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HBCU students get hands-on at Penland!

Penland’s campus recently hosted a lively, engaged group of students and faculty from Spelman College, Clark Atlanta University, and Morehouse College, historically black colleges and universities located in Atlanta, Georgia, for two days of talks, studio visits, mentorship, and hands-on activities. Driving up from Atlanta through beautiful fall foliage, the group arrived at Penland on the evening of Thursday, October October 27th, and stayed with us on campus through Saturday.

Clay demonstration with Matt Repsher

An essential part of Penland’s equity, inclusion, and diversity efforts, the tour was created to:

  • Share the benefits of craft schools’ programs with students at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).
  • Create a more diverse and competitive application pool for workshops, residencies, and scholarships.
  • Address anxieties or preconceived notions students of color might have about the receptiveness of mountain communities and craft schools toward cultural and racial diversity.
  • Increase and diversify the pool of African-American artists for future instructional and exhibition programming.
Touring campus with Shae Bishop

This year’s group was joined by two specially invited mentors, Tanya Crane and Ben Blount, accomplished craftspeople who have each taught at Penland. Tanya specializes in small metals and Ben is a letterpress printer. The welcoming orientation included presentations from each mentor on their individual art practices, which elicited insightful questions from the visiting students during the presentation and throughout the weekend. Tanya and Ben stayed with the group throughout the tour, connecting with the visiting students and faculty, answering their questions, sharing their experiences and perspectives, and giving hands-on demonstrations.

Mentor Ben Blount demonstrates on a Vandercook press

Said Ben Blount, “I think it’s important to have the mentors be a part of the program, not just Penland staff. We have come to Penland on our own.  We don’t work for Penland and we can share what our experience was like, being a teacher or a student.”

Mentors Tanya Crane and Ben Blount
Visiting the Studios
Students enter the metals studio for their hands-on demo with Tanya Crane

“It was fun to experience Penland from a different perspective,” Ben continued. “Much of the visit was spent visiting the studios in the same way the students were, seeing all the things being made, being inspired by what I saw.”

There was a lot of ground to cover! Guided by local artist and many-time Penland student Shea Bishop, the group visited the seven Penland studios that are currently hosting a fall concentration workshop; iron, glass, drawing and painting, books, clay, metals, and textiles.

Fall concentration textile students show the visiting students how to operate a loom

The HBCU folks observed demonstrations, talked with students and checked out their work, learned about different processes, and asked a lot of questions. They watched a collaborative glass project, tried out a few looms, learned about ikat and indigo, and watched a clay demonstration.

Getting Hands-On
Mentor Tanya Crane demonstrates enameling techniques in the metals studio

No Penland visit would be complete without a hands-on experience, and this year’s tour did not disappoint.  Students learned the basics of enameling metal with Tanya and letterpress printing with Ben. Not only did they walk away with finished work, they gained an understanding of new tools and techniques. 

Using a torch to enamel a medallion

In the metals studio, students enameled two-sided medallions using the drill press, enameling kiln, and stencils of their own design. “Me, finding out I’m a jewelry maker!” exclaimed one student as she pulled a finished medallion from the kiln. Intrigued by the process, many of the students elected to use their free time to make a second piece. 

Students get hands-on with colorful enamels

In the letterpress studio, the group created their own commemorative poster, learning to set wood type and pull prints. There were three presses running with different colors. The students jumped right in, with the last person pulling their print five minutes before the shuttle arrived to take Ben to the airport!

Tanya Crane participating in Ben Blount’s hands-on letterpress demo
Going Deeper

The students also visited the Penland Gallery, strolled on The Knoll, ate their meals at The Pines, attended a slide talk, and stayed in Penland housing. They spent time getting to know each other and asking interesting questions. What had they seen that was interesting? How could they incorporate new techniques into their work? What does it mean to be a black artist? How do black artists stand to benefit from the efforts of craft schools to increase diversity? Though some of these questions were not exactly resolved, the conversations were thought-provoking.

First Craft School Experience

A sophomore at Spelman College, Morgan Newson attended the HBCU tour with the encouragement of her professor, Robert Hamilton, who has attended Penland. She was intrigued by the opportunity to check out different media like ceramics and glassblowing. Morgan’s first visit to a craft school yielded a number of surprises. She was stuck by the 24-hour studio access, the interdisciplinary collaboration, and the diversity of ages in Penland’s workshops. “I went into it with the expectation that it was just like college, but it was the complete opposite,” she said.

Visiting the weaving studio, Morgan had the opportunity to connect with Edwina Bringle, a Penland neighbor who has been weaving for over fifty years and has been both student and instructor in countless Penland workshops. “It’s amazing to know that I could be in a class with someone who can give me the knowledge and history of their art form,” said Morgan. The diversity of ages also assured her that, even if she isn’t able to fit Penland into her schedule in the immediate future, “I can always come back.” Morgan hopes that one day she can take a weaving class with her grandmother, who had an important role in introducing her to art.

What Does Penland Have to Offer?

We asked Morgan, Tanya, and Ben, why they took time out of their busy schedules for this tour. What can Penland offer to young artists of color?

Said Morgan, 

“It was a great use of my time. I like that Penland gives me the opportunity to try new things and to know find out what you like and don’t like. We get stuck in our comfort zones. It’s always nice to try something new, and it’s good to know that these opportunities are available to me”

Said Tanya,

“I think providing concrete, lived experience with craft schools is essential. Craft schools are more akin to real life because the learning is more self-directed, and not necessarily tied to an assignment. You’re there for yourself to explore what’s in you with some skill-building guidance. Developmentally, it’s important.”

Said Ben,

“I would like to hear that some of these kids have come back to Penland. I think it’s a great opportunity for them or for any artist. It’s a gorgeous place to be making things, with outstanding facilities. It’s also about meeting people and being exposed, not only to different processes but ideas and people from all over the country and all over the world. It’s the culture of being around artists and people working in so many different mediums, conversations over meals, meeting different studios, making things… thinking about making things. It’s a place to get immersed in art-making.”

Oya Oki and her students demonstrate glass-blowing techniques
Following Up

The follow-up to the tour will include four full scholarships for 2023 summer workshops with travel and materials stipends that are specifically for students who have participated in one of the HBCU tours. The students are also encouraged to apply for all categories of Penland scholarships (including 30+ other full scholarships that specifically target people of color).

Each student created a commemorative poster with Ben Blount

Yolanda Sommer, Penland’s manager of diversity recruitment and partnerships, walked the students through the process of applying for scholarships. She has also made herself available to the students for any assistance they might need with their applications. In 2022, five former HBCU participants attended Penland workshops with scholarships.

Penland is building relationships with the schools that have been part of this program, and to foster that process, Penland has also designated two 2023 scholarships (with stipends) for faculty members from HBCUs. These scholarships are funded by a grant from the Maxwell Hanrahan Foundation.

Penland is grateful to the William R. Kenan, Jr. Charitable Trust for their support of the HBCU tour. Yolanda is planning next year’s tour with Bowie State University and Howard University.

Many thanks to the students, faculty, and mentors who visited as well as everyone on campus who gave our visitors a warm welcome, from Penland staff to fall concentration students and instructors. And thank you to our visitors for making the most of your visit to Penland!

Letterpress magic


Thanks to everyone who made this tour possible!

To read more about Penland’s HBCU tour and its origins, click here.