by Jean McLaughlin, Outgoing Executive Director, Penland School of Crafts
Jean McLaughlin (l) with new Executive Director Mia Hall (r)
I have always been one to look ahead and not back so I am now preparing for the two workshops I will take at Penland in 2018. I left printmaking behind in 1973 when it was just not easy to gain studio access after graduating from college; professional work years intervened, and now I am over-the-moon with eagerness to use the beautifully-equipped studio that I helped to build.
While I may have relinquished my post at Penland School of Crafts, my engagement and commitment is far from over. I am finding my way into another phase of life at Penland as part of the community, as a volunteer, and as one of Penland’s greatest fans.
Reflecting on the past 20 years, however, I realize that the future and past are fusing. Penland was a place of refuge for me as a young person, a place where I connected with an artist community while I worked at the NC Arts Council over 16 years. I felt a kinship with everyone I met at Penland, and Penland’s mission propelled me towards serving artists in every aspect of my professional life. Penland was then, and is now, the same simple yet multi-faceted, joyous and emotional, raw and nurturing, highly energetic and creative place.
As director, I was able to spend time surrounded by people who were passionate, eager, curious, hopeful, searching, experimenting, and producing the most amazing works of art. My role was to focus quietly behind-the-scenes, making it possible for the programs to take place, the facilities to grow, the landscape to be protected, and the history to be valued. I wanted our operations to appear seamless, non-intrusive, friendly and welcoming. I wanted us to provide a healthy environment that would enable artists to spend their time making new work and meeting people that would become friends for life.
There were strategic plans to write, fundraising campaigns to manage, new studios to build, historic houses to renovate, students to feed, gardens to weed and leaves to rake, but the greatest joy came from hearing the stories of the students, instructors, resident artists, staff, board members and friends of the school. Each person came to Penland with a question in mind, some challenge ahead, and left moved in a uniquely personal way by their encounters at Penland.
Sarah Bryant’s collaborative class project in 2017 was a letterpress book answering the question, “How Far Are You Now?” Each entry was anonymous and this one spoke to me: “Adventure is like a blank book, waiting to be written in. Nature knows no sadness. It invites you to touch it, even though it is nervous. I crumble sweet lavender in my hands. I draw lines of jet exhaust in the sky. I want to be like a mountain CONFIDENT & GROUNDED. Nature wanted to make me better, so I said yes.”
Being the director of Penland was a grand adventure for me, a wild and glorious ride with a blank book awaiting me at the end. I felt like I was called upon to say “yes” many times and now have beautiful memories and accomplishments that stand as caring markers of those days. The endowment, scholarships, facilities, programs, and diversity all grew over 20 years with the help of many people. As I now look forward, I will always be a steward of Penland in the ways that I can, and, I know I have left its day-to-day life in very good hands.
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