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The Penland Diaries: Washing dishes and making them

From washing dishes to making them has been the tagline of these last few days. And I’m borrowing and modifying the phrase from my very talented sister Ranjita (who used to be a chef and is now a potter) who says she went from: “Making dishes to making dishes”.

Exhausting. Hectic. Overwhelming. Intense. Fantastic.

A few words to sum up my experience at Penland so far. Time flies when you’re having fun and it really did. I have no idea how 10 days went by–it’s like one of those sprint races with Usain Bolt. It’s over before it started.

The 18 member group worked at breakneck speed to fire “Rosie”, Penland’s three-chambered wood kiln. After 24 hours of stoking and firing, making sure all the three chambers were heated up, we stopped a bit past midnight on Wednesday.

Scenes from the wood firing–Rosie gets lit up

Scenes from the wood firing–Rosie gets lit up


It was a first time for me working together with a team to fire a wood kiln and it was memorable. Now, I can see the reason why people fire these things. It’s tough and challenging–I still don’t understand most of it since we had experts who have been doing this for years who were in control–but just helping around and being there observing was interesting. And hot–it does get sweaty out there.

Now we rest and wait for Rosie to cool down.

In the meanwhile, I’m thinking back to the last few days and all I can say is that I need a few days of good sleep to recover.

The backdrop of the hills has been the perfect place to work. I didn’t land up walking around as much as I intended, largely because of our schedule.

The greenery, chirping birds, with intermittent rains provided the perfect scene for our creative pursuits

The greenery, chirping birds, with intermittent rains provided the perfect scene for our creative pursuits

Studying and working has been quite a learning experience for me. I don’t remember doing this kind of thing except during my student years (which was a very long time ago), when I worked washing dishes and standing on tables. Here, I got to do dishes. I got rejected for the reading room position. Hah–not the first time being rejected so I took it well.

The art of juggling is challenging and took me around 3-4 days to find some rhythm. In between washing shifts, I would run back to the studio for a demo. And then another demo post-lunch, a bit of time to practice and I’d have to be off again! Everything had to be squeezed in between 2-3 working shifts a day. When I had my first day off on Friday, I actually had the first productive day.

The work-study program is a great initiative from Penland, especially when you want to attend one of these intensive sessions, but can’t afford it. But for those who want to give it a shot, come prepared! It’s no piece of cake. I found myself constantly trying to focus in between work and it got a bit easier towards the 2nd week, but by then, we had to have most of our work ready.

I had to stay up on most nights till 1-2 am, trying to make up what I couldn’t do during the day.

An important lesson I’ve learnt is to be able to change focus quickly. I can’t say I’ve mastered it yet. There were days when I’ve been too exhausted and can’t really seem to get a move on. Would I advise this mode of study? If your only focus is on the course, you might want to make your decision with some thought. Stretch your budget a bit, or borrow (no stealing, please!). But if you’re okay with not having long stretches of time at hand, it definitely makes more sense in terms of the costs. I would love to come back here and just study at some point of time, if I’m able to.

Meanwhile, the first week was also overwhelming in terms of the amount of learning. With two instructors (Mark Shapiro and Sam Taylor) who have nearly 60 years of experience between them, we were treated to a double dose. Not that I’m complaining, but it was just fascinating to watch these two artists collaborate and work together.

The different perspectives of Sam Taylor and Mark Shapiro gave us lots of food for thought. Not to mention a lot of humor and good fun!

The different perspectives of Sam Taylor and Mark Shapiro gave us lots of food for thought. Not to mention a lot of laughs!


It also helps that they’ve been friends for a long time. The dynamics of their relationship reflects in their interactions with each other. Both of them complement each other really well and I must say that I’ve also realized that you can be two people with two totally different approaches and still create a wonderful sense of synergy. No one is necessarily right, or better. They’re just different approaches and a healthy respect for each other is what counts.

Sam’s style is much more relaxed, and spontaneous (controlled spontaneity?!), which is something I am drawn to and syncs well with my personality. Mark veers towards perfection. His forms are ones which kind of strike you as being “perfect”. You can see the amount of control he has over the structure. Whereas Sam’s forms possess a certain “relaxed” nature and a joie de vivre about them.

It was freeing in a sense to realize that it’s not just about perfection. It’s about putting a bit of yourself into everything you do and create. If you do something for 20 years, it’s quite certain that you’ll get really good at it. But giving it a bit of yourself is what makes every piece unique. And abstract though it sounds, it makes sense too.

Mark also said something very interesting (when we were all talking about how little we knew) when we started off and I’m paraphrasing a little: “You’re at a junction where there is so much to learn–it’s an enviable position to be in.” It’s a great way to look at where you are and the journey you’re on. In the beginning, everything is new and exciting. And maybe this is a stage we need to appreciate and savor more. Rather than lamenting about how little time we have and how much we don’t know (which I am quite prone to do). I guess this could apply to any new skill.

We had Michael  Kline share some of his brush techniques.

We had Michael Kline share some of his brush techniques.


Louis Cort, Curator of Ceramics at the Freer Gallery at the Smithsonian, talks to us about model, copy, utsushi, homage, fake and forgery from a Japanese perspective.

Louis Cort, Curator of Ceramics at the Freer Gallery at the Smithsonian, talks to us about model, copy, utsushi, homage, fake and forgery from a Japanese perspective.


A plethora of mugs from the first salt firing. Lots of hits and some misses!

A plethora of mugs from the first salt firing. Lots of hits and some misses!


Managed to sneak out for a while on one day and visit a couple of artists nearby. This one was Rebecca Plummer of Barking Spider.

Managed to sneak out for a while on one day and visit a couple of artists nearby. This one was Deborah Plummer of Barking Spider.

Work on display by the resident clay artist at Penland, Tom Jaszczak

Work on display by the resident clay artist at Penland, Tom Jaszczak

With part of the group at dinner.

With part of the group at dinner.


We’re winding down now towards the end of our session. The last few days have some “outside” studio time that I’m looking forward to including field trips and a show and tell session.

And of course, this weekend is all about Rosie!

(PS: Please excuse typos as I’ve written this at breakneck speed–corrections will have to wait till later!).

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7 Comments

  1. It definitely looks like you are having fun learning. With each step that tears down or builds up, a person or an artist evolves and it shows in their work. I am excited to see what transformations these experiences bring to your creations.

    • Anita says

      Thanks Kishore. The student aspect has been fun–usually you forget all about that kind of life. And so has the learning. I’m excited to see where the path leads me. I think that for me, it’s always been about doing what excites and interests you, no matter what age! It will be good to look back years later and this journal will help 🙂

    • Barbara rose says

      Anita,

      Thank you for your wonderful synopsis of, what sounds like, an incredible experience. So glad it worked out so well for you. How exhausting and exhilarating!

      Barbara

      • Anita says

        Thanks Barbara! It was both 🙂 I couldn’t visit the artist you’d mentioned but I did see his work at the Penland Gallery!

  2. Rosemarie Delson says

    Hi Anita,
    That sounds so exciting. Looking forward to see some of your pieces and hearing about your experience.
    Hope to see you back at HF
    Rosi

    • Anita says

      Thanks Rosie – it was a super fun experience and we’ll chat more! I managed to get rid of most of the pieces – some in the auction and some I gave away. Didn’t want to carry it all back home. But I’ve got a few of the smaller pieces! See you soon at HF!

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