PENLAND, N.C. -- You know you're getting close to the Penland School of Crafts in western North Carolina when you start passing studio after studio along the way: Barking Spider Pottery, Jane Peiser Studio, Cynthia Bringle's Gallery. And those are just within a mile of the forested, 400-acre campus. Expand your reach through Mitchell and Yancey counties and you'll find close to 100 artists' and artisans' work spaces, many of which open their doors to the public.
Along narrow, twisting Conley Ridge Road is the mother ship, Penland School, one of the country's preeminent crafts schools, as inspirational to visitors as to students. Art is everywhere you turn: in studios, classrooms, outdoors, as well as at the Penland Gallery down the road.
Then there's the setting. About an hour northeast of Asheville, the views of Blue Ridge Mountain valleys and peaks are phenomenal, particularly from the school's coffeehouse, which is open to the public and has seating indoors and out.
This year, Penland is celebrating 75 years of teaching arts and crafts. The school's 10 disciplines are clay, textiles, glass, metals, paper, photography, drawing, iron, print making, and wood. Like Haystack Mountain School of Crafts on Deer Isle, Maine, Penland offers beginning and advanced classes and workshops of one to several weeks or months, along with artist residencies and work-study programs for "core students." These are full-time students who live and work at the school for two years. About 1,200 students a year from around the country take courses at Penland, and about 14,000 visitors tour the gallery and campus.
Whether because of Southern hospitality or the school's desire to educate the public, Penland is refreshingly welcoming to visitors. Although the teaching studios are not open, people are free to wander about the many buildings and peer politely through doorways. Along the way are outdoor sculptures and beautifully carved, chiseled, and forged benches. The gallery conducts campus tours Tuesdays and Thursdays from mid-April through early December.
At the gallery, which also serves as a visitor information center, you can pick up studio maps and other information about Penland and artists in the Penland area. A timeline on the wall shows that in 1920, Lucy Morgan began teaching at the Appalachian Industrial School, an Episcopal mission school established by her brother, and soon expanded its vocational program to include handicrafts, particularly weaving. Few women in the community still wove, and Morgan believed reviving the craft might not only restore tradition but provide some economic support. The Penland School began in 1929 at the same site, when nine guest students were invited to join local weavers for a class taught by expert weaver Edward Worst. His name graces Penland School's first building, the Edward F. Worst Craft House, built in 1935. The imposing structure is one of the largest log buildings in the Southeast. It houses the cafe, a smaller student gallery, and student housing.
The best place to start a visit is on the campus. The most famous work of art here is the mosaic-covered wall behind the main office. About 20 yards long, it was designed and created by students over the course of several years. Every inch is covered with colorful creatures. Faces, limbs, flowers, and other figures bulge from the concrete. You can spend easily half an hour studying this masterpiece. From here, peek into the studios for textiles, metals, and clay.
Up the hill are the wood, glass, and iron studios. At the latter, make sure to see the large iron gate that is as imaginatively decorated as the mosaic wall. You will want to walk by The Pines, a large wooden building with many windows where students eat and no doubt drink up inspiration from the surrounding trees and mountains. Back at the Craft House, shop at the supply store, if you like, or take a break at the cafe, a great place to get a feel for student life while soaking up the scenery.
About half a mile in one direction is The Barns, the resident-artist studios, which are open to the public. One Saturday in July, several artists, including a blacksmith and a papermaker, were at work and happy to stop and chat. The papermaker was Ann Marie Kennedy, who grew up in Wakefield and was about to leave Penland -- reluctantly -- as her three-year residency was ending. It was fascinating to see her work in progress and her framed finished pieces.
Half a mile in the other direction is Penland Gallery. A hand-forged stair railing leads to the porch landing at the main entrance, where rocking chairs invite visitors to rest before browsing and shopping. The gallery displays and sells work by people associated with Penland either now or in the past: instructors, resident artists, students, and neighboring artists. A special exhibit room has rotating shows. From Nov. 2 to Dec. 19, the work of two-year core students will be on display. There's also a small reading room with dozens of craft books for reading or buying, including "The Nature of Craft and the Penland Experience," a book that accompanies the exhibit of the same name through Jan. 30 at the Mint Museum of Craft + Design in Charlotte.
The exhibit show is outstanding, but can't compare to the majesty of being in Penland, among the works of artists and the art of nature.
Diane Daniel can be reached at email@example.com.