The Language of Makers: Sounds Made in Solitude and in Community
January 21, 2020
By Suzi Banks Baum
Artists work in solitude. We work alone at studio tables, punching away at laptops or penciling lines across yellow paper pads, making what we make from air. We concoct from random influences borne on the breeze, and all the life lived up to the moment just before the cup is shaped from a lump of clay or a seam carved along the grain of a reclaimed church bench.
Art making is taking life and putting it into some new form. “Here, I made this for you,” we tell the world, just as we did as children who glued dry curls of macaroni on to paper plates in what looked like the head of a lion and delivered them to our smiling mothers at the bus stop after a busy day at kindergarten.
“Here, I made this for you.”
Mom grins, blinks back watery tears, and carries the noodled plate as if we’ve just passed her an O’Keeffe. She tacks it to a bulletin board already peppered with our oeuvre, and we tinker off to the playroom.
When we are children, artmaking includes relationship, but as we mature through school, apprenticeship, and work-study into working artists, a sense of loneliness can set in, as if the spirit of jollity we first experienced with artmaking was enough. Now, as we unlock the studio door or open up a Word document, we think we can sustain ourselves and our creative spirits without that generous quality of joy and connection. Minus that playful spirit and association to other makers, many artists find themselves lonely, creating in a vacuum, with a sinking sense that our work lacks the invigorating joy that was once present.
That playful spirit and vigor of community is worth cultivating.
This spirit was at the center of Pentaculum’s conception when Jason Burnett and Nick DeFord dreamt the idea, which was seeded in an earlier incarnation of gathered ceramic artists. Jason and Nick presented it to Arrowmont’s program director, Bill Griffith. Bill sought to meet the idea with Arrowmont’s mission that artmaking should answer a communal need. They organized Pentaculum, an invitational residency which first included 5 studios, clay, wood, textiles, 2D, and metals & glass. In 2016, writers became the sixth studio. Invited artists now come together for a week to work undisturbed on self-directed projects in the beautiful studios of Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts.
Art making includes relationship, insists on a viewer, even if you never encounter them at the bus stop or gallery opening or Etsy order form. We make in hopes of an encounter. “May they see this and know I struggled to make sense of my life through the patterns I see in tree bark pressed into silver.” “May these hand-dyed and woven strips of fabric convey a story about the slave trade in the United States.” “May they read this and remember how much it meant to me, that night we stood outside the psychic’s doorstep, laughing as the Moon rose over the Rowdy Bear Mountain ride.”
Pentaculum serves artists who need nourishment.
The Winter Pentaculum is an invitational residency for working artists to come together at the beginning of the year, a week that is in-between semesters at the schools we teach at, or after family visits and heavy holiday product delivery periods, when the craft show circuit pauses after the holiday season, when people busy with the work that supports them do their “real” work. Word passes among art communities across the country, the studio coordinators email invitations out in early summer, and studios fill with people willing to pay the modest fee Arrowmont requires to cover costs. We promise ourselves that once we arrive, we will not answer emails, we will let deadlines founder, and we will do the work that keeps us dreaming over cups of coffee in the early hours, the writing or making that drives us forward.
Pentaculum serves as a deep period of development for a community of makers.
A jewelry artist wrote a grant proposal, a writer learned to turn wood, and a textile artist posted blog posts. 2D artists read books or napped on the couch in the library. Not all that we do at Pentaculum could be called “work” or “making” but that is the point. We are here at Pentaculum to be nourished, not nudged, to find shelter in an atmosphere generous with inspiration, company, and good food. That is not to mention the piquant sparkle which downtown Gatlinburg offers to anyone wandering the strip.
I go to Pentaculum as a writer. I am there to do my own work, and to write these blog posts as a way to give back to Arrowmont. Arrowmont believes, as an institution, that the health of the artist community is important enough to support this residency. I think there is a wish that other institutions would see this kind of gathering, which is not competitive or juried or expensive, as important to the wellbeing of the community of creatives who make up the greater pool of potential teachers, workshop leaders, thinkers and shapers of contemporary expression.
I talk to whomever is drawn to pause in conversation, because as a teacher and traveling book artist, I am more often the leader of a gathering and required to be responsible to the experience. I talk to other artists about their daily creative practice. I ask about what they do every day that feeds their other work. Perhaps they keep a journal, or photograph nature in a way that becomes a visual diary.
In the Wood Studio, I was enchanted by Katie Hudnall’s work. Katie lives and works in Indianapolis, Indiana, where she teaches furniture design at the Herron School of Art & Design. Katie shared her daily journal, a colorful collection of working notes. She pens personal writing in this journal, along with grocery lists, and descriptions of dreams. “I’d be lost without my journal,” Katie said. She described how regular writing in her journal was a way of navigating the convolutions of life. With regularity, her daily practice muscles become nimbler and more expressive. Progress becomes palpable.
Katie is fascinated with puzzles, with the fitting together of disparate parts, and the fine way old pieces of wood bear the story of their lineage, worn and worthy. During the week, Katie built this box which contains two very worn pencil nibs ensconced within the box, one revealed behind a tiny glass window. I am not an art critic so I cannot tell you what Katie’s work means in the wider art world, but as a fellow maker who often works with pencils and world-worn details to make more of what might otherwise be discarded, I found this sculpture endlessly compelling. The wood sculpture as yet unpainted, was comforting, because of the way she magnified something that others might have tossed away.
It is that very magnification that zips through Pentaculum. Textile artist Alex Foster printed fabrics with leaves collected around the Arrowmont campus, a fresh and vivid impression of the botanical life of Gatlinburg. Flash fiction writer Michael Loveday walked up and down the strip, taking mental notes on the colorful chaos that entertains hundreds of tourists every single day. Sculptor Charity White worked off photographs of her parents, creating busts which bore the impressions of a daughter, now an adult, translating her relationship into a clay form.
Serendipity visits Pentaculum too. Studio potter Alex Watson’s curiosity was piqued during the Sunday evening slide presentation which highlights images of each Pentaculum attendee’s work along with a 30 second bio. Alex learned Molly Koehn, a textile artist, hails from southwestern Kansas. He visited Molly in the Textiles studio the next day. They discovered they were both from a very small town, called Sublette (pop. 1453.) But not only do they have a hometown in common. Alex had been a star student of Molly’s grandmother who died 16 years ago. Elaine Walter had founded the art program at Sublette Public High school and was a treasured art teacher. Elaine followed Alex’s career with pride and shared his success with her family. Alex and his partner, who now live in Kansas City, MO, were supposed to attend last year’s Pentaculum but had to delay a year. This sweet reunion caused great joy. I picture Molly’s grandma Elaine, grinning up in art teacher heaven.
Another measure of community is a fundraiser which began in 2016 as a way to support a fellow artist in dire need. Pentaculum artists donate beautiful offerings and at the end of the week, it is held. Matched by a donation from Arrowmont, the Pentaculum fundraiser fuels the Pentaculum Scholarship fund. The money is used to bridge the cost gap for artists who cannot afford to travel long distances or take time away from studio production or family life. The spirit of generosity with which Arrowmont meets us is also vigorously extended into the community.
We converse in the language of mark making.
Nourished by Arrowmont in this work, we are directly influenced by the environment of the school and the town, and each other. We are fed by the interactions we have with other artists, learning about new approaches to familiar materials or surprising stories of islands off the coast of Alaska, or how we share cherished impressions of teachers we have in common.
Everyone I spoke to around the dining hall and studios mentioned the joyful nature of Pentaculum, how having full days to work without concern about food or schedule allowed them to feel restored and refreshed. I am not suggesting that Pentaculum puts its participants back into childhood, but rather, this residency allows a freedom to explore that is often inaccessible to people with full teaching loads, who run university art departments or busy production studios, or manage other employment to support themselves and their families. In this setting, we are able to recall what we love about the work we do. The stories shared across studio tables or in the writers’ lounge embroider connections that embolden us.
We move forward into our lives, marked by the experience, by one another, by the sense that community makes in our hearts, and the gifts that we each gave each other by way of attention and connection. We suggest artists for next year who might match the character of Pentaculum with this signature enthusiasm and generosity. In this way, we all contribute to the future of Pentaculum.
Many thanks to Arrowmont for Winter Pentaculum 2020.
Artists mentioned in the article are:
Images for this article courtesy of Suzi Banks Baum, pictured artists and Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts
Suzi Banks Baum dwells at the crossroad of literary and visual arts. A writer, mixed media and book artist, Suzi expresses the holy ordinary. She is from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and lives in the Berkshires of Massachusetts. Her devotion to daily creative practice is the superfood for her signature teachings: Backyard Art Camp, the Powder Keg Writing Workshops, and Advent Dark Journal. She travels to Gyumri, Armenia yearly to teach the book arts to women artists. Find her at the International Women’s Writing Guild Summer Conference in July 2020 and at Snowfarm Craft School in August 2020 in Florence, MA. Her first book, An Anthology of Babes gives voice to 36 artist mothers. Fiction published in The Collection: Flash Fiction for Flash Memory by Anchala Studios and the Walloon Writers Review. Learn more at SuziBanksBaum.com.