A potter goes to school

photo courtesy of Sarah Riley—photo courtesy of Sarah Riley
Sarah Riley at the Penland School of Crafts with her hand hewn pottery.

The first time I rounded the corner of Penland Road, I was inspired before getting out of the car as the beautiful campus, framed by lush green and blue mountains, sprawled out in front of me. That was three years ago when I visited Penland School of Crafts with my coworkers from Montreat, N.C. We spent the afternoon touring the studio spaces, speaking with talented artists, eating delicious food, and taking in the gorgeous mountain views. As I left Penland that evening and drove back down the mountain, I dreamed of one day returning, not just for a visit, but as an actual student, fully immersed in the creative community. Much to my surprise, I was fortunate enough to be able to attend as a work-study student in a clay class, just one week after I graduated from Elon University this year.Penland School of Crafts is a fascinating and unique environment, one that aims to help people live creative lives and encourages individual and artistic growth. The school is based on an educational philosophy that encourages close interaction with others so that ideas can be easily exchanged. They definitely held true to that mission and vision in my two-week experience as my days were full of new learning experiences and total immersion in the creative community. As a work-study student, I spent my time at Penland washing dishes, making pots, firing the wood kiln, hiking, visiting studios in the surrounding community, rocking on the craft house porch, swimming in the local river, practicing yoga, stargazing on the knoll, visiting resident artist studios, eating late night cereal, participating in a wine tasting, chopping and stacking wood, grinding kiln shelves, bidding in the silent auction, jogging up and down the mountain, doing research in the reading room, dancing at a superstition-themed party, and making new friends every step of the way.I took a class on reduction cool wood fire clay taught by Lindsay Oesteritter that was full of characters ranging from experienced artists seeking their master’s degrees to curious individuals wanting to explore a new medium. Also in attendance was an 86-year-old wine connoisseur and avid potter, a former naval officer searching for wabi-sabi, a woman processing her new identity as middle-aged, and me: a 22-year-old college graduate trying to figure out what the next chapter of life is supposed to look like. One of the most amazing things about Penland is all of the open-minded people from different walks of life coming together to share ideas and learn from one another. My experience at the School of Crafts was so important and informative in understanding myself as a new college graduate. I was able to be in community with so many different types of people living creative lives, which really opened up my perception of the different ways my life could look.I arrived at Penland feeling anxious, intimidated, curious, and excited. I left with many of the same feelings, along with a new creative energy and inspiration to continue to pursue a career in the arts. I met people from diverse backgrounds who were communing together to explore the arts and learn from one another. My time at Penland was transformative, because it allowed me to view myself and the world around me from different points of view. I plan to continue to pursue environments and experiences that encourage curiosity, creativity, and exploration in the way that Penland does.