Over Thanksgiving Break, up in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina outside of Asheville, I had the chance to visit Penland School of Craft. Penland describes itself as a place that “serves people whose lives are focused in making things and those who engage with craft as an enhancement for their lives.” Throughout the year, Penland offers a series of one-week, two-week, and eight-week workshops in books & paper, clay, drawing, glass, iron, metals, photography, printmaking and letterpress, textiles and wood. Stepping foot on Penland’s campus—which is settled on rolling hills which stretch for acres—both Penland’s charm and prestige was immediately evident. Although I’ve visited Penland before, this trip was a little different. As a student and an artist, I was looking to see if Penland is a place where I’d like to study. The answer is yes, absolutely—they’ve got it all!
Coming from Guilford, I was interested in not only Penland’s facilities, but the values they hold, too. Although it was the holidays and there were no workshops in session, I got the sense that the work that is created at Penland is deeply rooted in a sense of place. This not only includes Penland’s geographic location and landscape, but also Penland’s thriving community. First off, during my short walk around campus I quickly learned to wave at whoever passes by. But it goes deeper than that; Penland seems to be a place where one learns from the land and the people who surround you, whether they are teachers or peers. My experiences at Guilford so far also express these ideas, so I was interested to talk to a Guilford art alum, Molly Kite Spadone, who has gone through several programs at Penland.
Molly graduated from Guilford in 2011 with a BFA in ceramics. Before starting her art thesis at Guilford, Molly did an 8-week concentration at Penland. Then, after graduating, Molly spent about two and a half years working at Penland as a student of the Core Fellowship Program—which is an opportunity to take classes, have studio space, and do different jobs within the Penland community and institution. Since then, Molly has moved to Maine where she has built a ceramics studio and woodshop, and started up a business.
I asked Molly to describe her experiences in and outside of the art department at Guilford, how Guilford prepared Molly for Penland, and where her work and studies has taken her so far. Here are some take-aways from our conversation:
- Molly started by saying that Penland was the perfect place to come to after graduating. Like so many of us here, Molly’s Guilford experience was rich with community, growth and hard work. Penland was able to fill these niches that she missed after graduating.
- Molly made the point that coming from Guilford’s rather small art department into Penland’s divers community of artists was intimidating, yet humbling. Molly found herself in a group of artists who knew things Molly never even knew existed. Molly stressed that our resources at Guilford are limited. In a way this works to our advantage because we get really good at what we can do, and we have a group of professors who are more than willing to give us independent attention and instruction. But, it is kind of like being a big fish in a small pond—once you make it to the top of the art department there is not a lot of room to be vulnerable. Coming into Penland, Molly realized that she knew so little about a field she considered her vocation. Once she started to use the people around her as a resource and step out of her comfort zone, her work started to grow and she got more and more curious. She started taking weaving, shoemaking, and sculpture, etc. Molly went into Penland identifying as a potter, and came out viewing herself through a wider scope—she’s an artist.
- Molly said that success in her eyes is a person who is both hardy and vulnerable. This takes time and patience and willingness. To find these traits, one must delve into their craft and learn from it. Learn to take the time to work and listen to the materials at hand—they’re quite informative.
With that, I can’t get a comment Molly made out of my mind. She said that two weeks at Penland is like two semesters at college. It’s an emotional rollercoaster, she said, but the ways in which one can grow is astounding.
So who wants to go? I know I do.