By Suzi Banks Baum
As working artists, we see each other at craft shows or in exhibitions or in classes. We read about each other in the course descriptions of the schools we attend or where we teach. We intermingle on social media or write blurbs for each other’s books or endorse another’s class or event. Most people who consider themselves “working artists,” who aim to support themselves and their families by making the work we feel called to make, also supplement that income with day jobs, teaching positions that are not in our field or by some other means of support. And, for most of us, since we left our MFA programs or academy intensives or master classes, we create in very solitary ways.
So, the opportunity that Pentaculum offers us at the start of the new year is a chance to interact with other artists not in our genre, people who we won’t meet in the faculty lounge where we teach, or artists who live in other parts of the country. Pentaculum tosses together 80 or so artists for one week to work elbow to elbow. We get to mix it up at every meal, engaging in conversations that are a mini-United Nations of art and craft media. Look, there is a table where a Glass artist talks to an Embroiderer and a Weaver, while a Printmaker talks to a Wood carver, along with a Muralist/Writer and a Poet and a Feldenkrais practitioner who chime in to both conversations. We also get to visit the Arrowmont Artists-in-Residence and carry away to our communities the sweet honey impressed upon us by all we witness and share during our time at Pentaculum.
We mingle at Pentaculum and cross-pollinate
I spend most afternoons at Pentaculum visiting the different studios, talking to people willing to pause in their work for a conversation about creative practice. My interest is around how people begin work, what they do daily, and how family life may influence or inhibit or enhance their creative work.
Travis Townsend spoke to me about teaching university classes to non-art majors and the importance of teaching an artistic approach to students in all fields of study. His work during Pentaculum centered on a series of dead bird drawings and a space craft-ish sculpture that can be seen at the Eastern Kentucky University’s Chautauqua exhibition. I ran into Travis a few evenings during the week while he talked to his kids at home on video-calls, navigating, as many artists do, the challenges of being away from the responsibilities of family life.
There is something that happens when our worlds converge like this. Whomever we live with, as artists thrust in to Pentaculum for this “time away from time” week means that we have to straddle the pulls on our attention. Over the week, many of us dealt with other aspects of our lives, negotiating rental payments, coordinating childcare, or receiving news, as writer Desiree Cooper did when she learned her short film, “The Choice,” would be screened at the upcoming Berlin International Film Festival.
We make marks on each other during Pentaculum
Jason Burnett led a wild rumpus of a raffle that gathered items all week in the Dining Hall, the proceeds of which will support a scholarship fund for Pentaculum 2020. From the first day to the last, artists donated work to the raffle which grew to cover three tables. Over our final lunch together, at least 30 people walked away with treasures from the week and Arrowmont volunteered to match the money we’d raised in the raffle. This generous community action is noticed by every single person in attendance. We were all lifted by the kindness in the donations and the potential for others to benefit from the Pentaculum experience in the future.
Astra Coyle, a Feldenkrais Guild practitioner from Celo, North Carolina, came to Pentaculum to write new curriculum and develop ideas away from her busy home life and bustling practice. Astra offered a free session to whoever wanted to show up in the library on Thursday afternoon. Feldenkrais is a movement therapy that helps the body and brain realign neural connections and thus bring about healthier ways of moving, especially with repetitive actions, like writing at a keyboard or wedging clay at a waist high table or bending over a work station threading beads on to silk floss. I lay on a yoga mat in the library next to my friend Terry, a writer and potter, and next to him was another writer. In the neat rows around us on the floor were people from every single studio, who came for a physical break, curious to have a new experience. Not only was it immediately gratifying to release tension and move in a relaxed manner, but to be with this group of people similarly curious about Astra’s work, willing to be tangible models for the new ideas she worked with that week.
I visited the clay studio more than once, being, as I am, drawn to the earthy moist smell of fresh clay and the strong gestures of the people who shape it. I lingered around Steve and Osa as they talked about different techniques for creating color on a surface. Steve Théberge lives in Massachusetts and Osa Atoe in Louisiana. The clay studio, run by Lindsay Rogers, has two departments, with the wheel-throwing side and the hand-building side. They produce a batch of bowls which they invite other Pentaculum-ites to decorate. Several of my writing colleagues hopped over there to etch words in to bowls and paint them with colored washes. It was a delight to consider being in collaboration with art that is so handle-able, so useful to many, as we hope someday our stories will become.
Nothing That Sings is Solitary
The conversations I had were emblematic of what happens here at Arrowmont. In a non-competitive, open and inclusive atmosphere, the generosity of these artists found different ways of expression.
One of the most visible ways I saw marks being made and shared between studios was the Wood Studio and the Writers. Perhaps proximity yields this ready mix, since we write in the Staff House which is just up the hill from the Wood Studio. Kimberley Winkle, the Wood Studio head, made it clear that we could visit and engage with artists as they were willing, always asking if an interruption was welcome. Over the week, Zeke Leonard built ukuleles from upcycled wood, an old church bench and the sounding board of a piano. We were captivated by the process which Zeke showed us, how he shaped and glued and clamped the wood pieces together, some which still bore marks of their former incarnations. But it was on Thursday, when he and Travis built tiny chairs which they set in to the interior of a nearly complete ukulele, that the writers were struck by the image.
Two tiny chairs suddenly connote relationship.
Being on the inside of a musical instrument made from a different musical instrument implies lineage.
Or being inside of a musical instrument made from the wood of a church bench, upon which were sung hymns in a bygone chapel on some road in some small place somewhere down the road suggests a poem that Alli Marshall could not help but write. Alli graciously offered this poem for your reading pleasure:
THE RECLAIMED HYMNAL
Say an instrument is born with all of its songs
intact, DNA in the material from which
it’s forged. A ukulele fashioned from repurposed
church pews, the wood still holding ghosts
of parishioners in Sunday best. Their noble
intent, clean sweat of palms pressed in prayer
or maybe in some darker deal. Forgive us
our trespasses and the salt of tears
folded into handkerchiefs. The resonance
of hymns and the counter refrain of despair. A symphony
requires every note, harmonic and dissonant, even
the ones meant only for the confessional
of solitude. But nothing that sings is solitary. Music
culled from other lives, recycled from stiff-
backed pews into an instrument that lilts
and sways and whispers of Hawaiian sunsets
slack-keyed, loose hipped, dance with me
it says, even though the parishioners didn’t dance,
at least not where they could be seen. But who’s
to say they didn’t glide and twirl in dreams
of Fred and Ginger, of Hula on the beach, of love
unfettered and infectious as a melody. Clean sweat
of palms pressed in prayer or maybe some higher
calling. All love songs are sacred, so sing them
to whatever heart will listen.
Used by permission of the author
Copyright © 2019 by Alli Marshall
We were struck by the poetry of the wood composition, but also struck by what it meant to us, what story was forged by the parts being newly wedded together. Through every single studio these new meanings were conjured and will reverberate in to our lives and work throughout the coming year.
Every year, the 2-D studio designs a logo for Pentaculum which they then screen print on to our t-shirts and aprons. James Ehlers, a printmaker/engraver teaching in Kansas, designed this year’s logo. We will all wear his marks proudly, carrying with us the energy and joy of Pentaculum. I know that everyone who participated in Pentaculum joins me in thanking Arrowmont for hosting us, to Jason Burnett and Nick Deford for managing the residency, to all the studio heads for pulling together such interesting humans, and to each artist who participated with such sincerity and enthusiasm.
We have made marks on each other and in the world.
Artists mentioned above:
Photo credits: Suzi Banks Baum
Embodied creative Suzi Banks Baum is devoted to illuminating the gifts within each person she meets and providing a sacred space for those gifts to be experienced and shared. An actress, writer, artist, and community organizer, Suzi uses the written word, hand bound books, and photographs to say what she means. Her first literary publication, An Anthology of Babes: 36 Women Give Motherhood a Voice, celebrates the writing of women artists. Deeply curious about the thresholds we cross in to creative practice, she teaches & interviews women across the world, including Gyumri, Armenia where she leads a book and literary arts residency. She teaches yearly for the International Women’s Writing Guild, weekly at her public library, and online in her Powder Keg Writing Workshop. Published work includes poetry, fiction, narrative non-fiction, and articles in a variety of publications. Experience her work online at SuziBanksBaum.com and in person in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts.