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Barry Lopez Was Here

 

Barry Lopez at Penland
While he was at Penland, Barry Lopez worked with letterpress instructor Paul Moxon on a broadside version of his story, “The Trail.” This picture was taken as he was signing the edition.

Barry Lopez, who died in late December, was a writer and thinker of great depth and clarity. He was known for writing about the relationship between the natural world and human culture and for his explorations of intimacy, ethics, and identity. His books include Arctic Dreams, which won a National Book Award, Of Wolves and Men, eight works of fiction, and his final collection of essays titled Horizon.

In the fall of 2011, Barry and his wife, writer/editor Debra Gwartney, spent two weeks at Penland as part of the Andrew Glasgow Writers Residency. He explored a number of studios, engaging with materials and tools, listening, and asking questions.

Barry gave a brilliant presentation—to a pin-drop-quiet, packed hall—about what he described as the “thorny problem” of how artists might choose to respond to social or political concerns. By way of examples, he read a short piece of fiction he wrote at the request of the climate change organization 350.org (available here) and a short essay on the subject of species diversity commissioned by the Kyoto Journal (available here). And he told a remarkable story about his involvement (along with potter Richard Rowland) in a project of reconciliation between the Comanche Nation and Texas Tech University.* It was an inspiring evening that will be long remembered by everyone who was there.

Near the end of the visit, Barry was interviewed by Penland’s communications manager Robin Dreyer about his time at Penland, his love of tools, and his writing process. We published a short excerpt from that conversation at the time. In honor of Barry’s passing, we’re sharing a longer version with you now.

Could you briefly describe what you did here?
I came with just a handful of ideas that I knew I would shape once I began to meet people and see what their interests were, and how I could participate here, how I could become a colleague of craftspeople and artists here. Those people with whom I developed some rapport were welcoming about me coming into their studios, and then at meals, having conversations with people, and having them say, “Well, why don’t you come by and see what we’re doing?” I know a little bit about some of these crafts and was eager to learn more, especially about iron work.

I had a terrific conversation one morning with [iron instructor] Vivian Beer and saw that a lot that was going through her mind was also going through my mind, but my thoughts had to do with writing. And that was a point of orientation for me; I realized that one thing I might be able to offer would be to talk about writing as a craft, and see how that might reverberate with what people were doing so it would be a mutually informing conversation. It seemed that a way I might make myself useful in this environment would be to provide another perspective about making. I know that in conversations people have here about printmaking, or metalsmithing, or woodworking, there are certain things that are shared, and one thing that we all share is we have an internal psychology or psyche and personal history, and we try to bring that to the work that we’re doing.

I think the last thing you want to do as a guest resident is stay locked up somewhere and have nothing at all to do with other people. If you’re going to come to Penland, part of the experience is geographical, part of the experience is aesthetic, and a third part of the experience is conversation with fellow makers.

Barry Lopez and Seth Gould
Talking tools with blacksmith Seth Gould, who was a core fellow at the time.

In your book About This Life, you make a reference to the culture of hand tools. Could you talk a little bit about what you meant by that, and why you think it’s of value?
Human beings, of course, have a very long involvement historically with tools and implements, and part of our sense of self-worth and sense of dignity as people comes from the skill with which we make and use tools. We make tools that are beautiful, we make tools that are useful, and often we make a useful tool that’s beautiful. That is a kind of calling to me, and certain tools suggest an intimacy with material that is the antithesis of an electronic involvement with material.

Part of what Penland seems to be about is people trying to stay in touch. By that I mean, through their tools, to stay in touch with the raw materials of the earth, with plants from which ink comes, with iron, with metals of other sorts, with stones, with the lead that’s in pencils, with all of these things that come up out of the earth and are used to keep going the idea that it is a good thing and probably fundamentally necessary for civilization to stay in intimate touch with the earth. That, for me, is a lot of what’s going on in craft.

When you see somebody in conversation with a piece of wood, in a conversation with metal or paper, the conversation is antiphonal. I think there is a way to imagine imposing your will on the material, but there is another way, and that is to have a conversation with the material. To, if you’ll permit the figure of speech, be asking the material what it wants; you know what you want. The part that’s very attractive to me about the crafts is the negotiation around a proposal, rather than a negotiation around an imposition. The difference would be instead of hammering on something to force it to be what you want, to work with something to find out what is within it.

What’s happening at Penland is people are maintaining a long history of using tools to stay in touch: with each other through the sharing of art, and with the materials that are used to make art and crafted things. I would say that Penland is a place that’s feeding the fire. There’s everything to feel good about at Penland because in addition to making all this beautiful work, it maintains a tradition of honest and good relationships with the earth.

Could you talk a little bit about your process as a writer?
It’s all intuitive. I don’t have a rigid schedule that I follow. The process is different in fiction than it is in nonfiction. When I’m trying to frame a piece of nonfiction, I’m always using my notebooks and, looking back, I seem to spend a certain amount of time collecting material—maybe years—and then there will be an intense period of reviewing all those notes, followed by a period of nonstop writing. In fiction, I’ll have a line in my head, maybe the first line of a story, and it’ll be there for an hour, or 25 years, and then I’ll pull on it, and I’ll start going, but I don’t have a process of preparation for writing fiction.

The keynote of the process for me is paying attention. I often say that the first rule of everything is to pay attention— the first rule of your marriage, the first rule of your work, the first rule of your spiritual practice is to pay attention.

Do you have a sense of what you might take away from being here?
Camaraderie. And another renewal of my commitment to a task that I see as fundamental to the preservation of a civilization. I think what goes on here, if we didn’t have this, the loss would be incalculable. I’m glad to have been a visitor, somebody just passing through, glad to be here.

*An account of the efforts at reconciliation between the Comanche Nation and Texas Tech University, written by Henry Chappell, can be found here.

New York Times obituary for Barry Lopez.

A recent interview in The Believer.

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Photo of the Week: Snowmelt + Shadow

snow melting in a pattern

Penland’s teaching artist, Meg Peterson, walks into her studio at the Ridgeway Building on a walkway flanked by a steel railing made by artist Paige Davis. The the top part of the railing includes a series of hand silhouettes. A couple of days ago, on a sunny morning after a light  snow, she arrived  just in time to see this remarkable combination of the shadow of the railing and the selective melting of the snow.

 

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A Quiet Hum of Activity

Although, like everyone else, we’re in a strange, in-between state at Penland right now, there is activity in our wonderful studios. Thanks to our productive core fellows and a limited program of studio rentals, things are still happening.

Here are a few of the people who have been animating our spaces the past few weeks.

Jennifer Schmidt in the letterpress studio

Jenn Schmidt filled the letterpress studio with hundreds of multi-colored prints for an upcoming project. Jenn is a multi-disciplinary artist who lives in Brooklyn and is the chair of print, paper, and graphic arts at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University (Boston).

 

Erica Stanwytch Bailey in the Penland metals studio.

This is Erica Stanwytch Bailey, a jeweler from Asheville, working in the upper metals studio. Right now on her Instagram page, you can see a video of Erica talking shop with jeweler Anna Johnson, who will be teaching at Penland in May.

 

 

Tasha McKelvey in the Penland clay studio

Tasha McKelvey is a ceramic artist from Richmond, Virginia. She was in the upper clay studio making some production work: brightly colored, tiny houses.

 

maria fernanda nunez in the Penland iron studio

Core fellow Maria Fernanda Nuñez, a.k.a. Mo, makes evocative artwork in a number of different media. On this day, she was, very practically, making wedges for splitting wood.

 

Leslie Smith and Jean McLaughlin in the Penland print studio

Here in the print studio, safely distanced from each other, are Leslie Smith and Jean McLaughlin. Leslie is the director of graphics and textiles at the Sawtooth School for Visual Art in Winston-Salem, NC. Jean was Penland’s director for 20 years. Lately she’s been spending a lot of time with ink and paper.

 

Chalkboard in the Penland wood studio.

And finally, here is some guidance for wood studio renters from our studio coordinator, Aspen Golann. Remember, you should only use the big belt sander between 7 and 11 with a buddy in the building, but you can make models and dream all night long!

The studio rental program, which is limited to people who have worked in our studios in some capacity in the past, has been extended to April 24. Complete information is here.

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Photo of the Week: From a Slab to a Head

Tomorrow, we’re marking a milestone in our new online programming initiative—our first live event! Renowned ceramic sculptor and instructor Cristina Córdova will hold a live Q&A session over Zoom for participants in her online demo, A Simplified Way to Make a Hollow Head. Cristina’s demo is a remarkable distillation of years of her own learning and discovery in the studio, and we’re thrilled to offer participants a direct window into her practice.

Here’s a quick look at Cristina’s transformative abilities with clay in three images. Each of these shots is a frame taken directly from Cristina’s hour-long demo.

3 minutes in—forming a flat slab into a hollow cylinder for the beginnings of the head

Cristina forming a clay slab into the beginnings of a head

 

20 minutes in—using proportions as guides to establish the facial features

Cristina refining the features of her sculpted head

 

55 minutes in—experimenting with gesture before attaching the head to the neck

Cristina playing with gesture with her nearly completed head and neck

 

Intrigued? Register to take part in the demo! But hurry, you’ll need to sign up before 1 PM tomorrow, January 23 to join the Q&A.

For more about Cristina’s process and the way teaching and making blend in her practice, watch this short video visit with her!

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Penland Everywhere: Online Programming Coming this Winter

We’ve been holding this one in for a long time, and we’re thrilled to finally be able to announce: Penland is going online!

We are planning a series of online programming for you, including online demonstrations with Q&A sessions and immersive online workshops. Our goal is to give students who have never been to Penland an opportunity to experience our unique approach to teaching and learning in community and to give past students a chance to reconnect with the familiar rhythms and spaces of time at Penland. You’ll be able to enjoy the same studios, same expert instruction, and same generous and engaged peers—now in a new format that makes the Penland experience more accessible than ever!

We are not developing these online programs as stand-ins for our on-campus workshops. Rather, they are a way to seize this moment and bring the skill, creativity, inspiration, energy, and focus of a Penland session right to you. Wherever you are in the world, and wherever you are in your artistic journey, we hope you’ll join us to go a little deeper with Penland Everywhere.

Our first demonstrations and workshops will be available in January. Subscribe to Penland newsletters and follow us on Instagram and Facebook to get the details as we release them.

 

This project is funded in part by a grant from South Arts with support from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

 

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Dorothy Gill Barnes: Material Poet

 

Dorothy Gill Barnes working with bark
Photos by Tim Johnson

Penland was saddened by loss of fiber artist, wood sculptor, and teacher Dorothy Gill Barnes, who died on December 2 at age 93 after a short battle with COVID-19. As an artist, Dorothy’s consistent points of reference were the methods and materials of basketry. Working with natural materials that she harvested herself, she created beautiful, soulful, innovative forms and textures. She was also a beloved and generous teacher of workshops, include many at Penland. She continued to teach well into her 80s and amazed her students with her energy, enthusiasm, and ideas. She wanted students to be intimate with their materials, and her workshops were built around harvesting trips—always being mindful of what could be taken without damaging the local ecology.

work by dorothy gill barnes

Dorothy was a fellow of the American Craft Council and a recipient of a lifetime achievement award from the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Her work is in the collections of the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City, the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in DC, and the Racine Art Museum in Wisconsin.

In 2013, she was honored as Penland’s Outstanding Artist Educator. In that year’s auction catalog, writer and artist Eva Tuschman, who was in Dorothy’s 2010 Penland workshop, wrote this: “Just as a bird gathers fibers to build its nest, or bees instinctually know the patterns to construct their hives, Dorothy’s relationship to natural materials, from harvesting bark to weaving it into sculptural baskets, seems entirely intuitive. Dorothy was born to be a maker. Her life’s work embodies an expression of reverence for the natural world—its forms and textures, an ongoing dialogue with its lines and structures. One could say Dorothy is the Mary Oliver of the craft world: a poet whose words take the form of bark curling off a limb, or the gentle shaping of tree skin around a stone. Each piece is a poem, an object that invites us to pause and settle our attention, with delight and gratitude for what her hands have touched.”

You can read Dorothy’s obituary here. The American Craft Council has a beautiful page about her with more pictures of her work. And there is an extensive oral history interview on the website of the Archives of American Art.

UPDATE 12/18: The New York Times just posted an article about Dorothy as part of their series on people we’ve lost to COVID-19.

work by Dorothy Gill Barnes
Dorothy Gill Barnes, Found Underground, mulberry root, 15 x 24 x 14 inches; collection of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

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Staff Lunch: Kitchen Research

Penland kitchen staff preparing to-go lunches

This is Penland kitchen mavens Chad Mohr and Day Dotson filling to-go boxes with tasty lunches of burgers, fries, coleslaw, and fixings (vegetarian option available!). For several months, the kitchen staff has been making take-out lunch or supper available to the rest of the staff once or twice a week.

This is been a welcome development for everyone getting the meals, but what’s really going on is that the folks in the kitchen are working out methods for putting together a lot of take-out meals efficiently, which is what they will have to do when we welcome students back to campus. It’s going to be all take-out, all the time for a while.

This is just one of the ways our staff has been planning and preparing to bring back our workshop program–safely!