Art Retreats as Career-Shift Catalyst

A vacation for my soul,” “summer camp for adults,” “paradise,” “the one time a year I get to make anything“—these are all common phrases heard at summer arts workshops around the country. For many without home studios or careers in the arts, these short-term art retreats (way up in the mountains or shrouded by woods and river) are the only entry point into a totally immersive environment of making and ideation.

An aerial view of Penland's North Carolina campus

An aerial view of Penland’s North Carolina campus

This July, I returned from a short summer session at Penland School of Crafts where I was taking a silver casting and ring fabrication class with world-class jewelers Tim Lazure and Jen Townsend, and I decided to do a little digging on the school’s diverse all-ages, all-backgrounds scholarship opportunities. This visit was the first time I was attending Penland as a non-scholarship recipient, and upon arrival I was again struck by the wide-ranging non-artistic backgrounds that many of the students hailed from. AND I discovered that over half the student body was funded by scholarships.

Photo by Sinnae Choi - one of the 100+ solid cast silver pieces we created as a class

One of the 100+ solid cast silver pieces we created as a class

Due to the nature of these programs, there are, of course, a great number of arts students and professionals as well as affluent retirees who might consider a session here to be as relaxing and simple as a spa weekend. In talking to participants I found that MANY were not students, were not artists, were not even hobbyists—but folks with careers in hospitality, engineering, computer sciences, legal, service, education. For them,  24/7 access to so many facilities and knowledgeable craftsmen was astounding and precious, a gift they were allowing themselves amidst a busy year of work and family.

The shift over the two weeks was noticeable in us all: a gradual loosening of shoulders, some of us acquiring a bit of a tan from the hot Carolina sun, a growing comfort with sharing space with world-class artists and craftsmen, stiff fingers becoming accustomed to specialized tools, and a healthy glow from our thrice-daily communal meals in the dining hall. I saw that making time to visit one of these workshops is just as much a process of shifting mindset as it is a process of gaining knowledge or skills.

Penland's gallery, which features work from resident artists and alumni

Penland’s gallery, which features work from resident artists and alumni

You can find a complete list of full-ride scholarships here. The Lynn Kerr Azzam Memorial Scholarship is designed for women 50 years or older; the Elizabeth Brim Award is for over-forty women “for whom two weeks at Penland might change her life,”; and the Mendes Family Fund was established to help encourage mid/late-life career shifts into the arts. Penland also offers funds for people of color and from low-income families as well as juried scholarships awarded solely on the basis of merit.

The Haystack campus in Maine

The Haystack campus in Maine

You don’t have to be an artist—you don’t have to know the first thing about dyeing silk with indigo…casting solid-silver jewelry…albumen photography…Venetian glassblowing…the list goes on…to fit right in in one of these workshops. Writing, performance and daily movement classes also find their way into the periphery of your day if you so choose, leading to a holistic and comforting atmosphere that enriches multiple modes of expression.

I encourage Improvised Life readers to take a look not only at Penland, but at similar, much-beloved craft schools across the country—Haystack Mountain School of Crafts (another foundation with a generous scholarship program and an architecturally renowned campus right on the water); the century-old Ox-bow program in Saugatuck; the workshops at Arrowmont; and any number of smaller programs that you might find in your region.

An Arrowmont student routing wood by hand

An Arrowmont student routing wood by hand

Most of these programs are aligned to a seasonal schedule and have strict application deadlines, meaning that you should start planning your vacation time months in advance and be prepared to seek a summer scholarship starting in January or February.

Remember that these workshops may appear daunting and exclusive to skilled craftsmen, but the majority of program offerings are truly designed for the curious novice, not the professional. A visit to one of these workshops may be the perfect break from reality you need, or may be the beginning of something greater: a career shift, a lasting relationship with material and making, a re-definition of what you and your hands are capable of, a start of a newfound love of art….

Sinnae Choi

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