Jean McLaughlin is a life-long advocate for the needs of artists. As executive director of Penland School of Crafts for the past 18 years, she has led the school through a period of significant growth and change. Prior to that, she worked with artists and visual arts organizations at the North Carolina Arts Council for 16 years.
As a testament to our craft school educational experiences, I want to share the insightful and exhilarating conversation I had with Matthew Hollern, an upper metals student during Penland’s summer 2016, 3rd session. I was visiting the studios when I saw the most imaginative reconfigurations of ordinary stainless steel eating utensils. I knew I wanted to talk with this guy who also seemed to be brimming over with ideas and exuberance. I always think that laughter is a good sign—a good starting place for brainstorming and friendship. His laughter drew me in. Matthew Hollern is a professor in metals at the Cleveland College of Art and Design. He and his wife, Pamela Argentieri, also a metalsmith and designer, took a class for the playful, rejuvenating, experimental nature of creating in retreat together. He talked about the cleverness of thinking all around them, the ideas they could bounce off of others, the non-competitive atmosphere, and the joy of being amidst people in their early 20s to late 60s.
Conversation on July 9, 2016, with Matthew Hollern:
JM: Tell me how you and your wife chose to come to Penland at this time, for this class. MH: The first thing was simply excitement about the idea. Pam said “You really should go. You haven’t done anything like this in years.” At first I thought “I would like to do that, that’s a really nice idea…then I thought we should both go. At first there was only one space available, and then about a week later the second space came available and we immediately got a message from the registrar that we were both in and we were really happy. We then began to look forward to it for a couple of months! I can’t say that I knew exactly what to expect. I couldn’t even really describe the campus that well other than remembering volley ball every night after dinner and thinking that was really fun.
And I think what happens here is if you’re fortunate enough to get in the groove and let yourself go and just go with your ideas and try them, you can cruise...
JM: And when were you here before? During Bill Brown’s time? MH: Yes, 1983. I was taking a class with Mary Ann Scherr. Bill Helwig was also teaching enameling that session. I had my 19th birthday on June 4th while I was here and on my birthday I stayed up all night talking to Bill and I don’t know who else and the birds started chirping and I went, “Gosh, its morning.”
JM: Did you know Mary Ann Scherr or about her career? Are you from Ohio? MH: No, I’m from Madison, Wisconsin. I probably got advice on what workshop to take from Fred Fenster. I think Fred said “You should go to Penland. It will change your life.” And at that time I decided I wanted to be like Fred… I didn’t know what I wanted to be and a friend of mine said “I just assumed you were going to teach. What else are you going to do?” Nice slam in the face…[Laughs]but I thought about Fred, a wonderful man who loves his life, he gets to be an artist, his students love him, he loves his students… what more could you ask for? Plus, he has the academic schedule. And Penland really was affirming. I spent two weeks here. I made 13 pieces. I remember mentioning this to a student of ours who came to Penland last summer, Ryan Bodley. I told him I worked, and worked, and worked when I was here in ’83, and now I am here and I made 30 pieces. I know so much more now than I did then. [laughs] 33 years ago.
JM: Both the skills and the discipline? What do you mean? MH: Ideas and curiosity. I was very happy with what happened these last two weeks because my creativity came right back. No distractions, no meetings, no email to answer. I think people knew I was away and wanted to give me this space. We posted a lot of things, so people knew what we were doing and that’s part of what happens- they know you’re on a nice retreat or concentration and they respect that and leave you alone. We put up all sorts of funny things on Instagram and Facebook and we connected with Penland. [laughs] It’s so funny and really, really fun. Part of the reason we wanted to come do this was because Phil Renato was also in a workshop and he is a close friend. And Pam and I love doing stuff with him, and we love Boris Bally [the instructor.] We didn’t know Selena Coyle who was co-teaching- she’s really great, too.
JM: Can you comment on how this educational experience enriches, enhances, or is different from your experience teaching in a college – how the students here might be different in comparison to an academic environment? MH: A workshop and a concentration like these two weeks where you get up and you start to work and there is a breakfast provided is so different than an academic course experience for creativity. Academic creativity is interrupted several times a day and several times a week. And I think what happens here is if you’re fortunate enough to get in the groove and let yourself go and just go with your ideas and try them, you can cruise- there is very little interruption. It’s so much fun that you want to get up from the table at any of the meals and get back to the studio. And that’s not to say that it isn’t incredibly great sitting and talking with people about all sorts of stuff, but I was lying in bed at night thinking about my pieces. I woke up in the morning, and laid there before I got up thinking about how to make certain parts. I had nothing else that was on my mind. So I think the remoteness of this place is very important and the sense of community is really important, the openness- the doors of our rooms aren’t locked. That sense of just letting your hair down, even though my hair is really short [laughs], it does something to you.
Boris Bally and Matthew Hollern
JM: can you talk more about the trusting environment and the community spirit you felt here? MH: Yes, it’s psychological. It’s certainly has an emotional effect on a person and it clearly has the potential to positively affect your creed of confidence. You’re among friends. Phil is hilarious. He says the most outrageous things. Nancy, who was sitting right by Pam and me who has taken a number of classes, is from Georgia, she worked in museum installation, building fixtures and furniture to display objects. She’s a retired person and is quiet, very kind and modest, and we were laughing and making jokes and she was having so much fun she said “I feel like I should have had to pay to sit at this bench.” It was just so much fun. I’m sad it’s over. I’m already thinking I want to come back here next summer. I want to come back just as a student. I teach a lot, spend a lot of outside time teaching where all of my ideas go to other people. I realized that being here. I have a lot of ideas- silly things, fun things, clever things, goofy things- my ideas, and I had time to make them. JM: You’re a person with so much experience as a professional, skilled craftsperson and I love this idea you’re pointing to now about the difference between actually teaching and giving yourself this gift of time so that your own ideas can develop. MH: We were listening to an audio clip recently in the car driving to visit my parents and one of the ideas was that you have to start with yourself. You can be giving, generous, and charitable, but it can’t be all sacrifice because eventually you run dry. So you have to start with yourself and if you can build yourself and do things that inspire you, you’ll also do well working with other people, doing the other things you feel strongly about. There is nothing wrong with that. I think all of us need to be reminded that you do get to take some time to yourself and do some things for yourself, which puts you in the position to do good things with and for other people. I have been thinking about it a lot when I was here. I wrote on Instagram or Facebook, “I haven’t had this much fun since I was a student.”