Young Champions of Craftsmanship
A year ago, we published the first guide available anywhere to America’s best residential summer workshops—in everything from woodworking and glass blowing to pottery and boatbuilding. Now, with help from the host schools, we’re featuring three of last summer’s stars.
By NATALIE JONES
As we inch closer to another summer, a tinkerer’s mind is likely to go looking for the chance (and the time) to build that rare, handmade item that he or she has always fantasized about. To inspire such glorious flights of fancy, last spring we created a guide—the first of its kind—to the most respected residential courses and workshops across the U.S. that teach everything from woodworking and glassblowing to pottery and metalwork.
When the summer was over, I followed up with each of the nine schools we featured, searching for students who showed unusual promise. Among the many nominees, two really stood out: a young woman studying painting in Aurora, Illinois, a Chicago suburb; and a young man who has been working with metal in Oakland, California.
In the course of my research, I also stumbled on a gusty woman in Minnesota named Angela Robins, whose passion is wood turning and boat building. Now a fellow and a teacher at the North House Folk School, Angela is one of those up and coming artisans already exhibiting the talent, patience, and commitment that mastery requires. As such, she is the first profile in a new, ongoing series that Craftsmanship Quarterly will publish from time to time, called Craftsmanship’s Young Turks.
What follows are our stories about each of these three artisan stand-outs. (Angela is profiled separately in our sidebar column.)
A few weeks before she was scheduled to spend two weeks in rural Massachussetts, developing her art skills on a 50-acre spread called “Snow Farm: The New England Craft Program,” Maria Zamudio, age 17, was playing tennis and fell backwards. She put her hand out to stop her fall, and broke her wrist. Her right wrist.
“I didn’t think I’d be able to do it, because painting and drawing, I’ve always done it with my right hand,” she says. Her motivation virtually disappeared; then, after a few days, she got herself to at least try, seeing what she could do with her left hand.
By the time she arrived at Snow Farm, Leah Mackin, her printmaking teacher, didn’t notice any lack of motivation. “She’s carving these blocks with her left hand, with this approach of, ‘This is the situation, I just gotta make it work,’” Mackin says. “It was so admirable. It didn’t even phase her that it was an impediment. She was like, ‘it’s okay, I can do this, just carve away.’”
To make the situation even more challenging, print-making was a new medium for Maria. No big deal; to her, that simply meant another surmountable challenge. Only a few months before she left for Snow Farm, Maria submitted a self-portrait to the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards program, and was awarded a Silver Medal. As it happens, Scholastic had just recently partnered with Snow Farm. That gave Maria the opportunity to apply for a scholarship, which she won.
For one of her projects, Maria chose to carve lips out of a linoleum block, with the lips made out of a pattern of flowers. “I chose the lips because it wasn’t super intricate to the point where I had to force my wrist too much,” she says. “They give off an Andy Warhol vibe, and it was a simple design but it still had a lot of things.”
Mackin teaches printmaking by starting with a grounding in the technical skills, which Maria seemed to instinctively understand. “She was really drawn to working in a sort of chiaroscuro method of drawing out the light from the dark in the block,” Mackin says. At times, however, her natural tendencies got in her way. Prone to analytical thinking, Maria sometimes spent a lot of time debating how to move forward, what to cut away, and what to keep. “I just had to say, Maria, you just have to make a decision,” Mackin recalls. As with many creative endeavors, the secret is in learning how to take risks, and then dealing with the consequences. “What would be the problem if you cut away the wrong thing?” Mackin would ask. “How would you solve it?”
Fortunately for Maria, Snow Farm isn’t only about the art. Both Mackin and Maria talk about how warm the community is there, even for someone only dropping in for a couple of weeks.
“I could see her become absorbed into the social aspect of the program along with the obvious educational aspects,” Mackin says. “She just was there to work and excited to be there, excited to interact with the other students.” When you ask Maria what stuck with her, one of the first things she mentions is the physical environment. When looking for inspiration, it’s difficult to beat natural beauty. (As Maria puts it, it “helped out with the painting.”)
Back in Aurora, Maria’s high school studio art teacher, Jenna Goeringer, has noticed that, since her stint at Snow Farm, Maria seems more comfortable taking risks. “She still loves that high level of finished pieces,” says Goeringer, who is teaching Maria for the third year in a row. But she’s noticed that Maria has become increasingly comfortable moving back and forth between both detailed and quicker pieces. As she compiles a portfolio for college applications, Goeringer says Maria’s work will need to show more cohesion and deliberation, but Goeringer thinks she’s already begun to learn new ways of working. “I think Snow Farm was really a chance for her to kind of be free from those restraints.”
Maria has another year of high school to finish, and many years to figure out exactly where her path is going. But she says her time at Snow Farm took her from enjoying art to seeing it as something to which she could actually dedicate her life. “There wasn’t a day where I was like, ‘ugh, I have to wake up and do art again,’” she says. “All those hours we put into it, I never get tired of it. I could stay up all night doing it if I have to.”
Rakau Boikanyo, 16, known to his friends and family as Rocky, has long been driven by the challenges of drawing hands. If they’re difficult to put on paper, he sometimes thought, what would it be like to try and make one out of metal?
Rocky has been taking metalworking classes at The Crucible, an industrial arts program in Oakland, California, since he was in the 6th grade, following a suggestion from his grandmother. After demonstrating his ability and seriousness, this past summer Rocky began assisting instructors in the welding department as a “Fuego Leader,” The Crucible’s version of an intern.
“He’s quiet, but he’s retaining everything you’re saying,” says Tory Fink, his mentor and the teacher Rocky was assisting at the Crucible. “So he was really listening to what I was saying and he was able to do a full demo pretty in-depth; more so than a lot of people would.”
Although the internship lasted only two weeks, that was enough time for Rocky to learn how to guide someone to bring their project to life—“not informing, advising,” he makes sure to specify. “That was the most fun part about helping,” he says. This school year, Rocky is applying the same skills as a tutor for a lower level illustration class.
When his help wasn’t needed, Rocky worked on his own project—a kinetic metal arm. The arm was inspired at least in part by a couple of video games he had been playing a lot of over the summer. The games had characters and machines with mechanical parts, which he found fascinating and challenging. (Click on the image below to watch Rocky welding the arm together.)
“His ability to think ahead and plan out his pieces is impressive for his age,” says Ismael Plasencia, the Youth Programs Associate at The Crucible. “Out of the five days of the week, he would spend four days just gathering pieces and sketching out his plans. Then, in half a day, he would put together these amazing sculptures that surprised you.”
Lauren Litwin, Rocky’s high school animation and illustration teacher, has also noticed how carefully he plans his projects. “He’ll take something small and then transform it into something greater and grander,” Litwin says. “I saw that a lot in his illustration work, and I think once he starts getting the ball rolling, his work almost becomes like an opera; he’ll start small and then it gets really epic.”
In one example, an animation assignment this year, Rocky had to create a single page of a comic book related to something he was learning in history class. Litwin says he ran away with the project, took materials home, and ended up making four pages based on the Crusades. “He’s very much like that,” she says. “He’ll do what’s required and then he’ll keep going because he knows he can do more with it.”
Rocky’s hand project took not only patience but also faith in his plan—partly because his pile of materials didn’t start to look like a hand until the end. “He definitely had certain things in mind about how he wanted to do it,” says Fink, his Crucible mentor. “He stuck by his guns — he wasn’t going to just do whatever I said, he was going to really think about it.”
While it is obviously early for Rocky to decide where he’s going to take his art and metalwork, he has some ideas—engineering, industrial design, and maybe prop design for movies. But first, he wants to gain experience in all kinds of fields. He should have little trouble. Rocky has already proven himself to be a good all-around student, with an interest in physics and a desire to apply for more internships and extracurricular opportunities.
Whatever he pursues, Rocky says he knows that his parents are behind his trying new things and creating work that’s meaningful to him. Litwin believes she, too, has seen this kind of support in Rocky’s relationship with his mother, Danielle. “She knows he’s awesome,” she says, “and she wants him to never feel limited in his ideas or his goals or his dreams.”
Snow Farm: The New England Craft School. Located about two hours west of Boston, Snow Farm offers 2-7 day summer courses in metalwork, glass, painting and drawing, fibers, ceramics, paper and books, and woodworking.
The Crucible. Started in an old warehouse in 1999, The Crucible is now the largest non-profit industrial arts education program in the U.S. It offers short and long-term courses in more than a dozen different media, including ceramics, leather and woodworking, metalwork, blacksmithing and other aspects of “the fire arts.”
“Summer Workshops for the Aspiring Artisan“—Natalie Jones’ article, published in April, 2017, on the nine best residential craft programs and workshops across the country.