be a good idea to host an iron symposium to demonstrate national interest in the creative aspects of ironwork and get attention for the Penland  iron program. It was to be a unique opportunity for blacksmiths to get together formally to discuss art and ideas in iron. I was hired to facilitate the project and was very enthusiastic about promoting iron at Penland. The symposium, “Expressive Design in Iron,” was a huge success and received attention from ironworkers internationally.

Tell us about your time as the Penland Iron Studio Coordinator.

I became the studio coordinator of the Penland Iron Studio in 1995. That’s when I finally moved to Penland full-time. The studio was thriving with a full schedule and diverse range of courses. Jean McLaughlin, who became Penland’s Director in 1998, recognized the activity and success of Penland’s Iron program and began fundraising to provide a worthy studio. We moved into our new iron studio in the fall of 2000. The first project there was to build the iron gate out of forged scraps from the old iron studio and pieces donated by artists and instructors who had been important to the development of the program. I was building my own little studio at the same time Penland’s new studio was being built. So, with the Penland iron studio and program vigorous and successful, I left the job to concentrate on my own artwork. I still teach at craft schools occasionally, with Penland, of course, always being my favorite and my home.

Shortly after the inauguration of Penland’s current iron studio, students came together to create this beloved gate out of examples of forged scraps from the old iron studio and pieces donated by artists and instructors who were important to the development of the Penland iron program

What work are you most known for and how do you create it?

The first sculptural piece I forged was a pair of steel high-heeled shoes. I’m known for making objects out of steel that look soft, like fabric. It’s probably due to the influence of my mother and grandmother and their sewing. I have made several aprons, camisoles, and ballerina tutus. I enjoy the challenge of making ruffles, bows, tassels, fringe, and fancy trim in steel. I guess I’m most known for inflating steel forms to look like pillows. I also love to forge things that look like flowers and botanical elements. In these forms I employ forge welding. This involves heating metal parts until they get to the state I call “Slobbering Yellow “ and hitting them with a hammer to join the pieces together. I have a lot of fun making my forged sculptures!

Elizabeth painting petals for her “Serviceberry Tree” sculpture.


Elizabeth’s “Serviceberry Tree” in Spruce Pine, NC  features petals created by friends and guests (with help from Elizabeth) at one of the first Fire on the Mountain blacksmithing festivals.


“Mama’s Hat”


“Dancing Shoes”


Join us as we celebrate Outstanding Artist Educator Elizabeth Brim under the tent at the Penland Benefit Auction. LEARN MORE.

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Spring with the Rothshanks

Nine weeks with these wonderful humans.

It was a joy to share space with the Rothshank family this spring. Both parents taught a workshop and the kids lit up the campus with their curiosity and energy as they learned, explored the surrounding area, and inspired us all.

Justin Rothshank taught an eight-week clay workshop titled “Decals, Soda Firing, and Pottery,” and Brooke Rothshank taught “Tiny Gratitudes,” a workshop in miniature painting during the spring short session.

Justin said, “It has been an especially inspiring and enriching time for each of us and we’re all grateful for the opportunity to be a part of this community for a short time.”

We are honored to have shared this special time with you, Rothshanks. Come back soon!

Collaborating on great pottery designs

Custom chess set

Making knives

Participating in “Mending Day” with Celia Pym and her mending workshop

“Free Painting Station”

Visiting Mount Mitchell