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Earl and Jacqueline Bell and the Penland Clay Studio

Earl and Jacqueline Bell drove back to their home in Detroit a couple of weeks ago after a two week class in the Penland clay studio. They were anticipating an entire drive of debriefing: a thorough review of stories, new skills, and experiences. Just before they left, Earl and Jacqueline joined me on a sunny morning outside of The Pines to chat about their experiences at Penland. As students were preparing to display their work at Northlight, the Bells were packing their car to travel home. They share a relaxed and gracious character. Jacqueline’s even voice carried the conversation; Earl rhythmically interjected with engaging stories and insights.

This was the fifth ceramics class the Bells have taken together. Print & Clay Buffet, taught by Kathy King and Paul Wandless, included a vast range of processes and techniques combining imagery and ceramics. Sgraffito, transfer, appliqué, stamping, screening, and printmaking were some of the processes covered. The quality of work produced under Kathy and Paul’s instruction was incredible; the final collection of class work was an attractive mix of vibrant colors, heightened contrast, and layers upon layers of imagery. The Bells were thrilled to take home the class’s collaborative urn, which they bought at the closing scholarship auction.

The first time Jacqueline came to Penland, she was self-conscious about her lack of an art background, though she was always an appreciator and dabbled in paint. Penland’s community is supportive and inspiring, and her intimidation quickly disappeared. “It’s amazing, the amount of creativity you’re surrounded by,” she said. “The ideas you get from both students and instructors…. They’re very knowledgeable, so you’re getting information on both ends.” Jacqueline finds peace in decorating, and Earl loves to throw on the wheel. Jacqueline took her time this session, creating a few samples for each process. She considers them a three-dimensional sketchbook to carry home to Michigan.

Jacqueline is a retired school principal and was introduced to clay during her school’s open studios directed by a visiting ceramist. Earl began taking classes at the Flint Institute of Art over ten years ago. When they met at Jacqueline’s school, a relationship began to grow along with their interest in ceramics, and they married in 2004. They have been able to witness many changes at Penland since their first class together in 2000. Jacqueline reminisced about stepping out from the car and tripping on the rocky terrain. “The paths were treacherous!” In addition to smoother routes and pathways, they have seen new buildings, studios, and an increase in technology and design used within the clay studio.

The Bells are returning to Detroit to coordinate an event with Empty Bowls, an international project to fight hunger and raise awareness. Guests are served soup in a handmade bowl in exchange for a donation, which is passed to a hunger-fighting charity. (The Empty Bowls project was founded by John Hartom and Lisa Blackburn, who live near Penland).The pottery stays with the contributor, a reminder of the empty bowls throughout the world and our personal ability to help. Mr. and Mrs. Bell will make the bowls and the community– including artists from the Detroit Institute of Art as well as the homeless and less fortunate–will decorate them,. Because Jacqueline and Earl do not sell their work, this opportunity provides a strong purpose and motivation to create.

The Bells intend to continue taking classes at Penland, and Earl would also like to try his hand at a photography class. Penland has become a home and haven for them, a place to revisit and find rejuvenation. Jacqueline leaned in and grinned, “A clay retreat. I tell people I’m coming to a clay retreat.”  –photo and story by Emily Breyer

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Instructor Chunghie Lee at RISD

Chunghie Lee is teaching a workshop second session (June 13-25) on a traditional Korean textile/paper technique called “pojagi.” Here’s a nice video of Chunghie that was made at the Rhode Island School of Design (the class still has some spaces).

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Keiko Ishii, glassblower


keiko ishii
Keiko Ishii

Keiko Ishii is a first time Penland student who came all the way from Japan to take Scott Benefield’s glass Concentration. She learned of Penland and Scott from other American glassworkers who have to taught at Tama Art University in Tokyo, where she takes classes. In particular, Karen Willenbrink-Johnson and Jasen Johnson both recommended that she attend Penland specifically because of the two month Concentrations sessions. In addition, she hoped that the American style of glassworking would breathe new life into her work and that the diversity of students would be beneficial as well.

Keiko first started working with glass six years ago after she recovered from a serious car accident. Her recovery and rehabilitation was a six year process during which she knew that she wanted to switch her artistic medium and career from graphic design to glass, but had to wait until her body was ready for the physical demands of the glass studio.

After Keiko completes the spring glass concentration she hopes to visit the Corning Museum of Glass and take a workshop there as well. She also plans to take some time to travel around the United States before returning to her glass studies at the Tama Art University in Tokyo.
–Karen Mahardy

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Golly Peters, ceramist

Golly Peters
Golly Peters

Golly Peters first became aware of Penland when she found the Penland Book of Ceramics in Amsterdam. She was so impressed with the book that she found Penland on the Internet and learned that it was a school that anyone could apply to and attend. She sensed that there was something special about Penland and hoped to go there one day.

Golly lives in Brussels, and has found that Belgian ceramicists are secretive about their processes and not open to sharing with others. Though she had been doing ceramics for five years, she had been struggling with moldmaking and so she signed up for Tom Spleth’s spring class in moldmaking and slipcasting. Earlier this year Golly had to have some serious surgery and coming to Penland was a tremendous incentive and helped her recovery.

Now Golly can’t wait to go home and share what she has learned with others. She feels more confident than ever with her work and now sees flaws that she didn’t see before. “Penland brought the fun back into my work and gave me permission to play again,” she said. “ I have had a great experience at Penland and feel that the class pushed me to go beyond limitations that I had previously and move onto the next phase of my work.

–Karen Mahardy

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Tom Spleth Makes a Plaster Form at Slide Night

When instructor Tom Spleth did his slide night at the beginning of his eight-week class in making ceramics from plaster molds, he projected slides of his work on the wall, then poured plaster on a large piece of masonite, cued some lovely music, and demonstrated his method for making a sculptural form from drying plaster. Staff member Mark Boyd was on hand with a camera and made this beautiful 5-minute video titled Fluid Form.

A technical note on what Tom is doing: The plaster form he makes in the video would be the first step in the creation of a hollow, porcelain sculpture or vase. After the plaster form dries, Tom refines it with scrapers and other tools, then he makes a multipart plaster mold from the form. The next step is to pour clay slip into the mold, let it sit for a bit and then pour it out again, leaving layer of slip clinging to the inside of the mold. The mold is then opened and the clay form inside can be glazed and fired.  –Robin Dreyer

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Elliot Todd, glassblower

Elliot Todd working in the Penland glass studio
Elliot Todd working in the Penland glass studio

Smart, focused and driven: these are three words that can be used to describe what it takes to be a successful artist. They are also three words that describe Penland School of Crafts glass student Elliott Todd, but with one addition: he is also one of the nicest people you will ever meet.

A native of Boone, North Carolina, Elliott used to visit Penland as a boy with his father and attended community open house events. As a teenager, he started making flameworked beads at home with a simple mapp gas torch and rods of glass. After high school graduation, Elliott was unsure of what direction to go until he heard that a beginning hot glass class was being taught by Ed Schmidt at Penland. The two-month class introduced Elliott to the basics of glassblowing and inspired him to continue to learn more.

Though a year would pass before Elliott could take another two-month class at Penland, you would not have known that any time had passed at all. Elliott is a true natural and has a memory for detail that serves him well. He completed the fall 2009 glass concentration taught by Dave Naito with even more skills, ideas, and inspiration, and he immediately signed up for the spring 2010 glass concentration currently being taught by Scott Benefield. “Elliott is an unstoppable force,” commented one fellow student. “He’s always so excited to work in the studio whether he is assisting someone else or working on his own project. He’s just a great person to be around.”

Because of his experiences at Penland, Elliott now plans to attend college and major in glass.

–Karen Mahardy