Story and Photos by Kyesha Jennings
Yolanda Sommer was transitioning into her new role as Penland's Manager of Diversity Recruitment and Partnerships when Clay artist Sharif Bey gave her an enthusiastic suggestion, "he said, 'you know what I've been thinking. . .you know how [colleges] offer HBCU tours for high school students, and they bring them to their campuses, we need something like that for craft,'" remembered Sommer. Craft is often defined as a form of visual creativity. It is a constructive method that produces artforms for human use.
Located in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, Penland School of Craft is an international craft education center that offers community programs, artist residences and workshops across craft disciplines from ceramics, textiles, shoemaking to glass blowing, and more. Additionally, the campus has a state-of-the-art gallery and visitors center. Inspired by her own personal experience including the desire to introduce all that Penland has to offer to students of color, immediately she was on board. Success in craft and design often relies on having access to cultural capital that gives students a foothold in the industry. Funding for equipment, studio space, housing, and additional training can cost anywhere from $5,000-$20,000, creating a gap to populations with limited resources. Not to mention, many people who are unfamiliar with Crafts as a discipline often view the art-making process as a hobby as opposed to a viable career path.
Six months after Sommer and Bey's initial conversation, Penland hosted their first HBCU Craft School Tour. The number of students invited was capped at 12 to allow the institution to not only cover all travel-related costs but also comfortably host the students on campus in their dining, housing, and studio spaces. That year South Carolina State and Claflin University brought six students each to Penland to embark on a three-day immersive tour that introduced them to the craft school experience. They participated in a live hands-on demo, were exposed to working craft artists of color, and received guided support on applying to Penland's scholarships. While designing the program, Sommer was intentional about including competitive scholarships for HBCU students and faculty to attend Penland's craft workshops. "We knew that, for a lot of schools, for a lot of people in general, what generally stands in the way [of attending Penland] is money. Now, there are two scholarships for students who participate in the tour. One is partial and has a work-study component, the other is like a total full ride, [students] get tuition, room and board, in addition to money for travel, materials, and fees," Sommer said.
After a successful first year, which left Sommer feeling like each night had been better than she could imagine, Penland began building relationships with North Carolina A&T State University and Savannah State University, but the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted all in-person plans. "When the pandemic hit, we scrambled to find something else that would work," Sommer said. And they did. Using technology in the most innovative ways possible, Sommer and her co-worker recorded video content to create a virtual tour experience and met with the students via zoom for two half days. The second year proved to be just as successful as year one. Out of the nine virtual participants, five applied for scholarships and came to Penland in the summer of 2021. "We're not just looking to increase the number of people of color who are in Art or in Craft at Penland, we want to increase the number of people in art and craft in the broader field," said Sommer.
The success of Penland's new diversity initiative offers a glimpse of future possibilities for the field of Craft. Mentorship is an important component of the program. This year's mentors included Printmaker Althea Murphy-Prince, Craft artist and Metalsmith David Harper Clemmons, and Glass Artist Che' Rhodes. When reflecting on the importance of mentorship Clemmons shared the following, "So many working artists extended themselves to me, to help me get to where I am. And so, I know with teaching, part of it for me is that I feel an obligation to do the same thing for other people. Sort of creating that early exposure, sustain that exposure, and show them that it's a viable career". For Rhodes, an Associate Professor and Head of Studio Glass at the University of Louisville, when he received the invitation, he knew the experience exposing students of color to a place like Penland would be of value. For him, seeing the moment when something clicked or resonated with a student in person confirmed those feelings.
As a graduate of Spelman College, one of two all-women HBCUs, located in Atlanta, Georgia, Murphy-Prince, a Printmaking Professor at the University of Tennessee Knoxville, spoke to the weekend's bigger mission--diversifying the field of craft, the field of fine arts more broadly speaking. "The mission of programs like this far exceeds just bringing students or bringing diverse individuals into a new place. It offers potential and access to expand the whole field of Fine Art. As we're talking to students, we're talking to students not just in terms of how great learning crafts are, or how great classes are, the type of exchange possible, but we're talking about building blocks of a path. A career that can expand in multiple different directions. We're talking about museum studies, we're talking about Fine Arts, we're talking about mainstream contemporary art Crafts worlds. We are talking about a broader field that we recognize the need for diversity in all of its aspects". There are established ideas about who can be a craftsperson, or what a craftsperson can do. Penland's HBCU Craft School Tour revises those ideas and is an initiative that will hopefully inspire others too as well.
"My experience touring Penland was absolutely amazing! It was like Eden for artists. The energy there is so inspiring, wholesome, and flooded with creativity. I love ALL of the studios along with the architecture of each building," said Deion Franklin, a graduate of Claflin University. Franklin attended Penland's first inaugural HBCU Craft School Tour in 2019. This past summer he returned to Penland on scholarship to complete a ceramics summer workshop course titled "Clay as Canvas".
"[The course] was exactly what I wanted to do to take my work to the next level. [Penland] is a place to go to for something new or to gain knowledge on a craft. When I joined the class, I had no experience with porcelain or a spin wheel. It was all new to me, I learned how to use the wheel in less than two days," shared Franklin. "The session helped me realize what I wanted to really pursue as a Ceramic Artist. The techniques I learned will definitely be applied to my work and I will be returning to Penland for future workshops and enrichment."