Summer Workshops for the Aspiring Artisan
Classes and workshops are offered all over the country these days in everything from boat-building to glass blowing and knife making. But no one has offered a guide to the best of them—until now.
By NATALIE JONES
Photos courtesy of the schools
Summer is no longer so far off that making plans and dreaming of sunshine feels delusional; in a similar vein, craft schools around the country are dusting off their lathes, looms, and power hammers, and releasing workshop schedules. When we at Craftsmanship Quarterly started dreaming about all these workshops, we were surprised to find that no one had ever put together a guide to them, or even a list of recommendations. So we decided to create a Craftsmanship Guide of our own.
After weeks of extensive research, we were able to find nine schools in the continental United States that were standouts, in terms of the seriousness and comprehensiveness of their offerings.
The following suggestions, divided by region, is by no means an exhaustive list of the places or the ways that one can learn to make things—and it notably leaves out many schools that specialize in a specific medium. From what we can tell, however, each one has shown outstanding commitment to craftsmanship; an unusual variety of media and skills taught; a stimulating and immersive approach to learning, requiring residency and a full day’s work; a sense of community, even collaboration; and a physical environment conducive to creative adventure.
North Bennet Street School, Boston Mass.:
Bookbinding, Cabinet and Furniture Making, Carpentry, Preservation Carpentry, Jewelry Making and Repair, Locksmithing and Security Technology, Piano Technology, Violin Making and Repair.
The North Bennet Street School attracts the serious future craftsperson looking for an education steeped in history and tradition.
Located in the heart of Boston, the school has been teaching in roughly the same way since its founding in 1881. In fact, until recently it still operated out of the original building—a history that any visitors could feel as they climbed the old facility’s scarred, tilted stairways.
Instructors here base their approach on the philosophy of “sloyd,” which comes from Sweden, and adheres to the belief that working with one’s hands has benefits that go far beyond the immediate and obvious. “It develops your intellect as well as your dexterity,” says Miguel Gomez-Ibanez, the school’s president. “Hand skills and intellectual skills are mutually reinforcing.”
The pillars of the institution are its full-time professional programs, which last from one to three years, depending on the area of study. Students—who come from across the U.S., with some traveling from overseas—emerge with an accredited professional degree, and a deep formal foundation in a particular area of study. Cabinet and furniture making, piano technology and violin making are the most nationally renowned programs, according to Gomez-Ibanez, in part due to the rarity of these offerings.
“We need to graduate people at the highest level of their trade,” Gomez-Ibanez says. Many students find the program more difficult than they were expecting, he says, in part due to the high standards. “If there’s a gap in a joint, nobody’s going to say, oh, that was a good try.”
The average age of full-time students at North Bennet Street is 29, and most started their professional lives down some other career path—often college and a desk job—before deciding to dedicate themselves to making things with their hands or turn a passion into a trade. The competitiveness of the professional programs varies by area of study, sometimes influenced by the state of the economy, but all applicants are required to have a high school degree.
Notable graduates of the program include Brent Hull, the host of the Lone Star Restoration show on the History Channel, and Tommy Mac, host of Rough Cut, a carpentry show on PBS.
North Bennet Street also teaches continuing education courses in all of their specialty areas, as well as workshops for individual projects. These may be anywhere from one day to three months long. The school offers popular courses repeatedly, so it’s relatively easy to get a spot without too much advance notice or planning.
. Skills and Media Taught: Bookbinding, Cabinet and Furniture Making emphasizing 18th and 19th-century styles of workmanship, Basic Carpentry, Preservation Carpentry, Jewelry Making and Repair, Locksmithing and Security Technology, Piano Technology, Violin Making and Repair.
. Course Length: One day to three years.
. Cost: $100 – $300 for a one-day class; about $25,000 a year for full-time programs
. Lodging and Transportation: No on-campus lodging. Several transportation options to downtown Boston.
. Website: North Bennet Street School
Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, Deer Isle, Maine:
Blacksmithing, clay, fibers, glass, graphics, metals, and wood
Haystack Mountain School of Crafts sits on the side of a mountain above ocean waves crashing into a rocky shore, on a small island in Maine. “We’re way out in the boonies, which is great,” says Ginger Aldrich, Haystack’s development director.
The campus’ several separate buildings are connected by a labyrinth of walkways and stairwells, intentionally built with intimacy to ensure that people walk by one another and feel a sense of community. During summer sessions, the campus houses about 100 people at a time.
Haystack was founded in 1950 in the interior of Maine, but a state highway plan a few years later forced the school to move; thus its new home on Deer Isle.
While the school also works with the local community year-round, the summer workshops are the core of Haystack’s program. Summer participants, who must be 18 or older, can pick from five two-week sessions, and one one-week session. Most workshops are for all skill levels, and the school specifically aims to fill sessions with people coming from a diverse range of experience. Scholarships or fellowships are available for about a quarter of workshop participants. Students can pick from studios in wood, clay, small metals, fiber or textiles, blacksmithing or glass work. While in session, studios are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, encouraging students to make the most of their time there.
“Whatever they want to do for those two weeks, we’re there to support them,” Aldrich says.
Haystack is also a research institution, and one resource that sets the school apart is its digital fabrication lab, which is a collaborative effort with MIT. Part of the lab’s mission is to introduce digital techniques to as many people as possible. It also attracts people whose strengths may lie more in the design realm than art or craftsmanship, boosting the skill diversity on campus. While the lab serves as a learning and experimentation opportunity for students participating in craft workshops, the school does not teach any classes in digital fabrication.
“We’re not following every fad,” Aldrich says. But they do try to listen to students’ interests. Weaving classes are an example. After being given a five-year hiatus, the course is being revived this summer, in response to popular demand.
Haystack has a history of impact far beyond the shores of Deer Isle. Most notably, the famed glass artist Dale Chihuly visited Haystack in the 1970s and was so inspired he founded a similar school on the West Coast, specifically for glass (the Pilchuck School, near Seattle, Washington). One Haystack stay even led to the creation of a program in Nigeria, the Harmattan Workshop.
Each summer, the first two-week session is devoted to a competitive residency program for 50 emerging or established artists. The residents move among the studios and work at their own direction, with no formal instruction. Collaboration is encouraged. Haystack also holds a four-day conference in the middle of the summer, for 50-60 people, offering presentations interspersed with group discussions.
. Skills and Media Taught: Blacksmithing, clay, fibers, glass, graphics, metals, wood, with some exposure to digital fabrication.
. Course Length: One week or two weeks.
. Cost: About $1,500 – $3,000 for two-week session; $800 – $1,800 for one week (depending on accommodations).
. Lodging and Transportation: On campus; several options from dormitory to single. Haystack is 250 miles north of Boston, 160 miles from Portland, and transportation by car is most common. The closest airport is Bangor International Airport, 70 miles away; the school can arrange transportation from there.
Peters Valley School of Craft, Layton, NJ:
Metalwork, basketry, ceramics, drawing and painting, fibers, glass, jewelry, book arts, photography, printmaking, woodworking.
Located in a national recreation area about 60 miles south of New York City, Peters Valley School of Craft is one of the more easily accessible immersive programs. The campus is a former agrarian village from the 1850s, and those who stay on campus live in rustic farmhouses.
Despite its throwback environment and traditional roots, Peters Valley is deliberately not a folk school. Many of the workshops incorporate instruction in age-old crafts with new technologies, such as 3D-printing.
“We keep a very open mind as to how our creative potential continues to evolve and expand,” says Kristin Muller, the director at Peters Valley. Nonetheless, the core tenet of their instruction philosophy remains skill at manipulating materials, she says.
Peters Valley is strong in many disciplines, but boasts ceramics as a standout. In the 1980s, a visiting Japanese potter built a traditional wood-firing kiln, called an anagama, which the school runs for a week each year. Kiln masters from all over are invited to join during that week to share and experiment with their techniques. Muller says the anagama workshops have inspired people to explore wood-firing at home and at other schools around the country.
Workshop classes are intimate, with six to twelve people in each, which ensures that each student gets plenty of time with the instructor. There are typically 50 to 80 people on campus at a time, rising to 125 at peak times. Classes are held in the school’s eight studios and cover a wide range of skill and experience levels. To encourage creative collaboration the school aims for an eclectic mix among its students: some professional artists, some just starting out, some serious hobbyists.
“We feel that each person who becomes a participant in our programs brings something to the magic of Peters Valley,” Muller says.
. Skills and Media Taught: Metalwork, basketry, ceramics, drawing and painting, fibers, glass, jewelry, book arts, photography, printmaking, woodworking.
. Course Length: 2-5 days
. Cost: About $300 – $800
. Lodging and Transportation: On campus, no-frills beds for $45 a night, meal plans about $30 a day; off-campus accommodations also possible. No public transportation available. Newark airport is closest (70 miles away). Staff can arrange pickup for $85 one way.
. Website: Peters Valley School of Craft
Snow Farm: The New England Craft Program, Williamsburg, Mass:
Metalwork, glass, painting and drawing, fibers, ceramics, paper and books, woodworking
Snow Farm encourages you to slow down and enjoy your stay while you focus on your craft. And it makes your experience accessible in multiple ways: shorter workshops of just a few days; an uncommonly large number of classes, for all skill levels; lodging on campus or not. The school explicitly caters to non-professionals, and its emphasis is on promoting a creative experience over a physical result.
“Being creative and expressing yourself creatively, using your hands, and that physicality of the work, the mind-body connection of being engaged in craft—it’s just something that is a little hard to find and hard to prioritize in a lot of modern life,” says Lisa Oram, the school’s communications director.
The school is on 50 acres of a former farm at the foothills of the Berkshire mountains in Massachusetts, and most of its students are from within the state or New England, with a few coming from other parts of the country.
The primary workshop season here is May to October, but the school also offers a few classes during the winter. Students can choose from about 150 different offerings, taught in nine studios, and participants are encouraged to wander between studios. Classes usually have no more than 10 people, and Oram describes the atmosphere as non-competitive, mellow, and warm.
“People who come to Snow Farm, they’re so happy to be there,” she says. “Whatever they’re looking for, they find.”
The media that require machinery or special equipment, such as glassblowing, metal work, and woodworking, are a draw for people who can’t pursue these activities at home, Oram says, but the school puts equal effort into making all the studio offerings strong. About half of the faculty of 120 changes each year, to ensure an influx of new options and ideas.
Snow Farm started 30 years ago as a summer program just for high school students, and in the month of July the school is dedicated solely to this population. Participants come for two-week sessions and sign up for two simultaneous, immersive workshops—a unique experience for a young person. One year, a student taking both welding and woodworking built a chair with a metal frame and a wooden seat; another made a mancala board—the foundation of a game originating in East Africa, usually involving stones or beads and a board with several pits—then finished the project by making glass game pieces in the school’s glass studio.
Adult classes were added to the school’s offerings about 15 years ago, and the school hopes to grow further still. Possibilities include expanding the scholarship program for high-schoolers, creating residencies and fellowships, enlarging the studios, and growing food on the property. Snow Farm has subsisted mostly on word-of-mouth thus far, but Oram has plans to increase visibility this year, so don’t be surprised if its popularity soon grows.
. Skills and Media Taught: Metalwork, glass, painting and drawing, fibers, ceramics, paper and books, woodworking.
. Course Length: 2-7 days
. Cost: $200 – $1,100
. Lodging and Transportation: Double and single rooms are available on campus, with off-campus lodging also available. The school is two hours west of Boston by car, and also accessible by bus and train.
. Website: Snow Farm
Penland School of Crafts, Penland, North Carolina:
Books and paper, clay, drawing and painting, glass, iron, metals, photography, printmaking and letterpress, textiles, wood.
Judging from the views of everyone familiar with this school, the Penland experience is one of seriousness and excellence.
“We cover this really broad range in terms of skill level, but the workshops are very focused and pretty intense, so they don’t work well for people who are just casually interested,” says Robin Dreyer, Penland’s communications manager. “We assume even people coming in as beginners are coming in with a level of focus and passion.”
Some workshops are designed for intermediate or advanced students, but most are directed at all skill levels, meaning instructors must be prepared to tailor lessons and attention to individual students. Class sizes are 20 at the most, and sometimes as small as four. This helps to ensure that things go smoothly with the mix of backgrounds. All students must be 18 or older.
Penland draws students from all over the country, and sometimes internationally, with residency programs for committed artists that run from one to three years. Its metals and glass programs are particularly well known in Japan, and these sessions always have a few Japanese students. When at full capacity in the summer, around 180 students are living and working on campus.
Generosity and openness are part of the ethos that Penland strives to espouse, and that means helping artists and craftspeople do what they’re driven and inspired to do. The curriculum is flexible, so there is room to accommodate big ideas and passions.
A few years ago, a college metalsmithing student, Andrew Meers, attended Penland for a workshop in the chasing and repousse techniques for shaping metal into relief. Four days into a two-week workshop, he saw a picture of an intricate metal lobster made this way in the instructor’s art book and became obsessed with making the animal. Although the odds were against his ability to finish, with relentless work (and the instructor’s extra assistance), he pulled it off.
“The thing that really distinguishes Penland is that the range of our programs is such that we can touch people at almost any point in an artistic trajectory,” Dreyer says. No full-time faculty creates teaching opportunities for all kinds of artists, including some who would normally be inaccessible to students.
. Skills and Media Taught: Books and paper, clay, drawing and painting, glass, iron, metals, photography, printmaking and letterpress, textiles, wood.
. Course Length: One week, two weeks or eight weeks
. Cost: An average of $1,400 – $2,100 for one week, $3,300 – $6,000 for two weeks, $10,000 for eight weeks.
. Lodging and Transportation: On campus, in dorms or private room; off-campus lodging also available. One hour from Asheville by car, three hours from Charlotte.
. Website: Penland School of Crafts
John C. Campbell Folk School, Brasstown, North Carolina:
Blacksmithing, clay, glass, metalwork, painting, photography, writing, woodworking, fibers, cooking, music.
Of the nationally-known craft schools, John C. Campbell may serve as the most effective liaison between craftsmanship and the folk tradition. Folk comes first in their philosophy, based on Danish origins, and during their stay, students are asked to participate in activities outside their chosen craft, all designed to foster a sense of collaborative creativity and community.
Music plays an important role in the school experience, and students are encouraged to eat each meal with new people, pay attention to each other’s work, and embrace the diversity of the 100 or so other students on campus at any given time. Most stay somewhere on the school’s 300 acres, in housing ranging from campgrounds to private rooms with baths.
“Our mission statement says nothing about craft, art, none of that,” says Jan Davidson, the school’s recently retired president. “Our mission is to provide experiences in non-competitive education and community life that are joyful and enlightening. Isn’t that cool?”
That said, the collaboration is in service to the art, which instructors and students take seriously. “This is all about a group thing,” says Davidson. “Social art, social expression, in a supportive place. The things that people make will just knock you out.”
A New York magazine editor and writer spent a week making brooms, and told Davidson it was one of the happiest moments of her life. One of the best fiddle players in the country spent his week learning book restoration from an Italian-Canadian master bookbinder, working to restore a book given to him as a child by a relative.
Students are not separated by skill level, and about 80 percent of the classes are geared toward beginners. Classes last 6 hours a day. Everyone has an opportunity to seek individualized attention from the instructor, and can make use of open studio time in the evenings.
Courses in cooking and music are popular mainstays, but woodturning and blacksmithing are the school’s signature programs. Dedication to tradition does not mean fear of experimentation, though. “We get a little stereotyped as this traditional place, and everyone else is contemporary,” Davidson says. “But we have no technological hang-ups. We’ll use anything that is good to work with, and we’ll make stuff out of anything.”
. Skills and Media Taught: Blacksmithing, clay, glass, metalwork, painting, photography, writing, woodworking, fibers, cooking, music.
. Course Length: Weekend or one week.
. Cost: $500 – $1500
. Lodging and Transportation: On campus lodging, camping to double rooms; two hours from Asheville, Atlanta, Chattanooga, and Knoxville by car. Atlanta is the closest airport, shuttle available.
. Website: John C. Campbell Folk School
Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts, Gatlinburg, Tennessee:
Clay, drawing, fibers, metals, glass, painting, paper and books, photography, printmaking, textiles, wood
Arrowmont began 105 years ago as a “settlement school” to provide basic education to children in a rural area. In response to the area’s lack of medical care, it also became Gatlinburg’s first medical center. When students brought handmade gifts from home to their teachers, people began to recognize Appalachia’s traditions of craftsmanship. The school started offering craft workshops in 1940, and eventually grew into what it is today.
Art retreats at Arrowmont are immersive—for a weekend, one week, or two weeks. Students stay on campus, eating in the dining hall and turning off all electronics. The school has 10 studios, and classes are now taught by instructors who come from all over the world.
“The quality of our instructors is a big thing for a lot of students, and that’s why they say they come here,” says Laura Tuttle, Arrowmont’s communications coordinator.
The school is most known for its clay and wood workshops, and every two years it holds a symposium on either utilitarian or figurative clay. Several years ago, Arrowmont started what it calls the Pentaculum, an invitation-only conference held the first week of the new year. The event gathers about 200 attendees for unstructured work in clay, metals, wood, fiber, or some other two-dimensional medium.
In a separate competitive residency program, five artists a year get an opportunity to live, work, and exhibit at the school for 11 months. One 2014 resident created the world’s largest rag rug, which filled a 200-person auditorium. Many of Arrowmont’s former students and residents have gone on to have careers, teach national workshops, or returned to teach at Arrowmont.
This past November, Gatlinburg suffered catastrophic wildfires, which destroyed two of Arrowmont’s dormitories and a maintenance shed. Undaunted, the school is moving forward with its 2017 workshops on schedule, and is designing new dormitories. Workshops with sought-after instructors may fill quickly, but there are no enrollment deadlines or cut-off dates.
“Just getting a week to get away from your everyday life, put down your cell phone, be in untouchable mode, and just work with your hands is, I think, one of the big reasons people come here,” says Tuttle.
. Skills and Media Taught: Clay, drawing, fibers, metals, glass, painting, paper and books, photography, printmaking, textiles, wood.
. Course Length: Three days, one week, or two weeks.
. Cost: $600 – $2100
. Lodging and Transportation: On campus housing, dormitories to private rooms; off campus accommodations also available. About an hour from Knoxville by car; by air, fly to Knoxville airport, shuttle available.
. Website: Arrowmont
North House Folk School: Grand Marais, Minnesota:
Boatbuilding, birch-bark canoe making, timber framing, blacksmithing, basketry, fibers, woodworking, painting, photography, sailing, outdoor skills, foods, and music.
On the north shore of Lake Superior—which, at 31,700 square miles, is the world’s largest body of fresh water—the North House Folk School began 20 years ago as a single class, on how to build a skin-on-frame kayak, taught out of a Coast Guard station. Soon, the school’s founders, all local citizens, were so confident in the school, and so passionate about its mission, that they created a full class program before they had found space in which to teach. Before long, the school had raised enough money to buy some U.S. Forest Service buildings right on the Grand Marais harbor, and eventually built more workshops, often in the traditional timber framing style that it was teaching. Subject offerings soon expanded along with the construction.
The school’s focus is on traditional craft of the Northern Hemisphere, not just in the U.S., but across the world. At a recent weekend retreat, for example, the guest instructor focused on knitting from Estonia. Instructors come from as far away as Scandinavia, Iceland, and Russia. Unlike many states, Minnesota has a rich commitment to crafts and the arts, with generous funding at the state and local levels.
While North House has grown markedly, becoming year-round to accommodate rising student interest, it is still relatively unknown, even in Minnesota. Whoever attends, though, seems to quickly get the bug. The proof, says Carolyn Fritz, the communications manager at North House, is in what happens after students return home. “People will email us pictures of themselves in their canoe paddling across the lake, or using their [handmade] spoon,” Fritz says. One student built a kick-sled, and then used it to complete an epic 135-mile race in Minnesota this January called the Arrowhead 135.
“People are really hungry to get their hands on things, and make things; for that relationship to the object and the story that tells of a place and a time.”
Many classes are only for adults, but North House does have courses for all ages, and offers a family-oriented weekend in October. A man nearing 100 years old, who has been taking bowl-turning classes at the school for many years, recently introduced the school to his grandson.
North House also offers a competitive 10-month internship program to four interns a year. Popular classes, or those with a sought-out instructor, may fill up about a month in advance. If you’ve got the time, include at least a few days canoeing and fishing in the Boundary Waters, a massive expanse of islands, bays, and forests that lie just an hour north of the school and are one of North America’s most untouched wild places.
. Skills and Media Taught: Boatbuilding, birch-bark canoe making, timber framing, blacksmithing, basketry, fibers, woodworking, painting, photography, sailing, outdoor skills, foods (including smoked meats), and music.
. Course Length: one day to two weeks.
. Cost: $100 – $3,500
. Lodging and Transportation: All lodging off campus; accommodations at local inns and motels; two hours north of Duluth, MN, by car. By air, fly to Duluth, Minneapolis-St. Paul, or Thunder Bay International airport. Shuttle service available.
. Website: North House Folk School
Anderson Ranch, Snowmass, Colo:
Furniture design and woodworking, sculpture, ceramics, painting and drawing, digital fabrication, photography and new media, printmaking.
Artists and crafters who draw inspiration from majesty in the natural world may be particularly drawn to Anderson Ranch. Nestled in the Rocky Mountains, the landscape is breathtaking at any time of the year, and the school attracts serious students, residents, and instructors from all over the country.
Anderson Ranch’s programs tend to fall a little more squarely in the art category than in craft traditions, but the school’s philosophy encourages students to explore the intersection between those two, says Andrea Wallace, one of the school’s artistic directors.
“Artists are kind of redefining the distinction between craft and fine art,” Wallace says. “Where craft used to be something that was primarily utilitarian, and art was this expression of ideas, I think there’s less of a rigidity and more of a crossover, and that’s what we’re trying to support.”
Sometimes, she says, that means incorporating new technologies, such as a CNC router, laser cutter, or MakerBot, but sometimes it means focusing on the handmade processes that form the basis of expression.
The Ranch’s origins are in ceramics and photography, but it now teaches eight different disciplines in five studios. About 1,300 people come through during the summer, with about 100 to 150 on campus at a time. Because of a strong scholarship program at the Ranch and partnerships with colleges and universities around the country, many attendees are undergraduate and graduate students. Classes are offered for all levels.
Faculty members give lectures twice a week during the summer, which helps everyone gather as a community. The school also brings in well-known contemporary artists to present work and meet students. Two sessions of a residency program in the Spring and Fall bookend the summer sessions, when 14 residents are selected to spend 10 weeks on campus working in the studios, learning from staff members, and hearing feedback from visiting critics.
“We want artists of all levels to come and be able to explore new ideas and hone their skills, and engage in a meaningful discussion about their process and about art making.”
. Skills and Media Taught: Furniture design and woodworking, sculpture, ceramics, painting and drawing, digital fabrication, photography and new media, printmaking.
. Course Length: One day to two weeks.
. Cost: $100 – $3,200
. Lodging and Transportation: On campus lodging, dormitory to single room; off campus accommodations also available. By car, 15 minutes from Aspen, 4 hours from Denver. By air, free shuttle from Aspen airport, van service from Denver airport.
. Website: Anderson Ranch