It is something unique and highly satisfying to begin a new year with a blank slate.
Tabula rasa. With the New Year, we are given another chance at life in a shiny set of days strung together beginning with January 1. For most people I talk to, a new day, a fresh start, is full of forgiveness and possibility. We wake up willing to disbelieve our grumpy self-doubts and try something different.
This week, about 80 artists from around the United States and Canada, gather in the chilly sunshine of Gatlinburg, Tennessee at the Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts. Writers, woodworkers, ceramic and 2-D artists, textile and metal artists are all bundled up against the surprisingly cold weather to venture in to the spacious studios of the Arrowmont School. Invented by ceramic artist and rabble-rouser Jason Burnett, this gathering has become a special opportunity for a new set of artists each year.
As a writer, I secret away in the Staff House, my door closed, sitting at a desk set before a window that frames the neon lights of the Gatlinburg’s Main Street and up to the mountain where the Ober Tram ride runs. Plied with many cups of tea, I woo the muse Calliope to visit me every morning as I work on the writing tasks I set out for myself this week. The hallways of the Staff House are quiet during the day; we pad around in slippers so as to not disturb our writing colleagues.
I break out every afternoon to visit the other studios. The writing process is very solitary, I would not dare think of asking another writer to let me watch them work over their shoulder, but potters and puppet makers have no problem with me sidling up close to see what they see on the wheel or table before them. The air of serious enterprise is exciting to witness, the conversations between tables in the 2-D studio delightful to drop in on.
Today I wandered around the Clay Studio to talk with Jerilyn Virden of Borealis Studios and Benjamin Carter, author of Mastering the Potter’s Wheel, and Zak Helenske, a studio potter living in Seattle, Washington. We talked about our daily practice, how we start the day. If Jerilyn plans to work on a sculptural piece, she draws, often with charcoal, to give her brain space to imagine new contours that she will bring to the clay. Benjamin begins his day with meditation. We spoke about how, as busy artists who work as writers, podcasters, and teachers, we need the solid centering of spirit that meditation provides. Zak takes his mornings slowly with his partner. Coffee is a central focus, and then he walks their dog. Walking gives him a sense of quiet that sustains him in a busy day of studio work that often runs in to the late hours.
Everyone I have spoken to mentions the gift that this time at Pentaculum is, how as studio potters they work in solitude most days, but this week spent with a dozen other ceramic artists, elbow to elbow at the wheels, lingering over dessert in the dining hall, or sitting in the library to listen to the open readings by the writers, there is rampant cross-pollination going on. Many people here work “day jobs” to support their artistic work, as university professors or high school teachers, gardeners or waiters, magazine illustrators or science writers. It is rare for an artist to support themselves, and perhaps a family, solely by their artistic output, so we become multi-faceted. This is not really a bad thing. But, there are times when as a teacher you have not generated a word of your own for 6 months, or as a parent you have not found time alone in your studio for a whole year.
Portrait of Jerilyn Verdin, Benjamin Carter and Zak Helenske’s hands on the wheel.
As I left the 2-D studio, Stephanie Lanter was pinning her compositions on a wall in the luscious afternoon light. Using her grandfather’s smooth handled hammer, she sank pins in a detailed pattern, preparing to hang small porcelain words within a maze of drawn image. Stephanie is a teacher who often leaves her house at 8 AM, so her creative time is wedged in and around her work life. This week allows her full days to concentrate and create. Another artist in the 2-D studio, Jessica Crouch spoke about her daily morning practice as doing something that demands the fewest decisions, like transferring a drawing by carving fine lines in to a printing plate.
Here at Pentaculum, we are all afforded time, as poet Ingrid Wendt writes,
“Not often, this luxury: hours of writing time
Blessedly stretching, bright tail of a comet over my desk…”
Arrowmont is dedicated to nourishing the community around it. Rising from the damage done by the fires in November 2016, the school is ever more determined to make art experiences open and accessible to everyone. And this week, set-aside especially for artists to be fed by the spirit of collaboration and retreat, is one more way that Arrowmont sends the message that they take art and artists seriously. I know every single person I visited today is grateful for this luxurious gift of “blessedly stretching” time.
Stop by Arrowmont’s blog later this week for another of my guest posts.
These short blogs don’t tell you the half of it.
If you are on Instagram, find my continuing story there at @suzibb.
Or visit my website for bi-monthly posts about women’s lives and creative practice at www.suzibanksbaum.com.
by Suzi Banks Baum
Suzi Banks Baum is a writer, artist, actress, teacher, community organizer, and mom. With roots in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, she lives in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts. Suzi uses the written word, hand bound books, and photographs to say what she means. Her first book, An Anthology of Babes, celebrates the writing of women artists. Deeply curious about the thresholds we cross in to creative practice, she writes personal narrative with an ear for transformation though engagement with the ordinary. She has an ongoing artist residency in Gyumri, Armenia, where she leads an art and writing workshop called New Illuminations, while also interviewing women artists there about their daily lives. She inspires women to live from the space of creative spirit and to value their contributions to the world and one another through her workshops steeped in book arts, ritual, and writing. Find Suzi’s work on Easy Street Magazine, Literary Mama, Rebelle Society, Mothers Always Write and her blog, www.suzibanksbaum.com.