Crafted with Care
The Haystack Mountain School of Crafts not only produces incredible artisans and artists, it is an ever-evolving
- By: Kim Ridley
Photography by Jason P. Smith
To watch students and teachers at work in the studios of the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts on Deer Isle is to immediately want to get one’s own hands on something, anything — tufts of fleece or a lump of clay, a paintbrush or a mallet. Not only does making things look like fun, here, it actually seems possible.
By nine o’clock on an summer morning, seventy-five or so students are already engrossed in their projects. Ranging in age from eighteen to eighty-seven, they’re forging steel and firing pots, honing sentences — sanding oak and shaping all manner of raw material into something new.
Soul music and the clang of hammer on anvil blasts from the hot shop, where students are making sculpture and tools over flaming forges in Doug Wilson’s blacksmithing class. Warm and generous, with a denim apron tied over his wiry frame and a bushy salt-and-pepper beard, Wilson consults with students on projects ranging from a wind vane to a sledgehammer. Along with patient guidance on technique and design, he gives them plenty of encouragement.
During a brief break in the action, Wilson steps outside the hot shop to talk. A cool breeze wafts up from the ocean and a junco sings high in a nearby spruce. “This is a place to get charged up,” he says as he adjusts his wire-framed glasses with a sooty hand. An artist and blacksmith on Little Deer Isle for thirty years, he has exhibited and taught around the country, but he often returns to Haystack. “My students teach me as much as I teach them,” Wilson says. “I always leave Haystack with my own head full of ideas.”
Masters and beginners alike have flocked to this cedar-shingled campus for fifty years to make things with their hands, develop and learn skills, get inspired and take creative risks. Haystack programs range from one-day workshops to two-week sessions in a variety of media including clay, metals, wood, fiber, paper, and more taught by leading craftspeople and artists.
More is made at Haystack (haystack-mtn.org), however, than sculpture and pottery, poems and chairs and paintings. The creative community that spontaneously forms here with every two-week session often leads to inspiration and new ideas that endure long after students and teachers have headed back home. Pick your metaphor — seed or spark or sea-polished pebble — it doesn’t matter. What people bring back from Haystack can take on a life of its own.
“Haystack is a catalyst that brings something together and then, boom, it goes other places,” says Haystack Director Stuart Kestenbaum, who lives nearby with his wife, Susan Webster, a visual artist and printmaker. “People come here when they’re ready to make a creative leap. They’re zapped and they go off into the world so that impact carries on beyond us.”
Among the “zapped” is a who’s who in the worlds of arts, crafts, and design. Glass artist Dale Chihuly came to Haystack in 1967, an experience that inspired him to start Pilchuk, his own glass studio in Washington State. A few years later, painter Eric Hopkins came to Haystack and met Chihuly here. German fiber artists Ritzi and Peter Jacobi have long been associated with Haystack, and Paulus Berensohn, author of Finding One’s Way With Clay, first came to Haystack in 1961 and has been a teacher and visiting artist. Berensohn calls Haystack “the home of the soul of American craft” and a “small gem of a container of the true and the beautiful and the healing.”
Haystack is named for a mountain in Montville near its original location. Founded in 1950 by a handful of craftspeople and benefactors as a research and studio program in the arts, its mission was to teach fine crafts, further the field through research and development, and foster creativity. Although this mission has evolved over the years, Haystack has stayed true to its roots.
Painter and printmaker Francis Merritt and his wife, Priscilla, a weaver, became Haystack’s founding directors, and began inviting nationally and internationally recognized artists and craftspeople to Maine to teach summer workshops. Priscilla also served as the school’s first weaving instructor and, out of necessity, its first cook. Together, the couple tended this small but important haven for fine craft and creativity in a post-war culture increasingly obsessed with consumerism.
When highway construction forced Haystack to move in the early 1960s, the founders chose a spectacular and out-of-the way spot on Deer Isle: forty acres at the end of Stinson Neck in the tiny hamlet of Sunshine. They found an equally spectacular architect: Edward Larrabee Barnes.
A thin-skinned tract of granite and spruce that pitches steeply to the sea, the site was tricky. Rather than siting the school on the flat spot at the top of the land or down at the shore, Barnes decided to put Haystack right on the slope. To minimize harm to the delicate moss and lichen, he designed the entire campus to be built on posts a couple of feet above the ground. He found inspiration for Haystack’s studios, cabins, dining hall, and other buildings in the timeless forms and time-honored materials of surrounding fishing villages.
Built of pine, cedar, spruce, and other local materials for five dollars a square foot, Haystack opened in its present location in 1961 and has been inspiring architects ever since. “Haystack is like a marina that floats over land instead of water, a village of shingled pavilions — workshops and dormitory cabins — all lifted up a couple of feet on posts and connected by a network of decks and walkways,” the architecture critic Robert Campbell wrote in the Boston Globe. “The building was instantly accepted as a classic and became a major influence on the American architecture of the 1960’s.”
In 1994, the American Institute of Architects honored Barnes and Haystack with its prestigious Twenty-Five Year Award for design excellence. Given only to forty-one buildings in the country, including Rockefeller Center and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the award recognized Haystack as an outstanding example of modernist architecture.
“It was a small victory for humility,” Kestenbaum observes in Vision & Legacy: Celebrating the Architecture of Haystack. He says the elegantly simple design of the campus, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2006, is central to fostering Haystack’s sense of community. The studios are clustered close to one another and connected by wooden walkways, the spacious decks and dining hall provide places to gather, and the campus’s small scale (less than one hundred people) affords easy opportunities to connect.
People often pass by one another on Haystack’s main thoroughfare, a long stairway of wood weathered silver that cascades through campus down to a deck overlooking a shining expanse of Jericho Bay and dark, low-slung islands. The hundred-plus steps are so closely spaced it’s best to take them slowly. This, too, is by design. At this pace, one easily makes eye contact with others and starts noticing everything else, too — birdsong, the way the light glances off the water, the scent of sun-warmed spruce needles carpeting the ground.
Creativity flourishes in this elemental place. “You’re so close to the materials of the world,” Kestenbaum says. “You’re at the ocean, you’re on granite, and you’re in the middle of the forest. It puts you in a place of noticing.
Even if you’re just eating lunch on the deck, there are ospreys overhead and amazing cloud formations. You’re in the thick of it right away.”
Down the hill from the hot shop, Haystack’s studios hum with activity like hives of happy bees. Creations of felt, gut, and paper hang on a clothesline outside the fiber studio like fantastical laundry. The sweet, slightly astringent fragrance of steam-bent oak rises from the wood shop, where students in Mitch Ryerson’s workshop are making furniture and sculpture inspired by traditional boatbuilding techniques.
Laughter mingles with the syncopated ping of tiny hammers in the metals studio, where a half-dozen students shape silver and copper into palm-sized vessels. Bowling Green State University art professor and metalsmith Tom Muir helps one student with soldering while several others work at a table behind them. They are clearly having a good time.
“I’ve never seen a creative community like this one,” says Ryan Bogan as he works on a copper tea strainer. A new graduate of Eastern Michigan University and recipient of a prestigious national fellowship, Bogan decided to come to Haystack to hone his metalsmithing skills. “It’s such a genuine environment, I think it brings out the best in everyone,” Bogan says. “It makes me wish the world was like this.”
While Haystack’s not utopia — the cabins are rustic, people are people, and the weather can be foggy, damp, and cold — many who have spent time there will tell you it can come pretty close. And although he probably wouldn’t take any credit for it, Kestenbaum’s gift for bringing people together, brilliance, and obvious delight in creativity and community sets the tone.
Kestenbaum, who moved to Maine in 1974, first came to Haystack as a student himself in a ceramic workshop in 1976. He was hooked right away. After working in arts administration in the 1980s, he left a job as assistant director of the Maine Arts Commission in 1988 to become Haystack’s third director.
“What really drew me was the sense of community and the sense of place,” Kestenbaum says. “The longer I experience both the community of Deer Isle and the community of Haystack within Deer Isle, the more profound it seems, in terms of how people relate to the place.” In this way, it holds a seemingly small but important place in the culture, a haven for the handmade, where creativity and new ideas can flourish.
Matthew Hincman, chair of the 3-D department at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, has experienced Haystack’s creative spark as a student, instructor, volunteer, and employee. “Every burst of inspiration is given full appreciation and honor among every wild idea that has ever come before,” Hincman says of Haystack.
“Participants have full ownership over every miraculous pot that comes out of a raku kiln, or their first blobby cup to safely make it out of the glass annealer. The sense of agency nurtured within both young and older artists through this acceptance and support ripples outward from their Haystack experience and into their everyday lives.”
Chris Staley, a professor of Ceramic Arts at Penn State University and a potter who also encourages his students to attend Haystack, says it is the rare place where creativity can be fully explored. “Whether in schools or corporations, competition is very much a part of many working environments,” says Staley, who also is a Haystack board member. “Haystack is different. It is a place of cooperation and support. At Haystack I feel free to take chances and not be afraid of failure. This has afforded me the opportunity to play and take risks, which can lead to new discoveries.”
Adding to Haystack’s creative mix are visiting writers and performing artists, like the poet Naomi Shihab Nye. “Haystack is a brilliant recharge zone where the sparks of creating and connecting are fully inclusive,” Nye says. “The observational sense heightens for everyone as the days unfold. No one ever sees the exact same thing or comes back with exactly the same information, but it’s pure abundance anywhere you gaze.”
Kestenbaum also has expanded Haystack’s mission and reach by creating programs for Maine residents and high-school students, and community-based artist residencies. “I feel like it’s a responsibility of a cultural institution,” he says. “We can be international, but we have to do the same things locally, too, and not of a lesser quality.”
Haystack could have easily become many things that it isn’t: elitist, hippie-dippy, or hidebound. Applicants’ intentions and commitment matter far more than fancy degrees or a long list of solo exhibits, and about a quarter of the students attend Haystack on scholarships. And although Kestenbaum has stayed true to the founders’ vision, he has invited leaders in technology and other fields to engage in conversations at Haystack that expand the boundaries of ingenuity and innovation.
Last year, Kestenbaum invited physicist Neil Gershenfeld, director of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms, to Haystack as a visiting scientist. Gershenfeld brought along a portable version of his Fab Lab (digital fabrication laboratory), which “allows anyone to make (almost) anything.” With support from an anonymous grant, the Fab Lab is now a new fixture at Haystack.
Occupying its own studio, the Fab Lab houses digitally controlled tools including a laser cutter, precision milling machine, and CNC (computer numeric controlled) router that can be used to mill parts, cut intricate patterns out of many materials, and experiment with shapes. Students bring photographs, which are imported into computers connected to the fabrication machines.
Nadya Peek, an MIT doctoral student from the Netherlands with square silver glasses, a neo-shag, and lots of energy, helped set up Haystack’s Fab Lab and is back for a couple of weeks to run it. “We’ve been making finger joints for the woodworkers and cutting stencils for the ceramics shop,” says Peek as she points out intriguing bits and pieces of intricately cut wood, paper, and other materials scattered on a small table. Peek says that some students have been intimidated by the Fab Lab technology, but she encourages them to try it. “Why should technology be limited to boys who want to make fighter jets?” she says. “That’s just dumb.”
“I think there are craftspeople in all walks of life, and I strongly believe that to make technology adapt to our desires, everyone should be involved in informing, creating, and sharing it,” Peek says. “If the production of technology is left to the archetypal ‘nerd,’ how is it going to be a good tool for everyone else in the world?”
In the kind of cross-pollination that happens only at rare places like Haystack, Peek says she also was inspired by Wilson’s blacksmithing workshop. “Doug said he was going to teach us the secret to blacksmithing — how to modify your hammer so that it better fits your hand,” Peek says. “I thought it was a nice way to think about digital fabrication tools, too — they are not immutable, monolithic entities; they can be formed and reformed to better fit your proverbial “hand” as well. That’s a lot of what the Fab Lab is about — giving access to tools to empower people who might otherwise not be able to make the things they want.”
Makers from many walks of life — school teachers and scientists, artists and doctors and students, and many more — continue to find their way to Haystack to create and explore. Listening to them tell their stories makes one wonder whether it could be true that one small place in a remote corner of Maine could really inspire all that optimism and hope. But time and again, it doesn’t seem to wear off long after they’ve returned to their homes in far-flung cities and towns.
“When it comes time to leave Haystack, you realize you’re not the same person as when you first arrived,” Chris Staley says. “Somehow the Haystack experience leaves you feeling more optimistic about the world. You sense that everyone who spends time at Haystack leaves a better person than when they came. That they might have rediscovered their sense of childhood wonder and the possibilities of what might be. I think if the world had more Haystacks, there would be far fewer problems.”
There’s no easy explanation for the Haystack effect. But part of it might be that in a culture increasingly caught up in the virtual world, Haystack celebrates the real one. Here, a blackberry is first and foremost a fruit, sweet and tart on the tongue. The main form of communication is talking, not texting, in conversations that run deep. It is a place where we can place our hands on the elemental stuff of the world and just maybe discover something new — or old — about ourselves and each other in the process.
- By: Kim Ridley