A Return to the Sensuous:
The Work of the Hand and the Life of the Spirit at Penland School of Craft
By Eva M. Tuschman
When I arrive at Penland for the first time this past summer on a humid August night, it is already dark, so it comes as a surprise to me in the morning, when I pull the curtain across the window, that we are at the foothills of a mountain range. Soft white trails of fog migrate through the ascending tree lines, and I notice that a curving road eclipses a rolling meadow, bisecting the school's knoll from outlying acres. Something about the road seems magically placed, like Dorothy's yellow brick path to Oz. A truck playing rock music comes speeding around the bend and disappears into the forest.
The night before I had wandered the empty campus with a flashlight that emitted only a weak trail of light. I peered into the darkened studios trying to make out the tools that waited silently in the shadows. There was an old Vandercrook press in one, a row of looms in another. I felt a secret thrill rush through me--a sense that anything, anything at all, could happen in these spaces once humans entered the scene.
Little by little, book artists, ceramicists, photographers, jewelers and glass blowers from all over the country begin to descend on the "Great Monastery of the Hand" unpacking their burnishing tools, wooden ribs, lenses, spools of velvet threads. I know no one, and yet, I already feel connected to these people, as we are all caught by the contagious need to work with materials.
I have traveled to Penland all the way from California to take a workshop in encaustic painting, but secretly, I know I am there to reclaim the life of the artist within that for so long has been hungering for my attention. While in college, I spent the majority of my time writing about art-making as a uniquely human behavior, trying to use language to sculpt and propose various theories. But always I struggled against the obscurities that language presented, and rather than achieving clarity, I felt a distinct frustration over lost senses. Whenever I made it back into the studio, I still struggled against the plasticity and limitations of a given media, but resulting ambiguity yielded a gift--a mystery--a sense of searching for what might be certain and what remained vulnerable. Unlike the craft of language, which I believed worked towards expectations of further knowledge, the process of visual creation aimed at deeper levels of "unknowing."
I became obsessed with topographies of illegibilities, enigmatic forms and ambiguous gestures that required me to further excavate imagery below the surface. Each line asked a question that needed to be answered with another mark, and soon enough the tools and the materials were doing most of the talking; I may have initiated the dialogue, but quickly I assumed the role of listener, responding to what was appearing before me.
Sitting after dinner at Penland one night, an instructor and I discuss our earliest memories of being hooked by the creative process. I recall the first time a teacher placed a black kettle in front of me on a platform. It was the most mundane subject for a still-life, but an electric jolt coursed through me, as a previously untapped source of energy was untethered and this ecstatic gestural drawing sprang to the page. Something in that moment ignited for me, a spontaneous confluence of inner and outer worlds.
As I walk through the campus, the studios now vibrating like boxes of a beehive, I see this kind of individual experience fabricate a collective culture: a blind woman in the lower clay studio sculpts her guide dog, an instructor in textiles sensitively separates wool fibers to begin an installation, an older man feels the contours of the maple bowl he is turning on a lathe in the wood shop. I stop to watch a master potter brace his wheel, the walls of wet clay rise up against the pressure of his palms, slippery earth contracting and expanding. I observe a more nuanced intelligence arising in those working, an intelligence that articulates itself not only in distinct thoughts, but in feelings and sensations.
The writer Peter Schjeldahl states that beauty is "a willing loss of mental control, surrendered to organic process that is momentarily under the direction of an exterior object. The object is not thought and felt about, exactly. It seems to use my capacities to think and feel itself." At the potter's wheel, one's mind becomes hyper-alert to the subtleties of touch while the body opens supplely with awareness. One has to submit--sometimes with intense seriousness, and other times with uncontainable giddiness--to the life of the object manifesting in whirling spirals. Our work takes on an unexpected resonance, and indeed begins to breathe on its own. But what interests me most in Schjeldahl's proposition is this willing loss of mental control. Perhaps this is what we are all after: a voluntary desire to dissolve the positional boundary we carry around.
It comes as a tremendous relief to press hand into clay, to once again make contact with the felt world. I find it all too easy these days to escape into the virtual world for hours at a time, and now I remember that deep longing to lose myself in the sensuous intuitive experience of materials. Through making, I relocate myself back into my body, thus returning to the immediacy of my own experience.
I observe the magnitude of this immediacy arising within others, and I wonder if those driving by on the road that bisects the rolling knoll, can feel, even for a fleeting second, "The Penland High" beaming from the campus.
We are now at a point in history when it is somehow deemed unflinchingly normal to live out large portions of our days (and thus our lives) by use of computer and cell phone screens. The past, the present and the future are all compressed through one device, and one needs only one's fingertips to access any of it. Our involvement with craft therefore takes on a new significance as we move farther into the digital age. Just as William Morris and John Ruskin championed the work of the hand in response to the proposed social, aesthetic, even moral, disintegration brought on by the industrial revolution, we again find ourselves at a critical moment in history. As more and more of what we create as a culture can only be seen on a screen through digital pixels, our capacity for other modes of sensing (and I would argue, other modes of thinking and feeling as well) becomes dulled. The role of craftspeople is therefore even more essential in returning us to the world of texture and form, of subtle gradation of light and color, to a world in which time is marked not by instant messaging, but by the slow embering heat coming from the wood kiln burning through the night.
Aesthetic creation restores our awareness by releasing it into the embodied world and it is through this process that we come to sense more deeply, to feel more thoroughly, to think more lucidly, to relate to our environment and those in it with more attentiveness. Paradoxically, it is only once we lose ourselves utterly to the work, that in the end, we emerge finding ourselves more clearly.
Penland offers us the vital grounds in which to lose ourselves in the creative process within the structure and affirmation of community. By undergoing these aesthetic experiments we support one another in what anthropologist Victor Turner called communitas or an intense and temporal spirit of togetherness. Each studio becomes like a laboratory for individual hypothesis, trials, new rituals and solutions to self-proposed questions, only to be delighted in by the group as collective discoveries.
Penland exists as the generative source where temporary communities of makers congregate for varying periods of time and disseminate back into the world. Each of us who makes the pilgrimage to this renowned mountain school comes carrying an inner quest towards some sort of creative work; some of these quests have been fully developed throughout a career while others are just beginning to ripen for expression. But whatever state our creative life is in at the time, we come to Penland to allow these desires to manifest beyond ourselves. I would argue that all drive to make aesthetic work is an endeavor to more fully understand our place in the world--for our inner experience to catalyze intimate and spontaneous resonance with the outer physical plane.
Through the alchemy of communal experience at Penland, we leave this pilgrimage site recharged with inquisitiveness and boundless new ideas for exploration. We journey out the magically placed road back into the larger world with a renewed sense of path, reawakened by others whose devotion to the work of the hand and the life of the spirit reflects our own.