Before you get to Haystack Mountain School of Crafts on Deer Isle, Maine, you get to the end of the road—a gravel road ending in a parking area surrounded by spruce and fir trees. This might not seem remarkable, but I have worked for many years at Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina, which is almost as isolated as Haystack except that a two-lane, public road runs through the middle of campus. So getting to the end of the road before I could see the school was a good indication that while Haystack and Penland may be sisters, they are not twins.
I was there in September 2015 to spend a few days taking pictures for the CraftSchools.us consortium, the group that facilitates joint marketing and other collaborative work by five craft workshop schools with similar programs: Peters Valley (New Jersey), Arrowmont (Tennessee), Pilchuck (Washington State), Penland, and Haystack. I had long admired Haystack from afar, and I was happy to finally be there.
I walked through the parking lot and came to the Gateway building, which houses the school store and library on one side and a gathering space on the other. Passing between them I followed a path, some wooden steps, and a boardwalk and landed on the large, open deck that is seen in every Haystack catalog. This deck is connected by wooden stairs and walkways with almost all of Haystack’s buildings, which share a uniform design with gray wooden siding and distinctive, modernist rooflines. Forming the spine of the campus is a dramatic stairway that plunges down the hill to a small platform above Jericho Bay. All of this infrastructure is punctuated by tall evergreens that reach up between the buildings and walkways. I stood on the deck for a few minutes looking around and wondered—as I’m sure thousands of others have—if I was dreaming.
My Haystack visit fell during a significant time of transition. Poet Stuart Kestenbaum, Haystack’s director of twenty-seven years, had stepped down in May, and his successor, ceramic sculptor Paul Sacaridiz, was not arriving until late September. The staff ran the school during the 2015 season with the help of visiting artists who served as hosts for each session. My tour guide was Session Six host Tim McCreight, a jeweler and long-time Haystack instructor. As we walked from studio to studio meeting instructors and students, I was struck by many things that distinguish Haystack and Penland from each other, but also by how familiar it all seemed.
The tools and equipment used to teach clay or blacksmithing don’t vary much from one well-equipped studio to another, so there were many similarities in that regard. But more important were the people. While each workshop skewed a little differently (as they do at Penland), every studio group was a mix of ages, genders, and skill levels united by an intense interest in the subject matter, an often giddy appreciation for being able to do this particular thing in this amazing place, and the camaraderie that results from working together and sharing lovingly prepared meals in a communal dining hall. Any of these groups could have been plucked from a Penland workshop and dropped off at Haystack. And, in fact, I did see some familiar faces.
This brings me to what I admire most about Haystack. Like a good artist, this institution has used its limitations as a creative catalyst.
Selection of photos from Robin Dreyer's trip to Haystack in 2015
The contrast between the facilities, however, is profound. Penland’s buildings range in age from several years to a century-and-a-half, and they come in a variety of styles and sizes—from old farm houses to architect-designed studios. Haystack’s award-winning campus follows a unified design created by Edward Larrabee Barnes and was built almost entirely in 1960. The few buildings added since then have been seamlessly integrated into the original plan. And, while Penland is surrounded by the gently contoured Blue Ridge Mountains, Haystack students can sit on huge rocks that look out to an ocean horizon. The most significant contrast, however, is the scale. Penland and Haystack share many of the same instructors and workshop topics and certainly the same basic intent—to broaden the creative scope of participants’ lives, to teach craft skills in a contemporary context, and to create transformative educational experiences—but Haystack is a much smaller facility, it offers a third as many workshops, and it operates within the limitation of being an unheated facility in a cold climate.
This brings me to what I admire most about Haystack. Like a good artist, this institution has used its limitations as a creative catalyst. Here are a few examples: It was not practical to add both a blacksmith shop and a glass studio to the campus, so the Haystack built a space that ingeniously converts from one to the other. The size of the dining hall and an absolute limit on housing prevents the school from expanding enrollment, so it has enriched each session by creating a visiting artist program and, most recently, the Fab Lab, which makes digital fabrication technology available to every workshop. The weather means that the Haystack season can’t get longer, so a few years ago they created a whole new use for the facility by replacing one summer workshop session with an open-studio residency for skilled artists. It’s clear that constraints at Haystack have inspired innovation.
I would be remiss in the context of this story if I did not mention the intertwined history of the two schools. Penland was founded in 1929 by Lucy Morgan. Sometime in the 1940s (accounts of the circumstances vary), Morgan was visited by Mary Bishop, a philanthropist who summered in Maine. Bishop thought there needed to be a “Penland” in the north, so, in 1950, she helped establish Haystack to fulfill that role. Haystack’s first director was Frances Merritt, whose assistant for eleven years was sculptor and educator Bill Brown. Together they established Haystack’s single-subject, total immersion workshop program and created an ethos of information sharing that went counter to the trade-secret culture of many craft practitioners of that time. When Morgan retired in 1962, Brown became Penland’s second director. He brought with him the essentials of the Haystack program, which have profoundly shaped everything that has happened at Penland since.
A few years ago, a friend of mine who had been to Penland many times decided to take a Haystack workshop before her annual Penland trip. She sent me an email that said, “I’m at Haystack. It’s like Penland only smaller and with more cookies.” “Cookies?” I replied. “So many cookies,” she answered. I never quite got the rest of the story, but I assumed my trip to Haystack would involve cookies. I was not disappointed
At Penland we have a fully-equipped coffee house that sells cookies and other treats, and it’s a beautiful thing. Haystack isn’t big enough for this to make sense; instead, self-serve coffee and tea are available in the dining hall all the time. The lunch line usually ends with a large bowl of excellent cookies, and every evening the kitchen crew puts out the remaining cookies in a large ceramic jar—maybe like your grandmother’s cookie jar, only bigger. So, when you are working into the night, listening to the crickets or the lapping water or maybe chatting with your neighbor, and you need a little pick-me-up, you can walk up to the dining hall, make a cup of tea, and reach into the big jar for a cookie or two. Like many other things at Haystack, it’s a bit magical.
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