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Pierce Freelon: In the Spoken Word Studio

Pierce Frelon

Pierce Freelon, musician, educator, poet, and activist, will perform a specially-commissioned spoken word piece at this year’s annual benefit auction in August. In preparation, he recently spent a few days up on the mountain, exploring the studios, meeting students and staff, and taking in the mission and atmosphere of the place. It seems he did quite a bit of writing as well. Before he left, we sat down to talk about his impressions of Penland.

Tell us about yourself and your work. What brought you here to Penland?
I am a MC, an educator, and I am in a hip hop and jazz band called The Beast. I’m the griot, or the MC, or the rapper, or poet, or spoken word artist; however you want to define it, I’m the voice of that group. We’re based out of Durham, NC. I’m also an educator. I studied African American Studies and Pan African Studies for my master’s degree, and I’ve traveled around the world doing music-related education and community activism projects. I met (Penland’s director) Jean McLaughlin at an education and innovation forum in Raleigh. I was there with The Beast, and we were giving a presentation about education and creative innovation through the arts; it was a spoken word piece with a video montage behind it. Jean asked me if I would write a piece about Penland. So we came up here and played a show, which was awesome, but I only got a glimpse of the school. I got to poke my head into a couple of studios and see just a sliver of what was happening here; I met some of the resident artists, and that was really great. We decided after that visit that I would  come back for an extended stay and do some real research for the piece.

How has the research been going?
Really well. I came with an open mind and a clean canvas, and I’ve been interacting with a lot of beautiful people and a lot of beautiful art, and it’s been inspiring. I’ve exceeded my own expectations for the pieces, in terms of how quickly they’re coming together and the quality of the content. I didn’t realize this was one of the sayings of the school until after I’d said that to Jean and she said, “Oh, did you get that phrase from our mission statement?”

“It is a place where people often exceed their own expectations.”
I hadn’t read that. Certainly, without having been aware of that, I’ve felt it. I guess that’s part of the nature of this place – exceeding expectations, awesome creativity, and collaborative expression.

Have you found a favorite medium or studio?
Glassblowing. Oh my goodness, it’s so amazing, partially because it’s so foreign. You interact with glass on a daily basis; it’s in your windows, it’s in your cups, it’s in your car. I’ve never really gotten behind the scenes before to see what goes into creating these things that we use every day. That’s the case for everything around the school – chairs, books, everything. Everything is made by people’s hands here, which is really interesting, but glassblowing…. As a wordsmith, I find a lot of possibilities in glass, from the furnace to the robes that the artisans wear. It’s just such an interesting thing; it comes from melted sand, and it’s fascinating.

Obviously, you’ve been hard at work on expressing these ideas in your poetry. Do you have any thoughts you’d like to share conversationally about art and education?
I think it’s so important for people to stretch their creative limbs, and to try different things, and to put themselves in uncomfortable places and new contexts. It’s valuable to your quality of life that you engage in these kinds of things, and you can see it here. It doesn’t matter how old you are or where you’re coming from in life. One man, a banker, ended up in one of my poems when he told me that he quit “moving money and owning stocks to mold clay and throw pots.” There are a lot of older people here who are still finding ways to challenge themselves. One lady, who said she’d been coming here for over 40 years, told me she wanted to set up something with the AARP so they could bring more senior citizens to a place like this. When you think about that…. You’re enhancing your quality of life – that’s an important thing for the individual – but you’re also creating something that can be utilized by the community. It’s simultaneously important for the individual spirit, and for a sense of collective responsibility when you create something that can be used by other people or appreciated in an art gallery. I think that is so important for us, connecting as individuals, and for our education. You never want to stop learning. That’s why we’re here on this earth, in my opinion, to learn and to share.

Now that you’ve done some research, how are you feeling about the piece you’re writing for the auction?
The auction is going to be great. I’m really proud of the work I’ve produced, and I’m looking forward to the challenge of sculpting this verse into a powerful piece. The performance at the auction is going to be cool, but beyond that, it’s been a valuable experience for me to share with the people on this campus and to write. It’s like I’m in my own Penland session, enhancing my craft as a wordsmith and an MC.

Like you’re in the spoken word studio?
Exactly, and it’s been great. The auction piece is great, and that’s going to be terrific, but today I’m even more excited about my own personal development and the ability to share with the students on campus now and in the future. I’d love to see some sort of poet or spoken word artist-in-residence here. The possibilities for collaboration are amazing.

Stay tuned! We’ll be posting a preview of Pierce’s auction piece soon.