I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to spend a week studying weaving at the Penland School of Craft in Penland, NC in fall 2010. I have wanted to take a class there for many years. My first introduction to Penland was through my friend, Ann, in Art School. We were both in a MFA program in photography that was anything but healthy for the creative process. For me, the art school experience set my creative life into a tail-spin.
Ann took a number of courses at Penland and none of them in her main medium. I was amazed that there was an art school that welcomed people to learn new skills. Ann described Penland to me as "Art Camp for Grown-ups." While all of Ann's stories had me desiring a Penland experience, it took many years and a change in my primary art medium before I was ready to try it.
The class I took couldn't have been more perfect for me. The class was co-taught by Vicki Essig and Suzanne Gernandt, two amazing woman weavers who both work in the greater Asheville, NC area. The focus for the class was on getting our creative juices flowing, getting us to try new things and to be open to our creative process.
Vicki and Suzanne started the class out with an activity where we were given 500 squares that we cut from color magazine. The first step was to separate the squares into 5 roughly equal piles. Step 2 was to go through each pile, quickly, without conscience thought, and sort each into 2 piles: a like pile and a don't like pile. We then set aside all 5 "don't like" piles. Step 3 was to select 20 squares from each "like" pile - once again quickly without conscience thought. Step 4 had us combine the 100 squares from the 5 piles then select just 10 top "likes." The last step was to pick only 1 most favorite. Throughout the process, we didn't know what the next step held nor why we were doing it but in the end, we held 1 (or 2 in my case) square that really appealed visually to us. We were asked to keep that square and refer to it and to think about why it appealed to us the most. Interestingly for me - design and color wise, it was similar to what I had in mind to play with on the loom!!
Of course, with an intensive week of weaving ahead of us, we were soon jumping into picking out warp yarns and getting the looms set up. It was fun to have a "candy store" of yarns to choose from and to be able to use little bits off of cones without having to purchase the whole cone. That alone helped me to think more freely in my design process. Our first warps of the week were sample warps, once again designed to get us to be more creatively open. The plan: 8" wide warp 3-4 yards long; choose whatever yarns you want for the warp - Vicki suggested something neutral might be good, but Suzanne thought anything would be interesting (I chose a neutral warp). Some others were more adventurous with their warps and it was interesting for me to see their results. Some of my classmates had never woven before while others had been weaving for 30+ years but the class dynamic was only enhanced as a result of this variety. The 4 samples we wove on this warp were:
- 5 random materials provided by the instructor (some were really unusual like horse hair and other were just "difficult" colored yarn)
- something scavenged - we were asked to find something anywhere on the Penland Campus to use in a weaving - some of us found natural materials from the landscape and others found cast-off materials from other studios like metals
- warp painting - Suzanne showed us how we can use regular acrylic paints to decorate our warps selectively while they are stretched on the loom
- on-loom embroidery - Vicki showed us how easy it is to embroider directly on the woven web while it is still stretched on the loom - as if it is it's own embroidery hoop!
The next step was to re-sley the same warp and run through the sample techniques again to see how set can affect the project.
For me, this was a great activity to break me of many of the "you must do" that I had already adopted in my weaving. It also forced me to try things that many not look good, but that I might learn how to make work for me. For instance, my first shot at warp painting was hideous because I was so afraid of painting something that would be hideous (self-fulfilling prophecy). On my second sample with warp painting, I was more comfortable with just trying it to see what it would turn out like - and as a result, it was more successful.
The sample warp was followed by a "critique." Critique is a word I came to loath during art school, so, needless to say, I was worried going into this. But it was Penland, an open, supportive, creative environment! We were able to discuss what worked and what didn't work without judgment and in fact, Vicki forbid us from putting ourselves down during the process. It turned out to be a really empowering critique where we got to know one another better as well as be inspired and learn from the amazing things that other people were creating from the same set of directions/parameters.
The next project for the week was open to whatever we wanted to try out. I had wanted to try out cramming and spacing a warp combined with double-weave with an undulating twill and I took this opportunity to do so. It was a scary undertaking to try to figure all the elements out - but Suzanne and Vicki were really supportive, offering technical assistance as I needed it but also willing to let me puzzle things out so that I had the knowledge to return home and replicate the work.
Clearly, I found the experience to be priceless. Since returning home, I have been able to play some more with the ideas I started to develop there. Unfortunately, at home, my weaving time is not as uninterrupted and immersive as it was at Penland, but it is also nice to be able to ruminate over and idea for a while as well.
I must also share a little bit about the rest of the Penland Experience... the setting is incredible with views of the beautiful Blueridge Mountains right out the huge picture windows of the weaving studio. The food is top notch with a really welcoming communal eating environment. The interaction between the students, well-known instructors, artist's-in-residence, and special guests is unlike anything I have ever seen before. The dining hall is filled with large round tables and at meal times, you just pick a table, introduce yourself and are instantly welcomed by whomever you have sat down with. There is no sense of hierarchy, instead there is an acknowledgement that everyone has knowledge to share and that we all learn from one another.
Now, if I can just figure out how to go back their again - this time for 2 weeks...