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Category Archives: Exploring the Arts

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.







Pull up a chair, friend

This week I’ll be taking a chair caning class at the Campbell Folk School. I called to cancel the course because I felt uncomfortable pursuing my own interests in light of the stress my husband is going through. I didn’t feel it was fair to expect him to have to arrange his day around school pick-up and plan dinner etc… But when I called, I was told I would lose my deposit, so I decided to make a compromise so it wouldn’t be a total loss. I’ll go, but leave early each day so my participation doesn’t interfere with my husband’s schedule. It’s also my birthday week, so this gives me something to do, which alleviates my family having to plan something to entertain me for the day.


So – the class is on. And that means I need to ready my chairs. Each student is supposed to bring several projects, refinished, repaired and ready to cane.  Because I knew I would be painting layers of gloss on my chairs, I had to get cracking.  I bought my two chairs for 10.00 each at a flea market. I had to cut off all the old dry, racked caning and unscrew the seat top. I then had to spray-painting the base coat with an off white. My husband insisted I do this away from the house and it was nighttime before I was free to work on it, so I trudged down the mountain to spray in the dark. Needless to say, in the morning, I had to laugh at the splotchy chairs, with a bug or two painted on. Ah well, it lends character and the surface of the chairs will all be covered up anyway.


Next, I had to go to storage to get my Penny Romance Papers published in 1873. Our storage unit is like hell – if hell is a two-foot space where you are locked in by everything you ever owned. Like Ebenezer Scrooge who collected chains throughout life, everything we’ve collected in our vast eclectic living is piled in this unit until our home is built. (And frankly, the fact that we are living without all this stuff for a year does make you question if you really need it – but that is fodder for another blog). Our furniture, books, clothes, kitchen wares, Flex paraphernalia, tools, hobbies, toys, bikes and you name it are all stacked twelve feet high in this 30-foot unit. I begin rooting through, but there is only so much I can find within reach, and eventually, I have to admit I’m never going to find these papers. At least, not until summer when we move.


That means I have to come up with another idea for my chair. I stood there among the tangible evidence of my life and began considering just what other theme would be meaningful to me and a good contribution to my writing room.  A chair decoupaged with hundreds of dance pictures? Family pictures? The articles I’ve had published in magazines? Pages from the classics I’m reading for school? Do I really want a Faulkner chair? I had wanted the chairs to be indicative of my love for history and writing, so in the end, I decide to try to stick with that. I went shopping. Back to the antique stores I go in search of more penny romance papers. But they are no longer available. It was a rare find.


So I begin looking for vintage newspapers. I find lots of Civil War period New York Times, but little else. Finally, I stumble on two wonderful papers, Gleason’s Pictorials, published on January 28th, 1854 and Harper’s Weekly Journal of Civilization, November 22, 1862. I also couldn’t resist a two-page newspaper flyer called the Daily Courier, April 3rd, 1853, which are all classified ads. I’m thrilled with these finds, but evidently aware that these papers, at around $50 each, mean I am making a rather expensive chair. But I justify that, because these chairs will be with me a long time, I can afford to spend a bit. I want everything in my first and only private space to have meaning, and frankly, if I bought an antique, I would spend a great deal more.


Now, I must begin adhering the papers to my chairs, which are just standard rung chairs with a slatted back. First, I read the papers, dwelling in the amazing history of the time. I should read more of these things. It really takes you to a different time, place and cultural thought. Makes me want to write.  I read about the death sentence of a woman who murdered her husband, written with such melodrama and sensationalism, it made me laugh. We don’t slant news like that today. The papers include poetry and stories, because people didn’t have TV or radio and reading (for those that could read) was their primary entertainment. But what fascinated me most, was the advertisements.


I glued the front-page title and headlines of the paper to the top rung of my chair so the date showed, and wrapped pages around the legs and body of the chair. Then, I cut out specific ads and placed them in strategic places. I was most interested in all these ads of “Negros for sale”.


I need to explain that my current historical novel (which is on hold until I finish my literary dance book at school – on hold because academia doesn’t focus on commercial fiction, which my historical love stories are) is about a lawyer who is on a quest to free slaves. He works with the Underground Railroad. He’s discovered, and as result, he, my heroine, and two slaves are on the run. They go to Florida and interact with the Seminole Indians (who consisted of many runaway black slaves) and eventually make their way to a boat that takes them to California. The slave characters in my book include a woman 23 years old, and the book takes place in 1853 – the very year of this paper.  Let me point out that this book is all about freedom and equality and I’m told my best characters in the book happen the black characters. In other words, this is not a racist book. The book is about justice really and a sensitivity to the plight of black Americans. The hero and heroine fall in love because they recognize their joint moral convictions.


As you can imagine, I look at these papers, and realize I’m reading ads that could be the real life evidence of my story – one ad is an offer for an award for a young 23 year old black woman runaway (50$ reward – what a sad price on a life, huh?) and other ads are solicitation for selling negros. Because I want this chair in my writing room, and because I am thinking of my book, I cut out these ads and place them in a prominent place on this piece of art people can sit on. This chair is like research now, a part of my book for the room where I will finish writing it.


I am thrilled with the look of the chair, so I begin the many layers of glue and water to seal it. But as the first coat dries, I’m looking with pride at the chair, and I start to think about how others will see it. And it occurs to me, I have a chair that has “Negro’s for sale” plastered on it. Holly crap! Now, I understand why I’ve created this, but will other people? For all I know, others will look at it and think I support the notion of selling Negros, or at the very least, it makes me look insensitive regarding this sad period of history. Now, I’m feeling really, really self-conscious about my beloved chair. I can’t undo my choice without wrecking it. I spend an hour totally uncomfortable and feeling inappropriate, until I break down and cover one of the ads up with an ad for Ladies selling skin products. (Ha- a funny add that says if you want to be beautiful, you must use their cream because it will remove freckles. Guess you can’t be beautiful and have freckles.)


Now, I still have a chair with a few questionable ads, but none are actually front and center. By the time I put 5 layers of glue and water on the chair and three layers of honey colored polyurethane to give it a glossed, sepia look, the print is subtle anyway. But I know my husband is going to kid me about this chair big time.


Now, I stand back and admire my chair again. I love it . . . but . . . . Suddenly I start to question the integrity of my work. Perhaps it is wrong to have cut up these wonderful historical artifacts. Now, you can’t read most of the print. I’m starting to consider the journey of these papers and how they survived. I suppose they were in a file of a publishing office somewhere as originals for years and years. Then, when the paper collapsed, they were sold or given away. Or maybe this particular paper was saved because the person who ran an ad wanted a copy for prosperity. Or it could have just been used to line a trunk filled with a wedding dress or something. And it laid in someone’s attic for years. Then, 75 to a hundred years later, someone realizes old papers are worth something, so they take them out and keep them awhile to show friends or family members. But they never really display the papers, so eventually, they’re sold. And the papers fall into an antique dealer’s hands where they sit in a stack of old papers and magazines for a long time. People come along and view them, marveling at the contents, but really, what can you do with an old newspaper? You can frame the first page, but you can’t very well frame all 8 pages – it would take up a room. So the best you can do is keep it folded up in the protective sleeve.


But I come along and buy it to put it on a chair.


Now, a part of me thinks this is a good end for a paper that survived so long. For one thing, the paper was disintegrating (which made it really hard to brush on glue without destroying it altogether. Who knows how much longer it would have held out? Soon, you wouldn’t be able to remove it to turn the pages to read it anyway. ) Now, it’s been cut and arranged, but still, it’s preserved forever. And another thing, the paper isn’t hidden away for the rare occurrence when someone looks at it – now people will enjoy it all the time. It will be a conversation piece – and something I will cherish and appreciate. So, I justify my act by thinking the ultimate fate of this paper, the reason it was saved all this time, was simply for me. For this specific project. And I start thinking, “Wouldn’t the person who originally read this daily paper be amazed to think that over 150 years later a woman will use it to decorate her home.” Life is remarkable, ya know.  


I collect old books and I have my penny romance newspapers. I’m thinking I might start collecting some of these papers too and I’ll preserve those particular items for all time. This will prove I don’t think historical artifacts are disposable items for my own end.  I need to make a table to go with these chairs – I’m imagining a small bistro set for my room, and I’m thinking I’ll refinish the table in another way. I will look for the kind with a glass top over a hollow center that allows you to put items inside to view. I can start collecting money from the 1850’s and other artifacts and make it a mini museum.


So, my “Negro’s for sale” chairs are on the porch drying with their last coat of polyurethane.(wince) I will meet my instructors tonight at the welcome dinner, and tomorrow I’ll begin learning to cane the seats. I don’t know what to chose for this last portion of the remodeling– there are so many kinds of textiles and patterns employed in the craft of caning. I’ll wait and see what is recommended. I also bought an old child’s rocking chair without a seat at an antique shop for $8.00. I can start with that to practice. I know my kids have outgrown a tiny seat, but I’ll have grandkids someday and it is a great accent piece if nothing else.      


I will put a picture of my finished chair on this blog at the end of the week. You won’t be able to read the fine print, so no cracks from the peanut gallery. But trust me; my husband is having a field day with this one.


A perfect work of art

My husband and I are exploring a renaissance of art. This is not to be confused with exploring Renaissance art. That would involve going to a museum and looking at slightly overweight naked ladies painted in gold and brown tones, angles swooping overhead and all that rot. Not that staring at slightly robust naked ladies is awful, but face it, my husband gets to do that any time I step out of the tub, so it isn’t exactly a temptation to seek out more of the same.


By exploring a “renaissance of art”, I mean that we, personally, are diving into new, unexplored artistic regions. For fun. Stretching our artistic muscles. Our lives have always been somewhat artistic, considering we made a living at dance, costuming, choreography, and running a business with excessive creative thinking our only resource. Then, on the side, we were involved with gardening, writing. . . oh, the list goes on and on.


But now, we are a bit like children who have escaped one room they’ve been locked in for too long. It may have been a room full of great toys, but we’re ready to play with new things now. We have stepped away from dance, and the world is like this huge store filled with artistic wonders that we can pick up off of shelves to try on for size. 


It began with our new career choices. My husband dived into woodturning. He is wonderfully talented at it. And fascinated with the medium of wood, he is creating furniture and all kinds of other wood objects. I became immersed in writing – fiction, poetry, non-fiction. You name it. But those were our choices for our new vocations. Beyond this, we started seeking artistic avenues for fun too. We discovered the Campbell school. Mark took woodcarving and I took pottery. We returned for a course in storytelling. Out side of this, I took classes on jewelry making, wire wrapping and more. Mark took gourd carving. I even bought yarn and began crocheting again, something I haven’t done since I lived in New York (where last I lived and experienced a true cold weather.) Our hands are always nimble, working at creating something new.


This weekend, we took a two-day class on how to make deer antler baskets. Don’t laugh. They’re beautiful, complex and gorgeous. Mark made his perfectly formed. Green. It is striking in its tight weave and defined pattern of colors. I chose to attempt something more rustic, and I weaved more texture into mine, including a hairy, frayed rope and a copper brillo pad. Mine is the one pictured in copper and brown tones. Don’t laugh. My odd selection of materials worked. People in the class asked if I was an artist. Ha. Nope, just willing to explore. But I was pleased that they considered my imperfect basket “artistic”.


We came home with two lovely baskets for our cabin. But what was better, was we learned all about how to drill holes into the antlers (which were all naturally shed antlers, for those of you who wonder why I, a confirmed naturalist, would want to make something out of the parts of an animal.) We learned how to make rib bases, and then, how to weave. I used to make jokes when stressed at my business –I’d insist it was just a matter of time before they would lock me up in a loony bin where I would weave baskets all day. Ha. I had that wrong. I think going crazy begins with weaving baskets , THEN you need to be locked up in a Looney bin, because weaving a basket can drive you crazy. Really. It’s tedious and challenging all at once. It took about 9 hours to make our antler baskets.
We came home, and Mark immediately began another project out of some antlers he bought last year. Not me. I was ready to take a basket break. He plans to make several more as gifts for close friends and wants to get started while he remembers how. I might do the same, after a basket break but it would have to be for someone special – a friend who adores nature and art, – because these antler baskets, while pretty, are tons of work.


My husband and I miss dance. But we have a huge, ever growing list of folk crafts and arts we want to explore and this helps covers the empty spot inside where dance used to be. I’m signed up for a course in chair caning in April.  I figure, if Mark is going to make rustic furniture, I can make myself useful by learning how to make all kinds of interesting cained seats. That way, any furniture he makes for our home will be crafted by us both. (I’m a romantic, and I find the idea that we worked together to fill our home with things that have meaning rather than a price tag, rather endearing . . so shoot me . . I’m an idealistic sap).

I’m supposed to bring chairs to the course to work on, so I bought two old, wooden antique chairs at a garage sale and plan to refinish them in the next few weeks. I am planning to decoupage them so they are totally covered in this newspaper print I have from a romance flyer printed in the 1800’s. I found a penny press version of a romance paper, complete with pictures and great romance headlines and stories etc at an antique shop…. I will cover the chairs in this historical material, then put layers and layers of shellac on it so it looks as if the articles are under glass. I will then cain the seats and have something special for my new writing room. Perhaps I’ll shellac a table to match, and have it as a bistro set. The pieces will be all about romance, history and art. Such furniture suits me more than I can describe.


Let’s see, I want to take glass and fused bead making, and book making. I am determined to try spinning, dying and weaving and a few of those textile classes. Mark is worried that if I like it, I’ll demand a llama. You can make your own yarn from the fur of a llama, ya know. You can do so with sheep too, but a llama is more fun, and I am looking for an excuse to get one.


Anyway, our world is filled with art lately. It is in every corner of our home, a part of our days, and in our thoughts. For entertainment, we go to museums, galleries, art festivals or we take a class for hands on fun. It is all a part of our new art renaissance. Escaping the jail of our previous business and going wild in a productive way, if that makes any sense.


I suppose our art fascination will fade some as the weather warms, for I feel nature calling me now, and it has a louder voice than art. I am ready to hike the Appalachian trail, go kayaking, and tubing, whitewater rafting and camping. I have every intention of sleeping on our land in a tent in May when I believe our new colt will be born. I’m NOT going to miss that! Our blueberry bush is filled with tiny buds, and will spring to life soon, which means the only art I will have time for will be in the kitchen making blueberry splendor of some kind or another. I can cook something everyday and not make a dent in the abundant blueberries available on our land. I should know. Last summer, I tried. The only art we will have time for when the weather offers such choices, will be the avenues we’re pursuing by profession, writing and woodturning. The extras will have to wait.


So, art will rest, and we will turn to new adventures, the kind that are accompanied by bird songs, cool breezes, and a night sky, so black, that the stars appear to glow brighter than possible. Nature is god’s art, and frankly, it surpasses anything man can make. It certainly nourishes the soul as well, if not better. Eventually, when the bears hibernate, we will come inside again to escape the cold, and we will turn once again to artistic adventures as our pastime of choice.


 Just today, as I was coming home from a workout class, I decided to stop by to feed our horses. I actually missed them and I wanted to turn them out in the second field to eat. We have a hay shortage in town and I can’t stand that my honey’s don’t have hay to munch. Anyway, when I turned onto the dusty, graveled drive of our land, two deer were standing in the street. They paused, then lept to the side, paused again, and just stared at me. They were doe . (No antlers to make me feel guilty.) I sat there until they slowly ambled off, watching with a thrill I can’t describe. I can’t wait until our house is done and we move to this beautiful, remote, world of our own. I have hope that these creatures, and others, will greet me on my morning walks. And I bet then, I won’t need to pursue artistic ventures to feel that heart pounding satisfaction of creation.

Then, our very lives will be, what I consider,  a perfect work of art.







Making a Mess Can be Good For the Soul

As someone both artistic and practical by nature, I’m drawn to art with utility. Therefore, I thought a class in pottery would suit me. I wanted to make something with purpose and find out what nature’s most useful mud feels like between my fingers. Also, I confess, I have romantic visions of clay, thanks to the movie “Ghost”.

I guess you could say I had big plans. I wanted to make a cup.

    At $435, for a weeklong pottery class at the famous Campbell School of Folk Arts in North Carolina (plus the cost of materials and lunches) mine would be an expensive cup. To justify the investment, I announced to my husband that I was making the cup for him. This gave me incentive to produce something presentable. I was determined.

    My husband took a class in woodcarving at the school the same week. He was making a hand-hewn bowl and spoon, something that looks like a caveman would use for his Cheerios in the morning. The wood studio was conveniently located right beside the potter’s studio, so he could stop by throughout the day to say hello and lend encouraging advice. When I needed a break, I’d go to his class to watch him chipping away at his log (no advice from me, since I know less about woodcarving than I know about pottery.) While we were not together in these endeavors, it felt as if we were, for each lunch we came together in the big, family style lunchroom to share our experiences of the day. The week felt like one huge, art exploring date.

      When we were not together, I was meeting new people. The other students in my class were all enthusiastic, non-competitive, art-loving beginner potters too, and they spent as much energy “oohing” and “awing” other’s attempts, showing sweet unconditional support, as they did wiggling their nose at their own work. I fit right in, surprisingly at home when playing in the mud with my new friends. 

     You wouldn’t think I’d feel fondly towards an art form that strips a gal of her glamour, but I took to pottery immediately.  Not only are you muddy and wet throughout, but alas, your nails have to go. Ghastly!  It’s not that I’m pampered or spoiled, but losing my nails makes me feel like I have Fred Flintstone’s fingers when typing. I was working on a non-fiction piece for my MFA in the evenings, and let me just say, for once, the typos in my paper were legitimate. My hands were raw and sore from the friction of the mud spinning on the wheel all day long and the absence of my hard protective nails made me so sensitive to touch that each time I hit the keys of my computer, it was like hitting miniature funny bones hidden on the ends of my digits. Nevertheless, the joy of seeing improvement in my pottery each day kept me grinding away at the wheel.

    I’ve discovered I love the feeling of the wet clay under my fingertips. I love experiencing how subtle pressure makes huge adjustments in what I’m creating as I draw the clay from the base up the sides of a cylinder. I like how the pressure of my foot against the pedal controls the speed of the spinning, allowing me to determine how force and gravity will shade my creation. I even love the various implements and tools used to fix imperfections or decorate a piece in artistic ways.

     I now know how to wedge and center clay. I can make cylinders and bowls. I even practiced carving my initials in the bottom of my very own creations and came up with a pretty flourish of my initials to make my mark.

      The goop of clay is sensual. Sometimes, I found myself sitting, just focusing on the glorious sensation under my fingertips rather than remembering to work on my project. I’d feel the sticky mud seep into the tiny cracks and lifelines on my palm, massaging the pads of my fingers with forgiving pressure, the hands-on contact with art both earthy and satisfying. Pottery is natural, clay extracted from the earth, molded by man to make a finished product that is at once useful and striking. I was thrilled to be a part of that wonder.  

       I practiced eight hours a day, then went home exhausted, continuing to feel the wheel spinning under my hands, not unlike the sensation of getting off a treadmill where, even though you know you are standing still, it seems as if everything around you is racing. I felt out of time sync with the exterior world, however, my inner world, my artistic soul, was satiated.

     My teacher, Andrew Stephenson, is a professional potter with a MFA who also served two two-year apprentice terms with world-renowned potters. Another artist who works in the medium of wood and pottery, Matt, assisted him. Both are great teachers, demonstrating and explaining in detail what we have to do to successfully create a piece, then showing us what happens due to the natural errors beginners tend to make.

     First, they’d observed us trying each new skill, then they’d squat beside us, taking our hands and guiding them to adapt the correct pressure, angle and touch required to make something beautiful. On breaks, we viewed slides of their artwork found in galleries, and saw films about famous potters. We learned the history, culture and technique of pottery. All of this made the class much more than a lesson in how to make a cup. The teachers were not only attentive and caring during the class; but they woke in the middle of the night, scurrying through the cold to the pottery studio, to load and unload the kilns, making it possible to fit several firings into the single week. There commitment came across as encouragement, inspiring us all to stay focused.

       Producing pottery is a complicated process. Your creation can go belly up anytime during the many stages required to make a finished product. Once you master the art of forming the piece on the wheel, it still has to survive the trimming stage, the drying process and the first firing. If it doesn’t explode at this time, due to air bubbles or cracks, it has a second chance to go bust in the second firing. Then, having survived this half of the journey, your creation is now subject to luck with glazes and another go in the kiln. The chemicals react differently determined by the level of heat, cooling, and application and the result is always a surprise. A great potter is not just a visual artist, but a chemist, a baker and logician. Pottery is complex, creative, and experimental all at once. And fun.          

     I made seven owls, and two cups. I inspected each piece as it came out of the final firing, marveling at the differences in the glazes, how each one reacted differently dependant upon where the piece was placed in the kiln. It’s like each piece of clay, once molded, has a unique personality, modified and exaggerated by heat.

     I presented my slightly lopsided, thick, caveman style cup to my husband on Friday with no small amount of pride. It’s his favorite cup (or so he claims, as a dutiful husband must.) My pieces are clearly a beginner’s attempt. They aren’t great, but they’re mine, precious tokens of a wonderful experience    

     North Carolina and Georgia is home to the country’s most renowned potters. People come from all over the world to study here. Galleries, festivals and shops feature displays with everything from traditional folk pottery to Terra Sitillata, Porcelain, or Raku. I now have a new understanding of pottery and can pick up a piece in a shop and imagine just how the clay felt under the artist’s hands. I even recognize many of the techniques and different glazing styles used. I’m filled with a new appreciation for the craftsmanship involved, and will never again question the cost of handmade pottery, knowing how much talent, time and effort is required to make beautiful, artful, handmade containers.

    One week is only enough to get a taste of the art of pottery, so I will no doubt take another class someday, perhaps hand building, or glazing techniques. My husband, once a hobbyist potter, tells me that if I get “into” pottery, we can buy a wheel and kiln and build a small pottery shed by his woodworking shop. He’d like that, not only for me, but because he might visit and whip out a carafe or bowl on occasion, too. I guess pottery is an art that seeps into your soul. Even when you move on to a different art, you never forget the compelling feel of that sensuous mud between your fingers. I told him I might take him up on the offer someday, but for now, there are other interests I want to explore. The truth is, I’m not ready to live with Fred Flintstone fingers on a permanent basis.  

    Thanks to my positive experience in the class Mud Made Fun: Getting a Spin on the Potter’s Wheel, I may not become a great potter, but I am a new supporter of the art. I want to go to kiln openings and start collecting a few prime pieces in which to serve my ongoing “experimental” cooking. I’m convinced food will taste better from a container made with care. Beautiful handmade bowls will inspire me to make dishes worthy of the art that holds them and I look forward to setting a table that is also a work of art.

      The class is over, and I have put pottery behind me for now, while I go back to the demands of my everyday life. But, if I close my eyes, I can still feel the smooth, cool clay between my palms. Mud is simple. Magical. And therapeutic.

      Occasionally, I even borrow my husband’s cup, just so I can sip my coffee from something made by my very own hands and remember pottery’s greatest lesson. Making a mess can be good for the soul.     



Once Upon A Time, There was a Story to Tell. . .

    I think of storytelling as an art wedged in between writing and theater. It is embedded with history and based on simplicity. Considering these are all things I adore, I have been fascinated with storytellers ever since moving to the woods of Georgia. I dragged the family to a storytelling festival at the Blue Ridge Arts association a few months ago (which wasn’t very good) and continue to mark off storytelling events at area coffee houses, albeit we have yet to attend. As a writer, I am riveted with the idea of stories being passed on from generation to generation and I have toyed with the idea of learning how to stand up and tell a story orally myself.

    So, when we heard a radio announcement that the Campbell Folk Arts School was giving away two tuitions to an upcoming storytelling class (a weeklong intensive) because they are looking for more storytellers in the area, I was thrilled. I’d just taken a class on pottery, and my husband had taken woodcarving at the school, so we didn’t really have another free week to indulge in a new interest, (I fall behind with my MFA work when I play too much) but the opportunity to get a 450 dollar class -one that I lusted for – on the house, was too delectable to pass up. I called and put myself on the list, unaware that my husband had also called to enroll me as a valentines day present. When I told him I was going, he sheepishly explained that he knew I would love it and he had called to enroll me too. Now, I was enrolled twice. Not a big problem, I just dragged him with me as the other “Ginny” in class. He is a good sport. Storytelling wasn’t his primary interest (cause there is no wood in the craft) but he cleared his schedule and accompanied me just to see what it is all about.

      We had to miss the orientation day because we had friends visiting from Florida that were not leaving until after Monday, so we arrived on Tuesday. Then, we found that there were only four people registered in the class and the other two had decided to leave. One was sick, the other embarrassed when he discovered that storytelling involves standing up in front of an audience. (Duh!)  The teacher was highly qualified with lots of experience as a performer, published recordings and she even has a Masters in storytelling – now who’d ‘a thunk they made one of them darn things – It was an odd circumstance that so few people were registered. Storytelling is usually a popular subject, but several different classes were small or canceled at the Folk School that week – no doubt because of the bad weather and the fact that February is not a big draw in the mountains. Nevertheless, the instructor hoped we’d stay since she been contracted to stay the week, students or not. We were game. So together, my husband, the teacher and I, dove into the art of storytelling.

     We learned the folklore and history of the craft, and waded through many stories. By the end of the first day, we were taking turns telling stories, being critiqued and learning the techniques that make a story interesting. My husband and I were both very good, but that is no surprise considering we have theater experience and feel comfortable with public speaking. We selected a few stories to claim as “ours” and practiced them, perfecting them for a performance on Thursday night for the school participants.

   It is no surprise that the story that suited me best was a “Jack tale”, original folk tales brought to the mountains by Scots in the 1800’s. (Jack and the Beanstalk is one of them). These are tall tales with lots of exaggeration and humor. They suit my sense of humor and personality. (Its no secret I tend to exaggerate for fun)  Mark chose a fairytale, something with a poignant moral, which suits him as well. He is first and always, a teacher.

     The second day, we were told to select another story, and I smiled and asked, “Can I try an original story. I would like to see if I can do this with something I’ve written myself.”  Of course, this is what I had in mind all along when I thought of learning how to tell a story aloud.

    The teacher was pleasantly surprised. Not many people want to do something like that.

     Mark said, “It took you long enough. What are you going to do, the Lobster Story?” Damn man, he knows me better than I know myself sometimes.

    So I began working on the Lobster Story, figuring out how to tell it orally in under ten minutes. It worked beautifully. The story is embedded with moral and emotional messages. I was so thrilled to have this new way to share something that comes from within.

      When we performed, I chose a tall tale and my lobster story. Both went over very well. I was somewhat nervous telling my original story, I guess because it could bomb on two levels. The way I told it could be bad, but the story itself could be bad too. Yikes. But in the end, it was very conducive to this medium of entertainment.

     By the time we were through, we had the confidence and skills to do this anywhere and anytime. We have even thought we might offer our services at a few coffee houses nearby one day – we will be able to put together a fun program between us. We joined the Blue Ridge Storytellers Group, and we are now proud members of the National Storyteller’s Association. I even bought us tickets to the annual Storyteller’s festival in Tenn. in October. It is a big four day event. Seven tents are erected and each day the greatest storytellers in the country perform. They even have midnight ghost tales for those willing to stay up. Gotta love it. We will just go for the weekend – don’t want to burn out the family on stories first time out but I am sure the kids will love it. Fall is a wonderful time for new experiences in the mountains.

     I have begun collecting old folktales. I am thinking I will try to design an independent study of the art of storytelling for next term for my Creative Writing MFA as my interdisciplinary course. I think Storytelling goes hand in hand with writing, and I’d love an excuse to delve into the history of it more.  I can write a paper about the festival, produce my nifty certificate from the seminar, and do some reading. I am guilty of trying to find utility in my every endeavor. This way I can pursue this new interest with conviction. “I HAVE to read this (or go there) cause it is my HOMEWORK.” Yep. That alleviates guilt every time.

      In the meantime, I’ve explored something new and enjoyed all the delight that comes with learning I have undiscovered talents. And if nothing more, I am ready to entertain friends around the bonfire or when camping now. I have a wealth of stores to share, some that have been passed down for generations and some that are uniquely mine. Fun!

    And the best things is, stories are infinite . . . and now, I have one more reason to dig them out of my soul!