Once I start talking about my time at John C Campbell Folk School, I usually can’t stop. So much happened in the three weeks I was there that one story just leads to another … in case that happens in writing too, I want to begin with a heart-felt thank you to all of you reading this. This blog may not have thousands of followers or get major media attention, but it stands out here on the big ol’ web as a picture of who I am, what I’m doing and sharing, and where I’d like to go. The fact that it exists has helped make several opportunities possible lately, including this one. The ties between this space and the real world are many and interwoven. So, thank you all for being part of this piece of my life, which has contributed much to the person I’m becoming.
A heart-felt paragraph is actually a good introduction to this story, since one of the biggest things that stands out about JCCFS is just how many people I met there who were speaking and acting from the heart. My wonderful new friend Becky (who got recruited to be my assistant in the second felting class) told me about another student who had said, “I always knew I marched to the beat of a different drummer, but at the Folk School I met the rest of the band.” I feel more than a little of that myself. Somewhere towards the end of the first week I started to realize that whoever I was standing next to while waiting to go into the dining hall, though they may look like a mild-mannered Southerner somewhere around retirement age, was in fact very likely to be a member of my own quirky maker tribe! And that if I started talking to them, it was also likely that I would learn something really interesting and/or get a new idea. It was amazing. It also made me wonder if part of the reason I’m usually shy with strangers is that I’m convinced they won’t understand me, and if I’m not giving the strangers in other places enough credit. In other places though, it is harder to start conversations with, “Oh, you’re taking blacksmithing, very cool! What are you making this week?”
Part of the view walking from my temporary home to breakfast. The garden is in the left background, hay right background.
The physical Folk School is a collection of a couple dozen buildings for classes, housing, and community areas. Some are new, and some are gently worn with the passing of many feet and hands. The campus is out of the way enough to feel like its own little world, surrounded by various hills (which people from lower elevations might call mountains), fields complete with picturesque rolled hay, and lots of greenery and flowers towards the end of summer. There was fog most mornings (which being from a dry place I find exotic and beautiful). The chorus of night insects and frogs stood out to me enough that I made a little recording to remember it. On a few weekend nights you can also hear the distinctly incongruous sounds of a nearby car racing track.
Each day is scheduled with class time, meals, and optional extra activities in the afternoons and evenings. Music and dance are a big part of things; there are songs before breakfast (optional of course), contra dances every Tuesday night (so much fun) and concerts on many weekends. And a dozen or more classes in different craft subjects going on all at once! It really is a lot like my family craft retreat every single week—that much energy, that much community, that much learning, that much working intensely—except that during mealtimes and free times you also see a bunch of other people who are having a similar experience in another studio nearby.
The door through the gazebo on the left goes to the Wet Room, home of felting, dyeing, and other great classes, one of my new favorite places. The door on the right goes to the cooking studio.
I taught three classes; two on felting (one was a week long and one was a quick weekend format), and a week on screen printing with natural dye. Anyone who has seen me in person (or even on my Instagram) in the last two years or so knows that I’ve been fairly obsessed with natural dye and printing in particular. So much prep work went into that class especially, because it’s the one that’s the newest to me, and also because of the nature of the subject. What makes working with natural dyes so compelling is the infinite possibilities, the way that every single variable seems to affect the color you get … but that also makes it nearly impossible to feel prepared for class! Nevertheless, we all learned a lot and my hope was that the students would all leave with a solid foundation for their own experimenting. I had had some really lovely students in all three classes, people who were gracious, and helpful to each other, and full of new ideas. I was really impressed with the curiosity and creativity of the students who are drawn to JCCFS. You would not believe how many unique felted objects can materialize (and how much wool can disappear) even in a weekend class. In the week-long felting class we formed such a little community that some of us (including me) cried when it was time to say goodbye.
Felting in the Wet Room.
Printing in the Quilting Studio.
After the classes I taught were finished, I stayed a third week as a student (one of the benefits of teaching at the Folk School is that you get instructor credits which allow you to take a class more or less for free). I’m so glad I did, it was wonderful to experience the place from a more relaxed perspective, to have a week with more time for walking, extra activities, and hanging out with Julie, one of the student hosts who took my first felting class and became a fast friend. I took a class called Sheep to Shawl with Martha Owen, who is the resident artist in charge of felting, spinning, dyeing, etc. (and the person who hired me to come teach felting). We washed and dyed fleece in some gorgeous natural colors (without felting it, which I always found intimidating before), we learned to hand card, and we practiced spinning different styles and preparations. I also got to try out a great wheel, and even spinning the fuzz right off of an angora bunny! Martha is a generous teacher who shared a lot of her life with us, taking us to visit her sheep and her home. She knows/knew many people in the fiber world who are legends to me (like Norman Kennedy and Jim Liles), and her class is full of stories. The whole school actually is full of stories, and connections being made.
Photo of me at great wheel via the JCCFS Facebook page.
When I got home I knew I still had some internal processing to do, continuing to turn over everything from a very full three weeks until it started to make sense with the rest of my life. Still, I kept thinking that it was taking me quite a while to get back to feeling “normal” … until I realized that is what it feels like when you’ve left a part of your heart behind. I grew a lot at the Folk School. I left as a better teacher, and as a person more able to be calm and trust that things will work out. I met and bonded with so many wonderful people. I’m surrounded by little reminders of them now; handmade things people generously gave me, and other beautiful things that I bought to bring home, and lovely wool from Martha’s class which I am trying to comb a little bit of each day. At least once a week, and usually more, I get a postcard or an email from one of my new buddies. Even if I wanted to pretend to be the same person I was before I left it would be impossible. Whether or not this turns out to be a “big break” that leads to other things for me, I’m profoundly grateful to have been able to go, to have learned all that I did and made all of these connections, to have been somewhere where I felt so at home that I understand what it’s like to fall in love with a community. As my excellent assistant for the printing class, Sally, says, “The Folk School is the easiest place in the world to practice gratitude.” I will endeavor to practice at home too.
thank you for sharing your inspiring experience. i related to, and longed for, a lot of what you wrote about. i’m sure you’re a natural teacher! i love seeing your blog evolve and all the new things you are doing. it’s totally inspiring for me and a resource i keep coming back to!
Aww Janice, thank you so much! A lot of the people I met at JCCFS, especially the other teachers, reminded me so much of the artists we’ve met doing shows (like you)—warm, funny, interesting folks engaged with life. Not surprisingly, some of them do shows as well. I hope our paths somehow cross again soon!
it’s kind of amazing how easy it feels when we get to meet people in our tribe, eh? i’m missing life on the road, but yes, our paths will cross again! if your travels lead you anywhere close to hannibal, i hope you stop for a visit!
Hello, I am in Minnesota on vacation and stopped in to tour the North House Folk School. I came across your name as an instructor! My first thought is how is it that we don’t know each other. I am also a fiber artist and you can find some of my fiber art at Zani’s in downtown Flagstaff. I have also taught at John C. Campbell Folk School. I was supposed to teach at the Wool Festival in 2021, but it was cancelled. Let’s get in touch! Be Creative, Tammy
Hello Tammy, thanks so much for reaching out! You caught me just wrapping up a trip to teach at the Handweaver’s Guild Convergence conference. I’ll send you an email too, I’d love to talk about meeting up!