February has been a month of new experiences. Martin and I spent last week at John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, NC where we took an art class in enameling. As artists this was a departure from our usual drawing, painting, carving — more living on the edge.
Taking Highway 11, also known as Cherokee Scenic Highway, across Upstate South Carolina, we meandered into the twisty back roads of North Carolina sometimes wondering if our GPS was really working. Highway 11 dumped us onto Whitewater Falls Road and so on and so on until signs of civilization markedly diminished.
I carried with me a copy of Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance. As we snaked through the winding turns past dilapidated homes littered with rusted skeletal remains of cars and whatnot, I felt like I had entered the Appalachia described in Vance’s book. Martin and I wondered out loud how the inhabitants made a living. We encountered little traffic, and that which we did seemed to not care about speed limits or centerlines. Finally, after almost 3 hours on the road, out of seemingly nowhere, the school rose before us on a sparsely wooded hilltop. This was our home for the next several days.
JCC Folk School is an experience in itself. The accommodations consist of several homes spread across the rolling terrain within the Nantahala National Forest below the Smoky Mountains. Most likely describing the burning off of morning fog, Nantahala is Cherokee for “land of the noonday sun”.
The guest quarters along with assorted art studios, a dining hall, gift shop (of course), JCC history building and rustic offices for staff make up the campus. The main building also includes several rooms for evening events such as trivia games, square dancing and fiddle playing as well as the daily “morning song” of story telling and singing. Everything is very regimented with defined mealtimes announced by the ringing of a bell at the dining hall. There is not only six hours of studio time with instruction during the day, but many instructors also open their studio for evening work as well.
The houses are retrofitted into hotel type sleeping quarters. However, as we were told at Sunday afternoon orientation, this is not the Holiday Inn. There is no room service, in-room coffee pot or housekeeping to tidy up your room and make your bed every day. There are no phones, TVs or blow dryers and ironing boards. Wi-fi is weak and cell phone service is spotty. We were advised to drive a little further up the hill to a local church graveyard if we absolutely needed to make a call. There is a bin in every room with ‘towel exchange’ written on it. Towel exchange occurs on Wednesday. Oh, and there are no keys to the rooms. That’s right…no keys! You can lock your door with a dead bolt once inside. Valuables can be placed in a safe at the office. Talk about living on the edge, stepping outside your comfort zone; I found unlocked doors a little creepy.
Sunday night we were introduced to our instructor, Charity Hall (CharityHall.com), a guest teacher of enormous talent. Her equally talented assistant, Paul Roche is an artist-in-residence. We also received an overview of the studio along with a sampling of Charity’s work — beautiful pieces of art. Ovens that would be heated in the morning to 1500 degrees lined one wall. Jars of powdered colored glass filled plastic tubs. Each student had a kit we inventoried. A couple of the seven students had previous experience, but most were novices like Martin and me.
An exercise in frustration for me, our first full day I sought only to keep up with understanding the process for enameling a piece of copper. Forget the artistry! I was overwhelmed. There were so many steps and they varied depending on the piece you chose to create — hammering, burnishing, wet stoning, filing, using saws and a drill. My more scientific husband was able to take the annealing, melting, pickling and various substances all in stride. The safety precautions alone set me back as I cautiously used the ever-clicking ovens and set timers for only two minutes to melt the glass into enamel. Fifteen hundred degrees is glowing hot!
Following dinner at 6 many students returned to the studio. A mentally exhausted me went back to our room to enjoy a glass of wine (no alcohol is allowed anywhere on campus but the rooms), take a shower, read a few pages of Hillbilly Elegy before tucking myself into bed at 8 p.m.
Next morning Martin walked to the main building to fetch coffee in our brought-from-home mugs. We sat with the blinds open enjoying the scenery of the notoriously foggy mountains and sipping hot coffee before heading to the dining hall for breakfast. As a gardener I much appreciated the five minute walk through the daffodil speckled woods each morning. Emerging at the main campus we were greeted with dusky purple, pink and green hellebores and tiny crocus among the periwinkle.
After a hearty breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon, fresh fruit and biscuits, we wandered down another path to the studio, me feeling more like I could grasp the intricacies of enameling, Martin ready for a larger project. By the end of this day, I was still living on my personal edge but approaching a certain comfort with the process as I produced some amazing pieces of art. Along with my comfort came confidence. Exhilarating!
While we, as human beings often shy away from any experience making us feel uneasy, with practice and patience (not one of my strong points) comes comfort. Stretching our abilities is the only way to continue stretching our minds and emotions at any age. Good stress creates a great life. Yes, February was a month of new experiences, of feeling overwhelmed at times and definitely uncomfortable. But, it was also a month for adventure and growth. As I look at what I accomplished this month, I don’t feel retired; I feel reawakened. And I look forward to more living on the edge.