by David Cecelski
This time of night I can hear the train on the Clinchfield Railroad moving between Green Mountain and Spruce Pine. I’m writing this late at night in a potter’s studio at the Penland School of Crafts, a few miles from Spruce Pine, in Mitchell County. I’m actually here taking a blacksmithing class, not pottery, but I’m renting a basement room in Cynthia Bringle’s clay studio. Now in her 70s, Cynthia is a legendary potter who has taught here for 40 years and, late at night, when I come back to the studio and wash off the grime and soot, I get to sit here with her gorgeous pots everywhere around me, piles of them, rack upon rack, cabinets full, kitchen shelves laden down with them.
When I came to Penland a week and a half ago, I didn’t really know what to expect. I had never been to a place like this. I didn’t know therewere places like this. So elemental, for one thing: my studio is simply called “iron.” “Wood” is just up the hill. Down below us, there is clay, glass, textiles, papermaking, drawing, metals, print making. Ancient crafts all.
The classes change every two weeks, but to give you a flavor for what’s happening here now, consider two of the visiting instructors. One is an extraordinary metal worker, Marisela Guttierrez Campos, from San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. She’s teaching repousse, the nearly lost art of embossing or pressing shapes into pewter, gold, silver or other soft metals. The technique dates back at least to the 3rdcentury BC. Her Bible covers and religious icons will take your breath away.
The other visiting instructor who has caught my eye is a wonderful textile specialist from Chicago, Frank Connet. He conserves and restores Incan and other ancient textiles, many of them more than a thousand years old. He’s here teaching a class on indigo dyes.
I love the seriousness of the place. I get up early, grab a quick cup of coffee and head to my forge, but I’ve yet to be the first one in the shop. We pause for breakfast, eat a short lunch and a longer supper, then we go back to our forges. I usually return to Cynthia Bringle’s studio by nine or ten, but some of the younger kids are in the shop past midnight. At that hour, all the studios are still lit up. I’ve heard that the Toe River has some nice swim holes near here, but I don’t know anybody who has taken the time to find them.
I also love the playfulness of Penland’s students. Our instructor in the iron shop, a wonderful blacksmith from Winston-Salem named Joe Anderson, demonstrates something new to us every morning. After he’s done, we go to our forges and start our new assignment. But sometimes detours happen. The other day, one of my classmates challenged wood’s students to a croquet match. All of a sudden, everybody abandoned Joe’s assignment and turned to making iron wickets and mallets, Joe too.
The big croquet match was yesterday on the lawn in front of the dining hall. We marched down to the field sporting faux tattoos of iron’s chemical symbol on our forearms and with Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” blaring from a loud speaker. The match was hard-fought, close and hilarious, but wood didn’t have a chance.
The other students always recognize us iron workers: we can never quite get all the soot off our clothes or bodies. Lunch is the worst. We’re often rushing to get to the dining hall before they stop serving and we remember to wash our hands, but forget to wash our faces. All the other diners look so bright-eyed and shiny clean. We look like raccoons.
Blacksmithing is one of history’s oldest arts. The basic techniques haven’t changed for thousands of years. I’m a dilettante, but every morning when I go to my forge I still feel a thrill at getting to dabble in such an ancient craft. I love the elemental-ness of the forge too: we take iron and coal, fire and water, and we make something useful, lasting and, sometimes, beautiful.
We are making mostly ordinary kitchen implements: spoons, forks, spatulas, ladles, dippers and, in my case at least, an oyster knife. Joe says that making everyday tools like that is a good way to learn to relate form and function in our iron designs. I like his approach. I also like making objects connected to one of our most basic human needs, that for food. For all of recorded time, blacksmiths have been forging eating tools like the ones we are making here.
I modeled my oyster knife after one that originally belonged to my great-uncle, Armistead Bell. He was an oysterman by trade. His son, my cousin Edsel, now 84, was using the knife at a steamed oyster dinner at my family’s farmhouse last winter. While we shucked oysters and told stories, I couldn’t take my eye off Amistead’s old knife. The elegant, hand-forged little tool felt incredibly good in my hand. Edsel sure knew how to use it, too. That night I told myself that I was going to make an oyster knife like that one day, which eventually led me here, to this unsuspected world of iron and clay.
Here’s a photo of me at my forge at Penland (top), plus one of my oyster knife and some of the other things I made here (above). Also, the view across the meadow in front of the dining hall.
photos by David and Vera Cecelski