Anything But Basic: A Penland Summer Session Retrospective
How it Started:
If you are with us in our studio insider group, or following along on social media, you likely know that I spent 2 weeks at Penland recently. At least once a year, I make a pilgrimage to either hone or learn a skill in the Metals Studio. This year, I had a computer malfunction at the witching hour — Penland classes fill up, and when they announced their summer workshop schedule, I knew the class I wanted to take would sell out FAST. I logged in the night before registration to make sure my login credentials were up to date, and my credit card was correct. I was ready.
The next morning, registration opened…and the website would not let me check out. “Frustrated” would be an understatement. I was devastated.
I have taken 15 classes at Penland, I credit my creative freedom and reinvigoration as an artist to the school and I love it so much that I donate 10% of my annual profits to their scholarship fund. I could not believe I was going to miss this class, that my diligent preparation had failed…the class sold out in minutes.
The Hero Meets a Guide...
My sweet husband who deserves an award for heroic behavior on a normal day probably should win the Nobel Peace Prize for this day. We called the school immediately, explained what was happening, got on the waitlist, and did a lot of wishing and praying and hoping. He talked me off the proverbial ledge and helped me make rational forward progress.
I did eventually get into the class — which you knew, right? Because otherwise I would not be writing this blog? But it was a wild roller coaster and when I eventually got in, I was so elated. I felt such relief to not miss this once in a lifetime opportunity.
But Liz, you’re thinking, you’ve taken so many classes at Penland, what made this one “once in a lifetime”…and that is an excellent question. This class was called “Building on the Basics”, the teachers were Matthieu Cheminée and Tim McCreight. It is unlikely that anyone reading this recognizes those names, but they are both huge names in metalsmithing and at least 1/3rd of my most cherished and referenced metalsmithing books have either been written or published or both by one of them. Between them, they have been on the cutting edge of their craft for 80 years. I almost couldn’t believe it when I saw their names on the summer schedule.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but I’ve really spent a lot of time at Penland. I’ve never taken a class with instructors who gave as much to their students as these two men gave us. Any time a student asked about a technique or process, they would do a new demo on the spot, no holds barred. They did more demos than I could even count. Nothing was off limits. They gave and gave and gave and gave, and when they weren’t giving, they were helping us and critiquing us. I’m still unpacking everything I learned - usually at the end of class I have a TON of new work and styles, sometimes with multiple iterations already complete. I have relatively few this time, with a laundry list of things I’m itching to create from the techniques I learned.
Do You Make Your Own...?
One of my favorite moments from the class was actually before class even started. I was standing in a coffee shop line with Matthew and he said to me, “I like your jewelry… do you make your own wire and sheet?” I looked at him with a very confused look on my face, and responded, “No…why would I do that?” His response was a trailing “Oh…”, as if it was patently unusual that I didn't do that. I soon learned why he asked me that - back to basics meant melting your own metal, pouring it into ingots, forming it (i.e. hammering the shit out of it) and then making whatever you want to make. There were no shortcuts.
Texture, Texture, Texture
Another main topic of the class was stamping. Matthew wrote a book, The Art of Stamping, that teaches you how to make stamps out of anything that is “tool steel”, meaning it has the right amount of steel, the right amount of carbon in it in order to hold up to the force that you're hammering into it to stamp another metal. I found it challenging to make stamps, they have to be very crisp. Its an arduous process that involves first getting the stamp correct in plasticine, moving on to a test metal like copper, and finally trying it on the metal you want to create with, making it sharper and sharper each time. This was something I was skeptical of because LHMS is a decidedly minimalist aesthetic, and while I do love to learn new techniques even if they aren't necessarily commercially viable, I had trouble visualizing how I would implement something like PATTERN into my jewelry. To my surprise, I loved the texture and found it easy to translate it into my aesthetic once I got into my work flow. I was flooded with ideas, and came out of the class very eager to be making more and more stamps and to be adding texture into my work. I am over the moon excited about it.
And the Award Goes To...
I made this cuff for my husband (we will call it the Hanson Peace Prize), and I am very proud of how it came out. I love handsome jewelry for men, and it has me aching to expand our mens offering (stay tuned!)
New Chain, Who Dis?
Another topic that really caught my attention was weaving wire. I do chain all day long - its the keystone of this brand and my longest jewelry love affair. I have always been very, very much enamored with the idea of woven metal, which I tried to put into the line a few years ago with the foxtail chain. Styles like the foxtail chain and other woven or braided chain tend to be extremely labor intensive, which translates into a high retail cost. It doesn’t always work — the foxtail chain is a perfect example of something that kind of flopped, even though it was one of my favorite things I’ve ever made. Labor and artistry are not things that always translate into consumer value, even if it represents immense value and skill to me as an artist. Matthew is now working on his fourth book and it's all about chain which I'm just so excited about, I can't stand it! I created earrings and two bracelets with one of his weaving techniques and I’m still in the process of perfecting it, but right now I’m thinking it will actually make it into the line.
There was enough juice in this two week class to write 10 blogs - this is really just skimming the surface, but if you’ve made it to this paragraph, then I know you’ll be just as excited as I am for this fall collection we are launching. These new pieces conceived at Penland, as well as many others you haven’t seen will be front and center and I really cannot wait to show you. Creativity and business can sometimes seem antithetical to one another, and I am no stranger to feeling like I can't bridge the gap, but I always know that I’m on the right path when the jewelry I’m producing makes me feel more confident than ever before, more excited to show my work off, and ultimately more fulfilled as an artist. Sometimes I look at the work I’ve made and can’t believe that I made it with my bare hands…and that has never been truer than the pieces I made from pouring my own ingots during this class.
We're doing something special for our collection launch, so make sure you're on the list if you want to shop first, and get to participate