Everyone’s experience of the pandemic is different, but none of us will forget 2020 any time soon. Some of us were fortunate to make it through the last year and a half without losing someone, while others still grieve for dear family members or friends. Some barely left our houses for a full year, while others risked their health to stock grocery shelves, deliver the mail, or care for sick patients in the hospital. All of us, whether we know it or not, are still in the process of recovery, and we probably will be for a long time. I think it’s safe to say that most of us now have a renewed appreciation for hugging loved ones, having adventures, seeing smiling faces, and simply getting to go somewhere — anywhere beyond the four walls where we spent most of the last year.
For me, one of those special “somewheres” is in the North Carolina mountains at Penland School of Craft.
I was excited to be accepted into a workshop at Penland for 2020. The storied school, renowned for its craft education, is tucked up in a valley outside of Asheville, facing the western slopes of the Blue Ridge mountains. Lucy Morgan, who learned her weaving craft at Berea College in Kentucky, founded the school in the 1920s with the goal of providing training to local women so they could earn income in their homes. Other contributors to Penland’s development included Edward F. Worst, a weaving expert who came to the school to help develop the curriculum and added classes in basketry and pottery. Bill Brown came after Morgan and created a resident artist program, along with expanding both the curriculum and the campus. In 2003, the Penland School Historic District was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
Of course, that particular 2020 class never happened, and instead of finding inspiration in the Blue Ridge Mountains, I had to go looking for it in my own backyard. Later in the year, when Penland finally shared their updated schedule for 2021, I thought long and hard about going — a difficult decision to make after one has slowly but steadily developed trepidation toward going, well, anywhere. But you must start somewhere, and I knew that for me, some time away being creative was the best medicine. In time, we will all have to figure out how to move forward in our own ways. It was time to hold my breath and plunge ahead.
So, ahead I went, signing up for two weeks in the mountains with a room full of 8 textile people, none of whom knew each other. I didn’t know what to expect, but I did know that it would be an adventure.
I love all things textile, and I have a lot of admiration for the incredible weaving from the past and present. But I am definitely not a weaver, nor do I try to be. Knitting? Sure. Crochet? Yup. But weaving? Not my forté, and not a method I particularly enjoy doing, either. So, you can imagine my surprise when it was announced that our sole focus for those two weeks would be on — you guessed it — weaving. In addition to the many “firsts” of this adventure, I would soon spend my days warping a loom, dyeing the yarn, and weaving, all while surrounded by strangers. (Of course, they wouldn’t stay strangers for long.)
And to my surprise, I made it. Not one piece that came off my loom was perfect, but it didn’t matter, because perfection wasn’t the point. Being in a room full of creatives of all ages and skill levels (including one very brave gentleman) was the point. It was a release I couldn’t have imagined, like one big exhale after holding my breath for a year and a half. We still wore masks in all interior spaces, and dined outdoors under big tents, or wide-open sky when the weather permitted. We enjoyed a glass of wine paired with Cheeze-its, thanks to a thoughtful fellow student that brought a large supply! We were totally engaged in craft that needed a lot of attention. Focusing on something handmade can be therapeutic. Focusing on one relatively unknown task for 12 hours a day can be transformative.
You may be wondering why I’m sharing this adventure with you. I want to encourage you, whenever you feel ready, to go make something that requires all of your efforts and all of your attention, and see what comes of it — and you. Better yet, go somewhere away from where you’ve been for so long. Look out the window to the mountains, or the sea, or that landscape you daydreamed about when you were stuck at home. Tap into your creativity, get a little outside your artistic comfort zone, and start healing.