Penland's Historically Black Colleges and Universities Tour Encourages Students Of Color To Consider A Career In Craft

Story and Photos by Kyesha Jennings

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

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."


Kyesha Jennings

Kyesha Jennings is the content director for the North Carolina Arts Council where as a part of the marketing and communications team, she curates, produces, and develops content that highlights the diversity and vitality of the arts in our state. An award-winning hip-hop scholar, Kyesha is a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania, where her research primarily focuses on Black women writers, hip-hop feminism, and popular culture. Her writing has been published in both academic and non-academic outlets such as LifeHacker, HotNewHipHop, Vulture, Indy Week, CLTure, and Scalawag Magazine.

When a Byrd Flew to North Carolina Central University

April 12, 2019

By Mark Anthony Neal

Donaldson Toussaint L'Ouverture Byrd II aka Donald Byrd is probably most remembered as a Detroit City born Hard Bop maestro. In the mid-1970s Byrd began to collaborate with the Mizell Brothers -- Larry and Fonce -- to chart a new direction for Jazz and Funk music that would reverberate a generation later in the music of Hip-Hop Acts like GURU of Gangstarr and Main Source. A no less important part of Byrd’s story, who died in 2013, was his ongoing commitment to train younger musicians at HBCUs, a commitment that led him to a celebrated residency at North Carolina Central University (NCCU) in the late 1970s.

Donald Byrd had a stellar career, recording mostly on the Blue Note label through the mid-1950s, when he first moved to New York City through the late 1960s. Like many Jazz musicians in the era, he was drawn to some of the new technological advancements, and began to go electric. Albums like Fancy Free (1968) and Electric Bryd (1970) echoed similar innovations like Miles Davis’ more celebrated In A Silent Way (1968) and Bitches Brew (1970).

Byrd’s sound forever changed when he began a teaching residency at Howard University, heading its Jazz Studies program in 1972, working with musicians Allen Barnes and Kevin Toney, among others. The byproduct of those relationship was the album Black Byrd (1973), the first album of Byrd’s produced by the Mizell Brothers. A year later, and in tribute to Blackbyrd, The Blackbyrds, featuring Howard University students including Barnes, Toney, Oscar Brashear, Keith Kilgo, and David Williams, released their first albums, which included their now classic single “Walking in Rhythm” and flowed by other classics like “Rock Creek Park” and “Unfinished Business,” which featured favorite breakbeat of early Hip-Hop producers. At a time when many young Blacks were tuning traditional Jazz out, Byrd found an inroad to those audiences with his style of Jazz-Funk

"Unfinished Business" features a favorite breakbeat of early Hip-Hop producers.

It was because of the success of The Blackbyrds that Gene Strassler, then the head of North Carolina Central University’s Music department, reached out to Byrd to create some of that magic in Durham. In the process, Byrd and saxophonist Stanley Baird, helped launch the first bachelor degree program in Jazz Studies in the state of North Carolina in 1977. As Strassler told cultural historian Joshua Clark Davis, the relationship with Byrd began some years earlier when he “telephoned Donald Byrd to inquire if he would bring some of his associates in jazz down to Durham to set up a series of lecture-demonstrations...” adding, “this series continued over a four year period and the enthusiasm generated was remarkable. Not surprising, from these early sessions emerged a concept for a jazz curriculum.”

One of the first creations of Byrd’s collaboration with NCCU was the album Super Trick from a group called New Central Connection Unlimited or N.C.C.U., which was made up of NCCU students, including  Norris “Country” Duckett on guitar and bassist Aaron Mills, who would go on to perform on some of Cameo’s classics from the 1980s (“Word Up” and “Candy”) and work with Dungeon Family members OutKast and Cee Lo Green.

Byrd’s time in Durham coincided with his switch from the legendary Blue Note label to Elektra Records, and the accessible Jazz Funk heard on Super Trick was the template for Byrd’s albums with his new label. Byrd started a new band called 125th Street, NYC, which included musicians from NCCU, and recorded three albums with the band, including Love Byrd (1981) and Words, Sounds, Colors and Shapes (1982). The latter two albums were produced by Memphis Soul legend Isaac Hayes. The keyboardist on those dates was another NCCU student Chip Crawford, who is most well-known these days as the accompanist for jazz vocalist Gregory Porter.

Donald Byrd’s time at NCCU and Howard University was firmly in line with his own training.  Byrd came up through the ranks of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, which for four decades was one of Jazz’s great finishing schools. Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Wayne Shorter, Freddie Hubbard and Terence Blanchard are among the alumni of The Jazz Messengers. Byrd was among a generation of artists like Yusef Lateef and Grady Tate (currently at Howard), who reproduced Blakely’s model for the academy. Currently working jazz musicians like Branford Marsalis and John Brown hold down Donald Byrd’s legacy in the triangle, teaching at NCCU and Duke, respectively.


Mark Anthony Neal is the James B. Duke Professor of African & African American Studies and Professor of English at Duke University, where he is Chair of the Department of African & African-American Studies. Neal is the author of several books including Soul Babies: Black Popular Culture and the Post-Soul Aesthetic and Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities and hosts the weekly video podcast Left of Black, produced in collaboration with the John Hope Franklin Center for International and Interdisciplinary Studies. Follow Neal on Twitter at @NewBlackMan and Instagram at @BookerBBBrown.

Scotty McCreery Never Forgets His Roots

March 9, 2019

Story by Sandra Davidson | Archival footage courtesy Scotty McCreery

Scotty McCreery was only 17 when he won American Idol in 2011. Viewers of the hit singing competition TV series fell in love with his authentic charm and powerful deep voice, which also impressed the show’s judges. During his audition tape, judge Randy Jackson remarked, “Dude. Love you. Love that you’re a throwback country guy singing low like that.”

It was and remains a fair characterization of Scotty’s music.

Eight years after American Idol, Scotty is riding on the high of his most recent hit song “This Is It,” a single of his fourth studio album Seasons Change. It’s the second song off the record to hit Number 1 on the Billboard Country chart. A life-long fan of old-school country—think George Jones, Conway Twitty and Ronnie Milsap— Scotty leaned heavily into a traditional country sound for the album, and  listeners have clearly responded.

The bright lights and big achievements haven’t blinded Scotty to his roots. Scotty spends most of his downtime in North Carolina. Success has only made him more grateful for where he’s from.  In an interview for the North Carolina Arts Council’s 50 for 50 project, he reflected on his connection to the state and deeply held passion for arts education. 

You’ve always celebrated where your from. Will you talk a bit about what Garner means to you?  

Garner was a great place to grow up. They really embraced the arts. Garner had that small-town feel. High school football was king. Everybody would come out to the performances we had for chorus. I was in music education in schools from a very young age. They nurtured my love for singing and music and [they taught me] how to create music. It was huge for me to go to school and to have a whole hour to sing. That was my favorite time of day, every day.

What music did you grow up listening to?

My goodness. I was a young guy in the early nineties and 2000s, and all my friends were listening to the Backstreet Boys and NSYNC—and they’ve got some jams—but I listened to a lot of the older country music….Elvis Presley, Conway Twitty, Ronnie Milsap, Dolly, and Loretta. The older traditional music influenced me, and you can see that in my music today.

Why were you drawn to that kind of music? 

I’m not sure what it exactly was. I do remember when I was like five-years-old my grandma gave me a book all about Elvis Presley, and I read it cover to cover and wanted all his CDs. I had a cassette with Elvis on one side and Little Richard on the other, and I wore that thing out. That’s just what I gravitated towards. That’s just who I am.

Do you see a connection between the values you were raised around and the type of music you like to make?

Absolutely. Elvis was from a very small town [and so were] a lot of the other folks. They’re just typical hard-working folks who grew up and had a chance to sing music. That was me! I was a local grocery store bagger here in Garner, and all of a sudden, I got this big chance and now I get to sing country music for a living. I never forget my roots or where I came from. The values I learned here — hard work, perseverance, dedication to what you’re doing — it’s stuff that I still carry over today, and I try to sing about.

How has North Carolina influenced the way you think about music and make music?

There were a lot of big acts from North Carolina that I listened to growing up. Randy Travis and Ronny Millsap are two guys I listened to constantly. Every artist is different, but I try to think about their sounds, their music, their words, how they told a story when I’m writing songs.

You're several years out from American Idol. How has your relationship to this state changed? 

I think over the years I’ve gotten a better appreciation for Garner [and] for North Carolina. Especially with all the traveling I’m doing. They say there’s no place like home, and that’s the truth. Nothing beats getting back home, seeing my old friends, going back to the high school and seeing old teachers. I think my appreciation for North Carolina’s just gone up. I love this place. I really do.

Watch Scotty McCreery's original audition for American Idol
"This Is It" is the second single and second No. 1 Hit off Scotty McCreery's album Seasons Change

What’s it like to play music for North Carolinians after being on the road?

 Nothing beats North Carolina to me. I’ve traveled all the way around the world. I’ve hit every state in this country except Alaska, but I’ve never found any place like North Carolina. It’s like a homecoming for me every time. It’s cool to see the [people] that gave me the support through the show. I really appreciate them.

Are there places in Garner or in North Carolina that you visit when you’re seeking creative inspiration?

There are a lot of little places I like to go to recharge the batteries and get creative in North Carolina. Recently my favorite spot has been the mountains. I only went there to ski when I was younger, but in the last three or four years I’ve really rediscovered the place in the summer and found swimming holes and hiked, and it’s just cool to get away from the hustle and bustle of everything and be out there in nature. It’s refreshing.

A number of North Carolinians have done well on American Idol. What do you think that’s about?

I don’t know! I do think North Carolina tries very hard to nurture the arts, to embrace the arts, and to teach the arts. I’m sure that has a lot to do with it. Also, I just think there’s a lot of crazy talented folks. I’m just amazed [by] the incredible local talent around Garner.

How can the North Carolina better support and engage artists? 

When I was growing up the schools were really all about the arts, and they’re still pretty good…but nowadays they’re cutting funding in certain parts of the school and the first place they always want to look is the arts, and I’m like no! That’s where folks learn to think outside of the box, think creatively, think differently than the person sitting right next to them at their desk. Everybody knows the exact formulas for math and science, but there’s no one way to do music or arts, so for that’s my biggest thing…really supporting the arts in the schools.

Throwback Thursday: Gail Anderson and The Healing Force

January 31, 2019

Winston-Salem native Gail Anderson founded the band The Healing Force with her husband John in 1975, after they met while performing at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. The family band's goal was to bring the music, stories, and dance of traditional African culture to new audiences.  Prior to forming the band, Gail and Joe Anderson studied with the National Black Theater of New York and performed with the Afro-American Folkloric Troupe. The Healing Force toured schools across North Carolina and are known for their cover of Yoruba folk song, “Funga Alafia.” Gail Anderson passed away in 2017. Read more about their story here.

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