Mike Foltz, wiping his sweat-laden brow, grasps the metal stem, clamping it between the jaws of a large bench vise, filing the steel and feeling as he works to ensure a smooth finish. When he’s satisfied he releases his prize—a beautiful steel-gray tulip—treating it as gently as he would a flower freshly plucked from his garden back home in Elmore, Ohio.
The petals of his tulip, one of two he’s forged from steel during his week at John C. Campbell Folk School, are as delicate as if they were real and under his touch they come to life. Soon, he will mount the flowers on a stand forged from the same metal. Leaves, now waiting at the mouth of the furnace for their turn in the fire, have yet to be added to finish the centerpiece.
Around him other students, from beginners to the more experienced, practice the ancient art of metallurgy. Their floral creations lie in varying stages of completion in the new wing of the blacksmith building.
John C. Campbell, a student of theology, came with his wife, Olive, to study the region of Southern Appalachia at the turn of the 20th century and realized the importance of education to empower the people and improve their lives. But the couple also realized the importance of preserving their art, techniques and tools to share with the outside world.
John Campbell died in 1919, but with help from her friend Marguerite Butler, Olive returned to North Carolina following a trip to Denmark to study folk schools. The women opened John C. Campbell folk school in 1925 and it has been teaching traditional craft ever since.
For a complete history, visit the school’s History Center where you’ll find artifacts, photographs and other pieces important to the John C. Campbell Folk School timeline.[/pullquote]
“By the time the end of the week comes around, they’ll all have gained experience,” says teacher Rob Alexander. Alexander teaches seven classes throughout the year. In addition to blacksmithing, he teaches how to build and play a resonated guitar and make hand-carved wooden signs.
This is Foltz’s fourth visit to take classes at the Folk School. He’s not there to compete. None of the students are. No grades or credits for continuing education are given. “This is what makes the school a little different from other arts schools around the country,” explains school director, Jan Davidson. “That, and the fact that modern art is not part of the curriculum.” It’s all about the arts of old.
“The arts we offer really never disappeared,” Davidson says as he sits outside on the dining room porch. Our view on this day is a spectacular one overlooking the Appalachian Mountains and Brasstown Creek. Across the parking lot is a large, fully equipped kitchen with gas stoves and state-of-the-art ovens that stand in contrast to a wood-fired pizza oven and a large stone fireplace. It’s used to teach open-hearth cooking, teaching 18th-century methods and techniques of cooking over an open flame to make foods using recipes penned by early cooks.
“In spite of the way technology has changed many things, there’s simply still not a better way to make these things. Take a white oak rocking chair, for instance. It still needs to be made the way it’s always been made, only we can use a chain saw now to cut down the tree. The best way to make these things is the way we make them here.”
Blacksmithing is one of dozens of classes offered. Others on the docket for this particular one-week session include making a Shaker side table; creating stained glass; pottery; shoe making; bread baking; woodturning; felt making; fused glass; paper boxes; making a folk harp and more. Class topics vary from session to session, and might also feature the ancient art of bookbinding or an Appalachian favorite: making your own dulcimer.
Davidson came to the folk school 25 years ago, and says the most significant change has been an increase in the number of students, from 40 back in the early 1990s to 150 now. “We had to grow in order to sustain ourselves,” he says. “But that’s a set number. We’re not trying to get any bigger.”
Students have several choices of accommodations, ranging from the most primitive—tent camping—to dorm-style living or large houses with private bedrooms and baths. All meals are taken in the dining hall, family style.
Many students are here for the first time, but like Foltz, many are return guests. Alice Ahlers is here for the 218th time. She’s taken almost every class offered. This time it’s pottery. From Atlanta, Ahlers is making chess pieces to go with a chessboard she made in a previous woodworking class at the mountain school.
“I’ve tried as many disciplines as I could and enjoyed every single one,” she says. “The instructors are excellent.”
Teachers have also been students. Nancy Crampton, from Kalamazoo, Michigan, is here for the 14th time, although not as a student, but as a weaving teacher. She remembers coming with her husband for the first time.
“It was so magical,” she says. “And then we thought about coming back, we asked ourselves if we dared, ‘could it possibly be as good as it was that first time?’ It was. Every time has been different, but just as good.” When asked her favorite course, she was quick to respond. “Landscape watercolor.” Davidson quotes a former student when asked to describe the John C. Campbell Folk School experience.
“When one is creating something, it’s the time out of time,” he says. “Our lives are now so computer-based. Most of what we do here is real. It’s intimate.
“I like the concept of ‘flow’ —intense concentration on a task. When a person achieves flow, he’s confident, comfortable and in control. Under those conditions, you can forget about all the other stuff. It’s your eyes and hands working together to create something.”
Davidson is of the belief that deep in the crevices of everyone’s brain, there’s a creative soul waiting for discovery.
“There’s an artist in everyone.”
Online: For a complete list of classes, a breakdown on prices and information about scholarships, log onto www.folkschool.org.
Fall festival: The John C. Campbell Folk School Fall Festival brings together more than 200 juried and non-juried craftspeople, continuous live music on two stages, craft demonstrations, great food and much more. It’s always a well-attended festival with more than 14,000 people from around the Southeast in attendance over a two-day period.
This year’s festival will be held on the grounds of the folk school October 1 and 2 from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Admission is $5 (adults), $3 (ages 12-17) and free for children under 12.
Story by Anne Braly
Photography courtesy of John C. Campbell Folk School