A Birthday Present – Times Three

I am always a little late to the first night of classes.  I hate being late for anything.  But I have Host duties to attend to, so I always arrive about a half hour late.  My co-host Cory says the worst thing about this is that you miss the introductions.

My spinning teacher over the weekend caught me up herself – she went around the room and basically introduced everyone to me as a way to remind herself of who we all were.  Tonight, when I bounced into my woodturning class at 7:15 and took my seat, the instructor asked me to tell everyone a little about myself, “but what I really want to know is why you signed up for a woodturning class.”

“Because I’ve never done it – well, except for eighth grade shop class,” I said.  The guy next to me laughed and pointed at our instructor, Steve.  “You, too?” I asked.  He nodded his head.  Later I found out Steve did some woodturning in middle school, too.  Then years later he took a class at the John C. Campbell Folk School, and now he’s here teaching.

I finished my introduction by explaining my host position with my standard spiel: I’m here for four months working for the school in exchange for room, board, and a class every week.  That last part elicits gasps many times – people spend years dreaming of coming here and taking one class, and here I am in the midst of taking fourteen.  But my three classmates – all men – weren’t as emotionally reactive to my statement, which was fine by me.

Steve went on and told us how the week would go, then he led us over to a side room and doled out canvas bags with our tools in them.  We picked our work stations, opened our cabinets, and placed the tools in their holders.  I had no idea what any of them were.  Thankfully, this is a beginners class, so I’m not expected to know anything.

But I wanted to know this: Were my classmates all true beginners, too?  As Steve came to each person’s station to be sure we had all the other devices we needed, one of my classmates said, “I have a hostess question for you, if that’s okay.”

“Sure!” I said.  I can’t tell you what joy I derive from being a resource to people – someone they can go to  for the answer to a question.  It was one of the things I loved about my park ranger job, too.

“I’m staying locally with my wife and parents,” he explained.  “We rented a cabin.  I see there are evening activities here – can they come to those?”

“Definitely,” I told him.  “They can come to the demonstrations in the afternoons, too.  They can come anytime and take a look at what you’re doing, or walk around to the other studios and see what else is going on.”

My woodturning classmate gave me a look that said he wasn’t so sure he wanted the family around that much.  So I changed the subject and got into what I really wanted to know.  “So have you ever done this before?” I asked him.

“Nope.  This is my first time,” he said.  I was relieved.  Sometimes experienced folks take beginner classes – because it was the only week they could come, or because they like the instructor, or they just want some studio time.  This is fine because sometimes these folks are another resource for you, but can also be intimidating.

Turns out none of my classmates have ever done this before.  But all three have something very unusual in common: they’re all here thanks to birthday gifts.  One guy got a trip here as a gift from his wife.  One guy gave it as a birthday gift to himself.  How fabulous.  I’m a big fan of giving yourself a birthday gift.

“How’d you hear about this place?” I ask him.  It’s my default conversation-starter here at the Folk School.  (On a plane, I ask “Are you coming or going?”  When I was a park ranger, it was “Where are you visiting from?”)

“I picked up a catalog in a doctor’s office about twenty years ago,” he explained.  “I’ve gotten the catalogs on and off since then.  Next month’s my birthday so I decided it was finally time to come.”

So here they are: three men celebrating their birthdays.  With me:)


Things You Wouldn’t See Back Home

“Cheap Cigarettes” – words you’d expect in the window of a gas station, but in the foyer of a library?  $1.50 a pack for Seneca cigarettes it said.  He had examples to show me it said.  Wish I’d taken a picture of that sign for you all to see….

Craving chocolate, I stopped by the local drug store.  No luck in the front of the store, so I wandered to the back where I found I could buy a hot dog at the snack bar.  A couple of people occupied the stools in front of the counter.  A quick glance at the menu overhead told me they weren’t selling chocolate.  That, combined with the “you’re-not-from-around-here” looks the counter staff gave me caused me to move toward the pharmacy.  Bingo.

Oh, but if it were only that easy.  Time moves differently down here.  So I patiently waited as the woman in front of me was helped – not just with her prescription, but then to a nearby bench because she’d been standing on her bad leg too long.  “And can you get me a bigger bag so I can put all my stuff in it?” she asked the pharmacist, who eagerly attended to her every need.  My father would have made some under-his-breath comment at this point, but I have a little of my mother’s patience in me as well, so I didn’t mind waiting – all the more time to decide between a Milky Way and Peanut M&M’s.  I chose the latter – priced at seventy-three cents.  Seventy-eight with tax.  I can’t remember the last time I’ve gotten a candy bar for less than a dollar.  But even more peculiar was this:  other candy bars were seventy or seventy-seven cents.  I can only imagine the guy that pores over the books for this place.

Adelaide and I then headed back to the Folk School.  For those of you that don’t know, she conked out the day after I got here.  With a jump, she could get going, but then lose all her power after an overnight in the parking lot.  She’s back to working now.  But there’s a big hole where my radio used to be.  But that’s a story for another day.  The important thing is that today, I got a much-needed top-down drive into town.

In other news, I’m taking a spinning class this weekend.  When I told this to my youngest sister last night, I felt the need to qualify that statement: Spinning as in wool, not bikes.  For those of you that still have no idea, go back to your childhood fairy tale books and re-read Sleeping Beauty.  Pay careful attention to the part where she pricks her finger…

Another Job

I dropped my bag onto the bathroom floor and closed the door behind me.  As I pulled off my jeans and stepped into a silky  red halter dress I’d borrowed, I overheard the instructor telling her students, “The model is in the bathroom getting ready.”   This was the first time in my life I’d ever been referred to as a model.  For a moment I felt displaced.  Then, I reassured myself.  This  wasn’t a photo shoot for the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition.  This was a portrait painting class.  And by the end of today, each of the five students in the class would add to their collection a portrait they painted of me.

My bracelets dangled as I dabbed on some eyeliner.  As I held the mascara brush up to my eyelashes, I could hear the instructor guiding her students as they mixed their paints.

I dropped my makeup back into its case and stuffed my jeans and T-shirt into my bag.  I took a deep breath and opened the door.

“Oh, you look beautiful,” someone said as I walked into the studio.

“What a gorgeous dress,” someone else said.  Well, I could get used to all these complements, I thought.

I accepted their words with a smile and stepped up onto the pedestal.  I sat in the same position I’d seen the instructor sitting in when I walked in that morning:  feet flat and together, knees off to the left, hands in my lap, head turned slightly to the right.

“Remember, you’ll be sitting this way for a few hours, so find a position that feels best for you,” she told me.  I asked for a second cushion on my seat.  After placing it on the chair, to the class she said, “You never want your model to be uncomfortable.”  There is was again – the word model. 

The instructor adjusted the light and asked her students if they felt it was positioned correctly.  All eyes were on me.  Being the center of attention is nothing new to me – I’ve been a teacher and a tour guide.  But when they are studying you, looking at the shadows on your face, it feels a little different.

The instructor encouraged the students to move their easels to get the view they desired.  Again, their eyes darted between their easels and me.

“Can I move closer?  Is there enough room?” a student asked.

“Of course you can move closer.  I’ve taught in rooms with thirty students surrounding a model – there’s plenty of room in here,” she said.

She then approached me with a roll of duct tape in her hand.  “I’m going to put tape down to mark where the chair is and where your shoes are,” the instructor explained to me.  “I guess I can’t use tape to mark your hand position,”  she said.

I had already thought about that.  “I’ll just remember that I’m holding these four fingers with my other hand,” I said as I showed her.  “Oh, good,” she responded.

I picked something to focus on – the white label on the fire extinguisher hanging near the sink.

Me, in my pose, with Paul and Rachel at work, and Julia's portrait-in-progress

The instructor went over how the day would work.  I would hold my position for twenty minutes and then get a five minute break.  After a couple hours, I’d get a fifteen minute break. We would take our lunch, and then do the same thing that afternoon for three more hours.

As the students continued to prepare their paints and adjust their easels, the teacher said, “You know, there are people who make a career out of this – they move from art school to art school.  You could make a lot of money.”

I knew, of course, that those models posed nude.  I wasn’t ready for that yet.  But added it to my mental list of possible future jobs to try.

At 9:40AM, the timer started.  For twenty minutes I stared at the white label on the fire extinguisher.  During breaks I talked with the students, all of whom had some painting experience but varying levels of portrait painting experience. I accepted compliments on my ability to assume the exact same pose every time we started a new session, and on how my hair seemed to fall into exactly the same place each time.  That, I confessed, was a conscious effort on my part not to run my hand through my hair and change the part in any way.

“What did you think about while you were up there?” one of the students asked me the next day.

“Well, I was thinking about how, in eighth grade, I sat alone in the cafeteria at lunch.  It was my first time going to public school and I didn’t know anyone.  Nowadays, I’d just go up to a group and ask if I could join them.  But back then I was very shy and scared.  Soon I learned I could get a pass to the library during lunch.  Eventually I changed my schedule so I didn’t even have a lunch period.  And then I was thinking about how amazing it is that I’m now up here on a pedestal being referred to as a model.  If you told me that back then, I never would have believed it.”

Perhaps you’re wondering how it is I ended up in this position – that of being a model for a painting class, I mean.  Well, the girl who was supposed to do it moved and they needed one or two people.  Since my position as host is not compensated monetarily in any way, my supervisor thought I’d be interested in this as it paid a nice little sum.  So I took a day off from hunting down census records for my genealogy class, borrowed a dress from one of the work study students, and spent a day having a whole new experience in the painting studio.  And you know how I love to try new things.

Modeling for a painting class was never on my list of things I wanted to do, but that’s what great about life.  You’re given opportunities to do things you never even thought about.  And if you’re me, you take advantage of a lot of them:)  And then have another story to tell….

Here are some of the finished products.


Playing with Fire

This week at the John C. Campbell Folk School, I took a glass bead making class with Lynday Huneycutt.  This class was held in the Enameling Studio located on Studio Row.

My classroom last week: the Enameling Studio

My class: Margie, Me, Nettie and Faye

First, we outfitted ourselves:

The apron is to protect me from flying shards of glass – which thankfully don’t happen too often if you know what you’re doing.  The glasses are also to protect us from flying glass, and from the UV rays.  Without the glasses, the flame looks bright orange:

Bead making without the UV glasses on (not advised!)

With the glasses, the flame is a pretty light blue – in which it is much easier to see what you are doing.  The Folk School encourages visits to the studios while classes are in session, so if you walked into our class for a visit you’d have to don the glasses in order to see what we were doing!

Next , we learned to light the torch:

My set up: Torch, Tray, Glass Rods

To get started, I lit a match, held it in front of the torch, then turned the red nozzle which controls the propane.  In the picture above, only the propane is on.  Next, I’d adjust the gray nozzle to add some oxygen to the flame making it that lovely blue color.

Remember when I asked last week why someone would take a blacksmithing class in July?  Well, I could have said the same about beadmaking in August.  Our studio doesn’t get as warm as a blacksmith shop, and we do have air-conditioning, but in the morning we open to doors to keep the place well-ventilated and then sit in front of a flame that, at its base, is two thousand degrees Fahrenheit.  So it can be a little warm.

Before making a bead, you have to prepare the mandrel – a length of wire basically.  We dipped it in a thick grey substance referred to as “bead release.”  Then the mandrels get put in a block of wood to let them dry.  The bead release keeps the hot glass from sticking to the mandrel.  To hurry the drying process, we can heat the mandrel near the flame, but if we heat it up too quickly we’ll crack the surface.  This is not good – the hot glass can seep through those cracks and stick to the metal, and then you have no way to remove the bead from the mandrel – but you’ve made a lovely plant decorator.  I only made one of those – on our last day, no less:)

Heating a Mandrel. Note the mandrels on the left - the top is gray as it's covered in bead release. In this picture, my teacher is heating a mandrel with bead release at one end.

Remember trying to rub your belly and pat your head at the same time?  Beadmaking is a little like that.  In your left hand you warm the mandrel by holding it near the flame and constantly turning it.  In your right hand, you hold a glass rod that you slowly heat by putting it first way out in the flame and gradually bring it in closer.  Once you’ve got a “gather” (a ball of molten glass) on the end of your rod, you touch the glass rod to the mandrel.  You continue to rotate the mandrel thus wrapping the bead around it.  Then, you can get fancy and add more glass, or different colors, or roll it on a graphite block to make it into a cylinder, or flatten in between two paddles to make it a disc.

Me making a bead:)

After you’re finished making it, you rush it over to the kiln for annealing (you can see the kilns in the upper right corner of the above picture).  You don’t want to drastically change the temperature as the glass will crack, so you put it in a kiln that’s about the same temperature as your bead (nine hundred degrees) and then slowly bring that temperature down until the bead is at room temp.

Once we take the beads out of the kiln, we keep them on the mandrels for a while to be sure the entire bead is cool (and not just the outside).

Beads after the annealing process

Then, you have to do some “cold work.”

Cold work tools

You put the mandrel with the bead on it in water to get the bead release off, then slide the bead off the mandrel.  Sometimes the bead doesn’t want to come off.  That’s either because it’s being finicky or because it’s stuck to the rod (and thus becomes the aforementioned plant decorator).  If it’s the former, we can use a tool to hold the mandrel while we work to get the bead off.  Then, you clean the bead release out of the middle of the bead and file down any rough spots (usually by the hole).

Some of my finished beads stored in a paper cup

Yesterday, we had our weekly Exhibition where we displayed our finished products:)

Some of my beads on display

More of my beads on display. We also made some teardrops which I might try to learn to wire wrap to make into a necklace. You'll also see two fused glass pieces I did as well - basically layering glass and melting it together to make pendants or other glass art.


On Reading

Last week a woman was telling me about a book I might enjoy and then said, “But you probably don’t have any time to read while working here.”

“Actually, I read every night before bed,” I said.  I explained that on my first full day in town one of the first things I did was to go to the library to get myself a card.  She was duly impressed.

Then yesterday, a friend e-mailed me this quote:  A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies.  A man who never reads lives only one.

Both of these instances made me think of my mother and how appreciative I am for the fact that, as children, we were read to every night before bed.  Dad read to us too, but I mostly remember Mom sitting in the hallway opposite the built-in bookshelf from where we kids had each just picked the book we wanted read that night.  We sat surrounding her and she read – with expression – each of our chosen stories.

If you’re reading this now, be grateful for the people in your life that helped you learn to read.  Perhaps even send them a note of thanks:)


Blacksmithing – in July?!

The story goes that, when asked if there were any problems with the classes here at the Folk School, one student remarked that the air conditioning in the blacksmith shop wasn’t working.  For those of you that don’t know, there usually isn’t air conditioning in a blacksmith shop.  So why anyone would come to the Folk School in July to take a class that has you standing in front of a fire all day (and half the night), I don’t know.  But like every other time I’ve been here the blacksmith instructors (in this case Lucas House and his assistant Matt McLean) had no problem filling their class with twelve eager students.

Student in the Blacksmith class - a father who was in the same class as his 18 year old son:)

At least two times a week, either just before or sometime after dinner, an instructor will do a demo for any students at the Folk School.  On Thursday night, I went to a well attended blacksmith demonstration.

Students gathering for the blacksmith demonstration - the instructor is tending the fire; bucket with red stripe is water. He doesn't like using tongs so he holds the end he's not working on with his hand. When the piece gets a little too hot, he sticks it in water to cool it down. Every time he did this, we saw steam rising out of that bucket...

On a flip chart, Lucas drew a picture of what he was going to make for us – a door handle.   That part I understood.  But then he said something about making a tenon, and I was lost.  I’d heard of such a thing, but had no idea what it was.  Surprisingly, I didn’t ask.  Lucky for me, once he finished the tenon he told us as much and I finally put it all together:)

Lucas making a tenon.

Lucas putting a little twist in the handle. I was amazed at how easily hot metal can be moved, but then someone commented on the size of this guy'sarms - I'm thinking that may have something to do with it.

It’s probably about 85 degrees outside at this point, so you can imagine how hot it was inside the un-airconditioned blacksmith shop.  But take a look at that vest the instructor is wearing.  See all those pockets?  They’re filled with ice packs.  He says he can work for quite a few hours in that vest without breaking a sweat.  Necessity is the mother of invention:)

Unfortunately, I had host duties to attend to so didn’t get to see the finished product.  But here are a couple of things students in that class made last week.

This student made a fireplace grate. I saw him working on it in the shop on Tuesday night. He and I both agreed it was a good thing he had two more days left. Wish I had taken a picture then to show you, but here it is, all finished.

Yes, a blacksmith course is on my list.  Hopefully, by the time I take it, the weather will be a bit cooler (or I’ll have bought a vest to fill with ice packs).

Polymer Clay Basketry

On Thursday, I went into the lower level of Keith House (the main building on campus) to check out Karen Woods’  Polymer Clay Basketry class.

This was the goal of the class: to make a paper basket with polymer clay strips woven in.

But before they even got to the baskets, they learned a little about polymer clay, and then wanted to learn a lot more about it. So the teacher said, "Sure!" and they made all sorts of fun things - beads, pendants, bookmarks.


They eventually did get to making baskets - here's one in progress.


The class worked around a large table - here you can see some of them working on their projects.


And a few more finished baskets:)

This weekend I’m taking “Herbs for Health and Happiness.”  Will post some pictures soon:)

A Visit to the Woodturning Studio

As if it weren’t already hard enough to choose which classes I’d like to take, here’s something that makes it harder: studio visits.  Anytime there are classes going on, anyone can go into the studios to see what’s happening.  If you happen to find yourself in Brasstown, NC (though this is not a place one usually “happens upon”), you can wander from studio to studio watching the students work and asking all the questions you want.

So today I took a stroll over to the woodturning studio – not to be confused with the woodworking studio nor the woodcarving studio.  What’s the difference?  Well, as far as I can tell the woodcarvers do just that – take a sharp object to a piece of wood and carve something – freehand.  This week, it’s caricatures.  The woodturners use big machines (think of the lathes from junior high woodshop) and they take sharp objects to a spinning piece of wood.  The wood workers: well, this week they’re making Shaker boxes.  I have yet to learn how to describe what it is that goes on in there.

So here’s my pictorial on taking a block of wood and turning it into a bowl.  As you’ll see, these instructions are by no means definitive, but they’re what you can learn if you spend a half-hour in the studio:)  This is also how a woodturning class got added to my list of possibilities…

Step 1: Head over to the woodturning studio (just a short walk from where I live).

Step 2: Listen to the guy on the right. He's the instructor and has the deepest, calmest voice you will ever hear.

Step 3: Pick up a block of wood.

Step 4: Affix your block to one of these machines.

Step 5: You may want to sharpen your blade.

Step 6: Work on the outside of the bowl first.

Step 7: Then start on the inside

Step 8: Continue working on the inside

Next, they’ll take them off the machine, cut off the bottom projection, then do something to make them pretty (stain? I’m really not sure.)  I’ll see them all finished at the Show and Tell on Friday:)