To be asked to teach at the Penland School of Craft is quite an honor. The school, nested in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina is away from everything. To suggest it is rustic, is a stretch. The studios are all set up with excellent equipment and the teachers I met there all confirmed that feeling.
My co-instructor and brother, Bill was a great addition for me but even more so, for the students. The letterpress studio is very well equipped and the 4 Vandercook presses were perfect for our group. While we did not insist on the students having prior experience, most of them had printed before and were looking to build their skills and ready for whatever we threw at them. They were excellent and we got to learn from them as well.
The topic I picked for the class was called “On the groove” and involved the students creating record album designs, right down to making the sleeve. To aid them, I bought along 25 vintage half-tone blocks from the Enquirer Collection. These photo plates were images of musicians and singers, mostly R&B or early blues people from roughly 1950 to 1965. Think Etta James, little Willie Littlefield or Clyde McPhatter before the Platters. The students learned to print the tricky halftones and incorporate them with type and design. They had the option of researching the specific musician or inventing new histories for them. They chose both.
A typical day began with lessons in inking, brayer technique, typography considerations and color experiments. When you sign up for a two-week class at Penland, that is your only class. Nine o’ clock was starting time and while we broke for supper at 5:30, the students came back every single night to work until somewhere between 10 and midnight. Even on the weekend, we would find them working when there was no requirement to be in the studio. Generally ,we would stay for an hour or so and return during the evening to help them along. The studios are never locked at Penland and the students can put in 15 hour days if they want.
Our first lesson was using color backgrounds with different textures. The most popular was printing with furniture, the framing blocks for locking up a form. Just these images alone became an installation outside the studio that Mia Hall, Penland’s Director, asked us to leave in place after we left.
During staff meetings (one per week), I asked the other instructors if they would like to collaborate in any way. The Book Arts people lent equipment and book board. The Clay Studio had students come in with unfired pieces to use our type to imprint their names. Paper Making donated paper for pressure prints, and photography students used type cases as backgrounds. Down the hall from us, John Hitchcock’s Print-making students silk screened images for our students to print over. We traded posters for newly blown glasses from the studio up the hill.
I don’t know if I have ever been in a more welcoming atmosphere. We were surrounded by 160 people who were loving being deep into their art. We were encouraged to begin intros about ourselves and the talks we gave in the evenings, by identifying our names and then pronouns. That Penland embraces all types is an understatement. They have had this philosophy for a long time and the group was extremely diverse in all ways. It was a wonderful feeling and it rubs off on everyone. By the end of our session, I had met and spent time with all 14 instructors and their assistants and many, many students. There is never a way to tell who is an instructor, a student or a staff member and that is as it should be. Titles are quite unimportant and it lends itself to a camaraderie unfettered by status.
I feel the work the students did was very good and the ability and time to explore was a big part of it. The Programming Director made a suggestion as to what I should consider teaching next time and I’ll be happy to take her up on that. It was really an enriching experience.