In November 2016, Gatlinburg, Tennessee suffered a devastating fire that destroyed hundreds of homes, businesses and tree-covered acreage. As news broke on social media, we watched the unfolding story as it related to Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts, a beloved crafts school with a network of artists, fans, and workshop attendees spread across the globe. The stories of escape from quickly advancing flames were horrific. We were frightened for Arrowmont’s staff and families, and we worried that nothing would remain of the school. When morning came, the dormitory I’d stayed in just one year earlier while attending a Surface Design Association conference, was one of two buildings destroyed in the fire, but the rest of the campus had mercifully been spared.
So, when I was invited to attend Arrowmont’s Pentaculum 2018, a gathering of 80 artists and writers working in clay, metal, fiber, 2-d, and wood, I felt both delight and reverence. I wanted not only to inhabit this loss but pay homage to renewal. I’d make a piece in my Tarp Series, in which I position my expressive textile paintings as metaphorical tarps. I see tarps as protective, versatile and adaptive. I’d start with drawings on campus, translating them to cloth, then photograph the piece outdoors in select settings.
Upon arrival, inevitably I recalled a much earlier connection to the Great Smoky Mountains. During very formative years as a 19 year old, I spent two months at the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont, then known as the Maryville College Environmental Education Center. It was 1973, and I leaned into the wildness, leading school children on hikes, learning about material culture, foodways, harp singing, launching myself into the art making and community arts career that has been a part of me ever since.
At Pentaculum 2018, we did not anticipate the very unusual cold weather, which made outdoor drawing impossible and photography challenging. But I let my eye be “open,” with doodles and observations on walks and out the studio windows.
The imagery in the resulting piece, Sorrow and Renewal, is more representational than is usual for me. Colors are black, grey, —and red. Red for pent-up passions, energy, sorrow, fire, joy and heat. But it is in the context of the forest, streams, rocks, gnarled trees, that this red makes the most sense and feels right.
Scouting photography locations in 13 degree weather, I explored the woodpile of huge downed trees, there perhaps not from the fire but adjacent to the hill where remains of the fire are visible. And also there, grapefruit sized piles of bear scat from visits to nearby dumpsters. But it was a place along the river that truly allowed this piece to find its singing voice. Renewal is apparent, gratifying, and not to be taken for granted. Pentaculum 2018 was a wonderful experience. And Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts continues to be a magical place.