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The Tinker

Ian Henderson, metals coordinatorTinker. “A usually itinerant mender of household utensils,” according to Webster’s.


The word first appeared in Middle English in the 14th century, gaining a negative connotation: the secondary definition of “tinker” is “an unskillful mender.”  As travelers, outliers, and knowledge-bearers, tinkers became  shadow figures—ones to beware. Ian Henderson, Penland’s metals studio coordinator, came across the word in a fantasy novel called The Name of the Wind. In the book, Ian remembers, it’s bad luck not to buy something from the tinker.


Penland’s tinker is skillful. (That’s an understatement.) And he’s not be feared. Unless you fear “preposterously laborious processes.”


Producing art work in step with a marketplace doesn’t shine for Ian. When he’s not working on something with one person in mind, Ian adventures in the Realm of the Absurd and Obsolete, “collecting ideas and techniques” rather than working within a goal of refining them.


Ian’s role at Penland provides space and support. Problems he encounters managing the studio dovetail with his own love of problem-solving. To talk with Ian about what he’s made and why is a bit like watching a stone skip across water– this, then this, then this–each work sets off sentences about the flash of invention, delivered in a joyful, skittery style.


“Everything I start I think it’s going to be My Thing, from the time I started Tom Spleth’s slipcasting concentration as a core student,” Ian jokes when we stop in to look at the things he made this winter. Penland’s tinker is someone who puts his whole boundless inquisitive self into what he creates, from an elaborate tile wall piece to a batch of kefir. Take a look.



A wall arrangement Ian made from his cement tiles, which he designed based on an Arab lattice pattern. The work can now be seen at the Penland Gallery pop-up space on campus.
Ian rubbed the tiles with linseed oil and turpentine. The tiles were meant to span a retaining wall in his brother's house--but the process became a bit too time consuming.
Air bubbles are the enemies of concrete, which Ian quickly discovered as he made the concrete for his tiles. Responding to the problem, he built this motorized vibrating table to shake the bubbles out of concrete in the molds. (Thanks, DIY YouTube videos.)
At the bench, a continuing collaboration between Ian and Audrey Bell--wearable enameled figures inspired by author Hilary Mantel's fiction about Cromwell's rise in 16th century England.
"I thought I was going to build a rail bike this winter," Ian says, showing us one of the folding knives he made for his nieces and nephews, luckiest nieces and nephews in the land.
When Ian learned that he would soon be moving to an A-frame house, he built a model for this pull-down stair, which he will make.
"I came to Penland as a core student when I was 31. I had so much time for being in discovery and problem-solving, which for me is where it's at."


Photographs by Robin Dreyer; writing by Elaine Bleakney


To view more of metalsmith, ceramicist, mixed-media artist, and tinker Ian Henderson’s work, visit Photograph of kefir not included.