The Future of Fine Crafts: Part 3

July 19, 2010

Welcome back to our 4-part series, the Future of Fine Crafts, in which we’re following student-artists and their experiences at the Peters Valley Craft Center, a national center for fine craft education which is celebrating its 40th anniversary.

Today, we hear from Susan Kornacki, whose experience at Peters Valley reminds us that art and the act of creating can bring us together as a community.

Making paper (left) and sculpting with it (right) in the Fibers Studio

Making paper (left) and sculpting with it in the Fibers Studio

Susan Kornacki

I recently graduated from the State University of New York College at Fredonia with a Bachelor of Arts in English and Visual Arts, a combination that tends to elicit raised eyebrows and questions like “And what do you plan to do with that?” I accepted an Assistantship position at the Peters Valley Craft Center Fibers Studio with the hope of finding some excellent, pithy answers to that key question – and, to my joy, ended up finding much more than that.

When I arrived in Peters Valley, dusk was settling and the day lilies were just beginning to close. I was awestruck by the natural beauty around me: unpacking was slow, as I kept getting distracted by the majestic pine forest across the street from Hilltop House, where I would be staying for four weeks. Bullfrogs chortled in a nearby pond, and gradually the fireflies began to illuminate the darkening air. That night I slept in a new bed in a new home, wondering what tomorrow would bring.

The next day I met with Fran, the Fibers Studio Manager. After a brief studio clean-up, we headed down to the kitchen to eat lunch. My nerves jangled as I contemplated meeting a host of new people. Any concerns were immediately erased as I settled onto a wooden picnic table bench with my plate full of food, however – pleasant laughter rang around me as the other people at the table gently eased me into their conversation. I was struck by the warm atmosphere, and the sense of community I immediately felt. As I reflect on my experience at Peters Valley, this first meal remains a vivid memory. Never have I felt so comfortable in a new place, on the first day of a new job.

Throwing a bowl in the Ceramics Studio

Throwing a bowl in the Ceramics Studio

I had the pleasure of assisting Pat Hickman’s class, “Tensile Translucence.” As the studio assistant, I was responsible for ensuring that the students always had whatever they needed, and were comfortable and well-supplied; connecting Pat to any resource she might need; and keeping the studio pristine. Going into this experience, I knew I would learn about a variety of new materials and techniques, and would have the unique opportunity of meeting and working with a range of artists. As a sculptor, the former appealed to me, and as a brand new professional, the latter was essential, too. What I did not anticipate was how much I would learn about pedagogy at Peters Valley.

Observing Pat Hickman teach was an insightful, educational experience. By incorporating her knowledge of various cultures and textile traditions into her lesson plans, she brought an anthropological twist to her class on hog gut sculpting. I’d been wondering how to combine my interest in cultures and women’s studies with art education, and Pat showed me how to blend all three seamlessly. She shared anecdotes about Japanese women tying a thousand red knots in a war memento for soldiers leaving a village, and Turkish women communicating secret messages through intricate head scarf embroidery. These insights supplemented assignments created to encourage the students to explore their own definitions of home, breath, and power. By assisting this class, and learning alongside the students as I facilitated their working environment, I was exposed to a new teaching style that inspired me to pursue and overlap my interests.

Sculpting with paper, grass and light in the Fibers Studio

Sculpting with paper, grass and light in the Fibers Studio

During my assistantship, I was able to continue creating my own artwork while assisting others in the creation of theirs. With Fran’s guidance and support, I learned papermaking skills and began sculpting with my homemade paper. I also experimented with hog gut, and at the end of my assistantship, was able to take the free class that assistants earn: I enrolled in “Firing the Noborigama,” and fell in love with the wood firing process. My already deep fascination with ceramics was strengthened by John Dix’s excellent workshop on this Japanese firing method.

Loading the Noborigama!

Loading the Noborigama

Something magical happened in this class: we bonded. I’ve seen communities spring up quickly and unexpectedly in ceramics studios before, and should not have been surprised, but this was the fastest I’d seen it happen. In five days, we warmed up to one another, joked, shared stories. As I watched the boundaries come down between the students, I pondered the power of art to form communities. In a rapidly digitizing world that can isolate human beings, the development of community is becoming a fascination of mine. How does one create an environment where people feel not only inspired but also safe, a space that nurtures a sense of belonging?

Peters Valley is such a place. Through my assistantship and as an emerging artist, I was able to benefit from the warm and creatively active environment, and begin to learn how one might foster similar community art centers in other spaces. Peters Valley helped me hone my professional ambitions and sense of social responsibility into a cohesive plan: in the future, I will attend graduate school for either studio arts and art education, or non-profit arts administration. Thanks to Peters Valley, I am now equipped with a variety of tools and ideas with which to achieve my goals and dreams.

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Located in the Delaware Water Gap, Peters Valley offers 2- to 5-day workshops in blacksmithing, ceramics, fibers, fine metals, photography, wood and special topics including printmaking books & paper, drawing, and glass. The Center provides immersion experiences that appeal to anyone who wants to be a part of a creative, learning, and solutions-seeking community.