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Pull up a chair by me.




    
Pictures don’t do justice to the projects featured above (if I say so myself). You can’t read the fine print to appreciate the details of the newspaper chair, or even see the glossy, yellowed finish that makes them look aged and like pop art at the same time. I tried to get a picture the best I could, but the finsh creates a glare and  I guess it’s something you need to view up close in person to truly appreciate. The little rocker and my footstool look good in person too. Ah well.
 
My chair caning class was a great choice, as discovering a new interest goes. I learned all about the art of repairing antique chairs, discovering techniques used to create beautiful caned seats for handmade furniture and learned a bit of the history behind chair caning. Most people in the class brought in chairs that required lace caning, the delicate woven cane you see in Victorian rockers or dining room chairs. I was more interested in rustic furniture seats, so I stuck with rush, sea grass and larger caning patterns. However, I wanted to learn it all, so I was forever sticking my nose in everyone else’s project, especially the lace caning, watching their hands work, trying to learn how to tie off ends, peg cane, and figure out the seven steps they had to follow to create a pattern. It took the lace caner’s all week to complete one chair seat – the work is delicate, monotonous, and time consuming. I was able to get a more immediate sense of gratification, as I completed two rush seats for my historical newspaper chairs, a herringbone patterned 5/8 cane seat for my antique children’s rocker, and a sea grass footstool. And I was finished with my projects by Thursday lunch so I went home early and took Friday off, due to some family responsibilities. Sometimes you just aren’t comfortable taking time for yourself when others are shouldering work.


     Chair caning is really just another version of basketry. I look at chairs in antique shops now, and can recognize what techniques are demonstrated, whether or not the artisanship is good, and in cases when a chair is worn or broken, I know what must be done to repair it. Most importantly, when my husband begins making his rustic log furniture with logs and/or laurel, I can now make becoming seats to complete them. I am looking forward to working together to make some interesting places to sit for our new home.


     But what I loved most about taking this class was spending the week with such wonderful people. It was a small class but every student was interesting, warm and friendly. Lovely. I worked next to a woman named Nancy from a small community in Kansas, and she had great stories to tell about her life. Her husband was in the Cherokee storytelling class – he is a librarian – and we talked about storytelling and how it relates to reading. Mary sat behind me. She brought in a huge Victorian rocker that needed detailed lacework and she was having a hard time getting such a large project done, primarily because she is recovering from chemotherapy. Her husband was in the Windsor chair class, a 7-day course where participants make the detailed chair from scratch. Ralph was from Florida, also working on lace caning. He is an avid bird watcher and he entertained us with amazing birdcalls throughout the day. He often came late, because he was hanging out with the teacher of the Nature Studies class, talking birds.


       But the person I enjoyed the most was Cliff. Cliff is a professional caner. He was the teacher of this class for years and years, but he retired this fall, turning the class over to two of his former students, Don and Gwen. Cliff returned as their “assistant” simply because he loves the Campbell school. He worked on chairs he was commissioned to do by customers, but spent as much time teaching and helping us with our projects as our teachers did.   


    Cliff is 83, but as sharp as anyone I know. He was an endless source of jokes and history, unfailingly amusing with a down to earth perspective. He has energy, enthusiasm, and intelligence. Unlike many older people, he also is very aware of the trends in our new society. For example, when someone brought up American Idol, he talked about the contestants and the judges like any well informed fan. When we talked about the internet, he shared funny stories about his discovery of Google. He said he gets a kick out of searching for his name, because he can find information on every craft show he’s ever done, class he taught, how many dogs he has, and what he had for dinner last night. He makes lots of age jokes. Someone would ask how old his son is, and he’d say, “Oh, about 105. I had him later in life.” Or if they asked when he last did a daisy pattern lace cane, he’d say, “Oh that was a long time ago. I was only 123 then.”  Then he’d grin sheepishly and laugh. (I only found out how old he really is by asking my teacher Don, one of his dearest friends.)


       Cliff was in the navy, worked in the corporate world in early years, has been involved in theater, is an antique aficionado, a respected craftsmen, has traveled all over and . . . well, this man has had an interesting and creative life. The kind you can’t help but admire. And even at 83, he lives fully, vivaciously. He’s a model of living to your highest potential, savoring life, and making great connections with others.


      Cliff adored my newspaper chairs, liked that I created something original and novel. He was encouraging and engaging to talk with. I simply loved his company.


     I think staying young is a matter of being interested in the world, communicating with others, and living an authentic life. Cliff has mastered all of these things better than anyone of his age. I admired him (and his companion, a woman who is an established lace caner as well) so much.


       I thought I might not enjoy this week as much as the others I’ve spent at the Campbell school, because this was the first time I’ve gone alone. In the past, I’ve taken classes with my husband, and even this session, I was signed up with my sister in law (but the health issues with her father made it impossible for her to attend.) But there is something calming and lovely about the grounds, the flowering paths, the historical center and craft shop, the spacious studios peppered around the many acres – it is like a walking meditation zone– the very atmosphere of this wholesome, natural environment is so welcoming I couldn’t help but feel comfortable.


    Each day, students gather in a large dining hall for lunch. Wonderful gourmet dishes are served family style. I sat at a different table each afternoon to meet and talk with new faces. The first day, I sat with a table of all blacksmiths. Boy, can those guys eat. (Good choice, I was trying to diet.) I heard all about their hammering and working with metal – they are a rowdy lot.


   The next day, I sat with members of the Banjo class. I told them I was once married to a banjo player. They wouldn’t pass the rolls to me (also OK since I was on a diet) because they said they could never trust a girl who divorced a banjo player. I explained that it wasn’t the music I had issues with – but perhaps the music that wasn’t being made between us. They did pass the rolls eventually. I knew enough about banjo’s to be able to carry on a conversation –a surprise to me.


   The next day, I sat next to the teacher of the Cherokee Storytelling Class. He was fascinating. We talked about his Indian culture, my historical books, and storytelling in general. He got me all excited about the national storytelling festival. Gotta go. Fun.


   I also sat the teacher from the spinning and Dying class, but damn if I didn’t have the llama yet, so I didn’t take advantage of it to pick her brain. Next time.


     There were others, from all kinds of classes – the glass fusing class, faux finishing, nature studies, and best of all, the outdoor cooking over an open fire class (gotta take that one someday). I love the conversations at lunch. We talk about our classes and this leads to talk about other interests and experiences. Inevitably, we talk about how we discovered the Campbell school. Most students have been coming for years and years – taking at least one week out of their lives to really relax in this old world environment. As such, it seems everyone is fascinating – the kind of people who have avid interests, pursue alternate experiences from mainstream culture, and who have a generous graciousness regarding art, history, and nature.


     Many of the people are older, 50’s and 60’s, retired yet learning to be craftsmen to supplement their income and reinvent their lives to something creative– or they are celebrating leisure for the first time in years, using it to pursue latent interests. But some students are younger and many families come together (sorry, no children). I’ve sat with generations of women from a single family who come for a “girl’s week”. The grandmother is in a quilting class, the daughter in silk screening, and the young adult granddaughter in jewelry making.


    I’m always amazed so many couples come year after year, the husband taking one class, the wife in another – it is a part of their journey as a couple growing together. I hear them describe the ten years they have been coming, jealous. How it is Mark and I never got around to visiting? We knew about this school. – But then, our lives were consumed with a different art and we never took time for anything else. Sad, that.


      I will be returning in May with my daughter for a weekend silver jewelry class. We will learn to melt silver to make charms and chains. (Talk about a hefty materials fee…. eesh ) But it’s her birthday present. I will look forward to learning something new, but mostly, I look forward to sharing this wonderful place with my daughter. This kind of memory beats another trip to Disney world or a tangible present any day. For us both.


     My week is over but I now have chairs for my writing room which not only emote two things I love, history and art, with their unusual design – but they are also proof that dance isn’t the only thing I can do well – and to top it off, they remind me of a place I love too.


     Amazing how much joy can be associated to a simple chair. if you go about it right.


        


 


 


  


 


     

About Ginny East Shaddock

Director of Heartwood Retreat Center, Ginny is also a writer. This is her personal blog with essay form writing about life and reflection. My entries are often lengthy and random, because I'm not here to promote or sell anything. I'm not expecting followers - just find this format a good place to think with the pen.

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