I was teaching an 8-week concentration at the Penland School of Crafts, which was one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences I’ve ever had. My plan was to document all of the creative, inspiring, funny, and downright weird things that happened through the course of my stay, but frankly it was just too hard to pull myself away from the studio and write. Yes, it would only take an hour or so out of my day, but that was a WHOLE HOUR I’d be away from the studio, and who can imagine what could happen in there, in that hour while I was away? (That was my same reasoning for not say, exercising every day, but let’s not get into that.)
To sum up: I had fantastic students. They made amazing things. We had a slew of letterpress adventures in the form of tiny books, broadsides, and ephemera that ran the gamut from poignant to wickedly funny and downright dirty. There was pressure printing, block carving, impromptu screen printing, and enough experimentation to warrant calling the studio a laboratory. Art. Science. Madness. Delight. My plan was to work on my own projects in the evenings, and I managed to get a few things done–but mostly I did my own experiments for possible book projects to take on post-Penland. (Below: the calm, circa Week 2.)
This book pictured below (called Fall Into Sky) was printed on paper I’d made in the winter. I didn’t have enough cloud paper for a real edition, but I had enough to make three copies of this book to see if I liked it enough to make a larger edition. The text is probably the shortest I’ve ever written, but invites the reader to slow down and partake in one of my favorite pastimes: cloud watching. This book opens to about 10 x 16 and has one line of text per spread, in sans serif light (for those typographers keeping track).
During this concentration I probably learned as much from my students as they learned from me. Most had never done letterpress printing before, and it didn’t take long for their hidden talents to emerge. I knew after the first broadsides were printed that Sonja and I were in for a wild ride––I just didn’t anticipate how much I’d gain from the shared experience, too.
It’s not easy teaching every day for eight weeks, even in a place that feels like paradise. I was often just too tired to work on my own projects after dinner each night, but it was hard to make myself leave the studio. There’s something about being surrounded by creative people in a flurry of breakthroughs and troubleshooting that makes it hard to walk away. The solitude of my room at night was just too quiet and too boring––if I was in my house reading, I just wondered what everyone else was doing without me. I’m an introvert, and I need my alone time to recharge, but I hated the idea of missing some big exciting moment in the studio––and believe me, there were plenty (most of them documented on my Instagram page, because I could at least snap some pictures to record the shenanigans.)
I have a hundred delightful memories from those eight weeks, but there’s one that got to me more than any other. It was late one night, after a long day of printing. Sam Cooke was playing off in the corner of the studio, and one of my students came over and said, “Can I show you this thing I’m working on?” She handed me a mock-up, a drawing of a hand with some text that she called the “Perma High-Five.” I read until things got a little blurry, because it was just that good. I told her how excellent it was, and she said, “I made it because a few of us were talking about how great it is to have a bunch of people here to support each other, and how we won’t have that in the real world when this is over.” I blamed my teary eyes on the allergies that were about to kill me and went back to my table. A little while later, that same student was printing as she said in a sing-song voice, “I found the thing I love. I found the thing I want to do all the time.”
It wasn’t so long ago that I had that very same thought. Sam Cooke was probably on the the background then, too, because that’s just the way it goes. At left is that print that Emma made. My copy is hanging in my hallway, halfway between the drawing table and the press, because that’s where I need it the most––en route to my workspace. She said she wants us all to document our use of the high-fives once we’re back in our own spaces. “I want to see inky handprints on these,” she said. “Post them on Instagram.” (And you can. Do yourself a favor and follow her: @commonplaceemma.)
So did I make all the stuff I wanted to make while I was there? Not even close. But I soon decided that wasn’t what I wanted to do with my “off” time. It was better for me to be in that beehive with the students, hearing their laughter, their groans, their curses and cheers as they learned about a lot about these new processes and a bit about themselves. Sometimes making my own work means tuning everything else out and being inside my own head, and that wasn’t the way I wanted to spend this time with the students. Even if it meant, being on the fringe of what was happening, it meant living a little vicariously through their successes and struggles. It was good to remember what that felt like––to find things that make your pulse quicken, to assemble fragments of ideas into something that makes you smile, and realize you have more ideas and drive and imagination than you thought you had.
After a long cold winter, my students and my new friends breathed some life back into me. I won’t lie––it was hard leaving there and coming back to the “real world.” I miss being able to go into the studio and swap ideas with my cohort, walking down the hill to a different studio to see what everyone else is making. I miss the easy collaborations and the wacky ideas that take shape into a new challenge. But I’ve got a notebook full of ideas and a high-five poster that will remind me to keep doing that thing I love, and that path will most certainly cross the ones of all those great folks on the mountain that reminded me of why we do these things that keep calling us to do them.
I’ll leave you with a close-up of the text on Emma’s “Perma High-Five,” because I know how curious you are. Now get back out there and make something.