“Cocoon," Penland School of Crafts, pine needles in bird netting, 11'h. 2001
Below is a story I wrote about my first pine needle and bird netting installation:
Penland 2000 written Aug. 2002
It’s an eight hour drive to get there, almost all on Interstate 81 which cuts diagonally down the longest possible way through a Virginia of 100 years ago, cuts right through mountains at times, 70 mph legal speed limit. I’m pushing Carl’s little Madza truck as hard as I can which is a little under the legal speed limit. Luckily the tape player works as does NPR until I get past Wythe, Virginia which is pretty far down there. I’m amazed they even have public radio in these hills. Luckily I have frozen a ½ gallon of water in a milk jug which I have placed between my legs. It’s the only cooling system besides the hot air blowing in the windows. The reason I’m driving the truck and not my car is that I’m hauling an amazing assortment of natural materials besides my chain saw and other sundry electric and hand tools. I have boxes of grasses including some thatching from England, honeysuckle, scarred pieces of trees, saplings twisted by honeysuckle, all stuff I’ve collected from the woods around me. I know I’ll probably be hauling even more back home. For the first time in twenty years I’m going to the Penland School of Crafts located way in the mountains somewhere vaguely near Asheville, NC. In 1923 Lucy Morgan organized the Penland Weavers to provide assistance for local women to make and market their hand-woven goods. Today it is a hodgepodge of 400 acres and 43 structures, from one of the original log cabins, to houses and a huge poplar log structure, all in a gracious mountain state of persistence and decay. Classes in clay, metals, jewelry, glass, wood working, drawing and print making handling about 140 students a session exists today. I went 20 years ago to a metal forming class, when a windfall of funds and isolation drove me down there. I spent two weeks hammering out copper into beautiful beaten shapes, a skill I have still not brought into my work, but as I write, images form with bark and copper together. Poverty and then a marriage which took me to Switzerland and Thailand has kept me away until now, but all those years I read descriptions of classes and there is one scheduled this year called "Conversations With Nature” that seems created just for me in this particular junction in life. I don’t know the work of teacher Kyoung Ae Cho and I certainly don’t know how to pronounce his or her name. I call Penland for illumination on the teacher and find pictures off Kyoung Ae’s work in Fiberarts magazine. It must be a she for one of the pieces uses her hair woven into an ephemeral cylinder. She has done quilts using thinly cut dimensional lumber and burned little holes between the growth lines. I admire the craftsmanship, the way she honors and takes the messiness of nature and refines it in her Asian way. Summer of 2000 I arrive at Penland after a last windy drive up the mountain to much the same scene as twenty years ago. A bowl shaped ridge surrounds a meadow, the meadow having a rounded mountaintop of all it’s own. Various wooden buildings circle the meadow all half hidden by 12 foot tall rhododendrons and trees. The white converted and added onto farmhouse which houses the kitchen and dining area and that huge log building dominate the scene. I find registration and head over to my room assignment which is unfortunately located over the kitchen and under a metal catwalk that I know leads to an attic dormitory which is where I stayed 20 years ago. It’s even more unfortunate that a guy, a young guy in huge clomping boots hauling his stuff upon said catwalk. No view to speak off unless one counts male legs viewed through metal grating as they are viewing you trying to stay cool in some skimpy outfit. It doesn’t really matter as I know I’ll spend little time in the room. I go find our studio which turns out to be the same one where I took that metals class. “Conversations With Nature” is a special class not like the clay or glass classes so we are stuck in someplace. It’s small and dark and sterile down there and our tables are about 3 x 5 feet, that’s for a truck load of stuff. I haul in boxes and stash them in a back room and pick out a table with a window and a view. Luckily it’s down in that dark space as there is no air conditioning anywhere on campus and it does get hot as July 4th is looming. That evening I meet Kyoung Ae Cho and the other members of the class. We are packed to the gills in the little room, but already it is becoming our space as various natural treasures start appearing on our tables. Thus begins two weeks of a most intensive creative atmosphere. It seems if everyone is working from dawn to 4 am, but of course the younger ones must also get in their mating rituals. Folks from 18 to 80 all finding and juicing their creativity. Three times a day we go eat the greatest of food, strong on vegetarian, all served up on handmade pots. We eat communally at round tables that over look the meadow and it’s attendant llamas and horses. Early the first morning we sit out on some stone steps and Kyoung Ae hands out the first of a daily page from what I ascertain is a 12 Step book of some recovery and somehow the passages are apt to our creative process. Difficulty at the beginning is our first one although I’m raring to go. Kyoung Ae leads us through an exercise to locate and activate our creative center which we then are asked to draw. Then we are to assemble two sets of ten objects that to each of us signify bone and skin and we are to recreate our drawing, our creative center. I pick stripped honeysuckle for bone and pieces of unprocessed mulberry bark that I bought in Thailand and is used for paper making. I soak the bark until it is pliable. I play with it having never worked with it before. I wrap it around the honeysuckle, twist it and basically run out of the allotted time. But I don’t care, I’ve always been a “good” student doing what the teacher wants. Now I do what I need and I need to understand these material in my hands. My first form is lacking in craftsmanship which I so treasure, lacking in a logical way of assembling these unmodified natural materials. Next morning our quote reads “God creates. People rearrange.” That’s what we do. Kyoung Ae asks us to collect five natural objects and then with them sitting in front of us, she asks us to create houses for them. Houses that the objects need, not what we need. Housing, niche, altar, clothing, protecting, honoring, enhancing. Also she announces that each of us will create an outdoor installation and I start thinking about that big time. My work often has the quality of pushing away the messiness, the extraneous outside world and I want to create an environment that is tranquil, hidden, a place where I (and others) can gain some solitude on the raucous campus. I know there is a bamboo grove and thick black mica shist paving stones that I have never seen before, but know must be locally mined. I want to make a circular stone niche in the bamboo groove and talk to the resident gardener, Priscilla about the stones. But I know they will be too heavy, that there will be too much work and not enough learning. Priscilla then off handedly says that one can buy pine needles in bales in these parts and that sets me on a new course. A soft mound of pine needles in the bamboo grove. But the grove does not feel right to me. In fact it’s one the messiest and forbidding bamboo groves I’ve ever encountered. Usually I am enchanted by the waving leaves, the dappling light, but this groove has been unattended for years and is under huge trees, so it is dark and dank. I walk around the grounds looking for another site, an inspiration. I pick out a site overlooking the volleyball court and think I might run a line of pine needles under the net which will make for an interesting battle at the net at the nightly games which I am restraining myself from participating in. I still want my presence known, but this may be a negative way of getting attention. I ask Kyoung Ae for advice and she says to be careful about picking too open a site, that my material might look too small, to pick a site that is enclosed or framed by trees. So I walk around some more looking for a more defined site, down a boardwalk to a deck, on a hillside among tall grass. Next to the boardwalk there is a clump of five trees radiating out from the base and since I am above it or at least five feet up the tree by sight, it catches my mouse eyes, these eyes always looking down on the ground searching for small treasures. My eyes go up. I will make it, whatever it is, in a tree. There is a big oak tree that splits into two nearly equal in diameter trunks near our studio and right outside the administrative offices. If I’m going to spend a few days making this thing I want it to be seen. I make the drive to the hardware store that sells the pine needles. I have a plan to use plastic bird netting used to protect fruit trees to hold in the pine needles. I have no idea if it is strong enough to hold in the pine needles as I’ve never touched the stuff before. I sit in my truck outside the hardware store with twelve bales of pine needles and a bag of bird netting. I rip open the cover and pull hard at the netting. It will work!!!!. That evening I sew the bird netting into a triangle and stick the tapered end in the crotch of the tree which is about four feet above ground. Immediately the rough bark grabs the netting. In fact the netting gets caught in everything, my glasses, my buttons. It is nearly impossible to tell inside from outside, but with the pine needles sticking out of the holes, it is barely visible. All you see is a swirling mass of pine needles magically stuck together. I am using an old pillow case to hold the pine needles as I stuff them into the bird netting. The first few bags look very anthropomorphic, the crotch of tree becomes female, but as the pine needles fill up, the form rights itself, even though I don’t know how I’m going to finish the top. For two days I climb a few hundred times up and down two extension ladders, working amidst the diggings of a back hoe that makes an appearance to deal with a clogged sewer line. Did I mention yet how funky everything is and how comfortable I feel in this environment, unlike the city people herewho haul flash lights around and worry about ticks and mosquitoes and snakes. I push the needles into the netting making sure they are dense enough and into a pleasing swirling pattern. I have inadvertently bought long leaf pine needles which are ten to twelve inches long, strong and pliant, in beautiful hues of brown. Koung Ae suggest some internal support so I add a a vertical member with a few cross members wedged between the two trunks. In the end I make a kind of anthropomorphic head, an eleven foot tall pine needle mummy or cocoon. This cocoon I make to me feels welcoming, portuitous. What will emerge from it? Other people feel threatened by it’s looming mass. I love watching people just walking along minding their own business suddenly look up and see this huge presence. This creation has set me on a new course of on site installations done not in the sterile confines of galleries, but in public spaces. I love the challenge of on site construction, much like building my house, when I didn’t know how to build a house. I love seeing people get their day to day minds open to new possibilities, to once again be reminded that we are natural creatures no matter how hard we try to ignore our animal. I had the honor of my mummy being allowed to stay up after my two week session was finished. Penland even put it on the cover of the next year’s catalog. I pick out my next course to take and exactly a year later I get to see how the cocoon has weathered. It has shrunk some do to the settling of the pine needles, the netting still gripping the bark which creates an exacting semblance to my aging back muscles. But all in all it still is an imposing presence. I know sometime later that summer Priscilla the gardener will turn my art into mulch which is just so pleasing to me. After all what are we but mulch for the earth. My only regret is the netting that ends up at the landfill. It is a small price to pay for God’s creation and my rearrangement.