CP: Welcome back to the Folk School. What’s it like to be back as a second-time host?
LD: It has been so incredible to be back in this community. It’s a bit like coming back to folk-craft-musical-dance wonderland. Some of the cast of characters has changed, but the heart of the matter is the same.
CP: How is the Folk School different than your regular life?
LD: I think the best way to illustrate this is by telling you about what I’ve been up to between my last host term and my return to the Folk School. I finished my last host term in August 2011 and went back to school that September. Conventional school. Graduate school in Occupational Therapy. I remember the first day I went to get my ID card. I went to a computer and used a touch screen to print out a number. And then proceeded to wait in line for hours while cranky people all around me played on their iPhones. I remember thinking to myself, “when you register at the Folk School, a work study greets you, hands you a map, tells you how to find your housing through the woods, and directs you to the room with the freshly baked cookies.” Having just finished conventional school, it is so nice to return to a Danish Folk School model of learning.
I arrived at the Folk School for my current host term on Christmas Day. I walked into Keith House, and was just struck by the comforting familiarity of everything around me. The smell of the wood, the creaky floors, the feeling of the Jr. host room at the top of the stairs. Then Winter Dance Week started. Suddenly I was in a literal embrace with all of these dear lovely folks I hadn’t seen in two years. I would run into friends in the contra dance line. I very quickly became re-acclimatized to the rhythm of how things are around here – morning song, ringing the bell, the exact time it takes to walk from any point on campus to the dining hall and not be late.
CP: You just interviewed Jan Stansell for the Folk School blog and it was a really touching interview. In it you talked about how Occupational Therapy (OT) and crafts are related. Tell me more about how being at the Folk School is related to OT and what you want to do in the future.
LD: OT has a long history of using crafts as a means of therapy. Traditionally, OTs would engage people in meaningful occupation while working on regaining function after an illness or injury. There are some OT environments where unfortunately this is no longer happening. The profession has, in many cases, become highly medicalized. However, the kind of OT that I am interested in, outpatient mental health, is one of the fields where the roots of OT are still very much alive. As I sit in class each week, I often consider how what I am learning: a) could be applicable in a rehabilitation context or b) could be adapted so that individuals with disabilities or different kinds of limitations could participate. For example, when I took Kim Joris’s Recycled Art class, I learned that all of the materials we used are cheap, easy to work with, and accessible. I also learned that Recycled Art is a fantastic way to work on all sorts of rehabilitation goals: from self-expression, to standing tolerance to hand strength.
Another example was the week I spent in Anne Lough’s beginning Hammered Dulcimer class. When playing the hammered dulcimer, you are constantly crossing over the midline of the body using your right hammer to strike a string on the left side of the instrument. For individuals recovering from a stroke or traumatic brain injury, crossing midline can present major difficulties. If I was working with a client with limitations of that nature, instead of getting them to move cones on their right side to a bin on their left side, I could prescribe that they play Oh Susannah! ten times. My week of rib basket weaving, including my interview with Jan was such a special convergence of so many interests and things I care about. She is so inspiring to me.
CP: I hear you have a nickname, weirdo string instrument girl (laughs). Can you tell me more about all the string instruments you play or are learning?
LD: I think I might have started that nickname, or it might have been my bandmate, Corinna Rose. I’m not sure. Well, let’s see. My main instrument is the autoharp. I also dabble in the mountain dulcimer, hammered dulcimer, folk harp, and banjo.
In truth though, if I didn’t play an unusual instrument such as the autoharp (unusual at least where I’m from), I would never have had an excuse to come here in the first place. If I had picked up the fiddle, I would have been able to find a teacher locally and may never have sought out the Folk School.
CP: What’s it like playing Morningsong? You’re one of the few hosts who regularly does it.
LD: Morningsong is my favorite social convention of Folk School reality (that is different from regular reality). I love playing morning song for a few reasons. It permits me to invite other musicians who are around the school either as instructors, students, or friends in the local community to come play with me and gives us an excuse to hang out and practice. It makes me stretch myself musically because I don’t like to do the same set each time. If I’m in a music class one week, I can integrate that new learning. Back in my regular life, I also play in two bands that rehearse and perform all the time. If I didn’t have morning song I think I’d really miss that. And finally it’s just a really special way to mark moments in time. Every week at the Folk School has a narrative arc to it for each person who is here. Student orientation feels a bit like groundhog day, but after that all bets are off and the week unfolds in a unique way for each person individually, and as a collective group.
For example, the week I was in Recycled Art, there were a few things going on that really colored the week. One: we had a massive snow storm which created (mostly) joyful chaos around the school. Two: we had to cancel a dance so a couple of the work/studies and I made a French Canadian sugar shack in Lower Keith House and made maple taffy on snow for the students and instructors. The third thing that really marked that particular week was that Pete Seeger died. The sentiment of loss around Pete Seeger’s death was palpable around the Folk School.
For me, Pete Seeger was the music of my childhood: road trips, my parents’ record collection, and campfires with friends. Even though I play a lot of old time music now, I really grew up with the 1960s folk music around me. I ended up subbing in for morning song that week for a performer who couldn’t make it in because of the storm. The night before, around 11 o’clock, I decided to include Turn, Turn, Turn in my set. The next morning at morning song I played it on this super old timey sounding autoharp I have on loan at the moment. And I remember looking out at the sea of white hair looking back at me. Many folks had tears in their eyes, everyone was singing with me, and it was just really really beautiful. I won’t ever forget it.
CP: Do you have a class focus or plan for your classes this time around? How is class selection different coming back as a second-time host?
LD: Last time my goal was to really try a little of everything. This time I feel a little more focused. I am taking music classes when they are offered at an appropriate skill level for me. I am also taking classes that feel applicable to my recent education in OT. I am also picking classes based on instructors I’d like to study with. In my last term I got to know a lot of the instructors who teach here, and so it has been a treat to get to spend a week with people whose work I admire, and who are really wonderful people.
CP: What are your silver bullets this time around?
LD: My first one was Advanced Autoharp with Karen Mueller. It was so wonderful. I feel really lucky to have had the chance to study with her as she is one of the most renowned living autoharp players, and is also a gifted teacher. I interviewed her for the blog too! That class was also amazing because it was an advanced class. And any time you have an advanced class in something so specific, you end up with this highly entertaining class dynamic of all of the aficionados of that one very specific thing, all “nerding out” about it for a week.
My second silver bullet was Sharon Costello’s Wild and Whimsical Wool Figures: Needle Felting. This is the one class I am re-taking from my first term. I loved it the first go-around when I made a needle felted sculpture of my zaida (grandfather) sitting in an arm chair with the remote in his hand and a plate with a salami sandwich and a pickle in his lap. This time around I made a felted sculpture of my baba (grandmother) knitting in a matching armchair to my zaida. I might have to needle felt a TV with a scene from the Young and the Restless playing to really make the piece complete and historically accurate.
My final silver bullet is coming up right away. It’s Susan Hutchison’s Home Dairy class. Last time I was a host, I tasted some of the goods coming out of that class and decided that if I ever had the opportunity to take the class, I would.
CP: What is your favorite place at the Folk School?
LD: You always ask this when you interview the hosts! So I have been thinking about my answer to this question for probably a year… I think I’ve narrowed it down to 4.
CP: To 4?!?!? (laughs)
LD: Well some are summer spots and some are all season favorites. So in summer my favorite spots are the herb garden and the porch swing behind Orchard House. Tied. My two favorites in all seasons are the path from Keith House to the Blacksmith Shop, especially at night and Keith House itself. I think that building is so neat: part dormitory, part studio, office, exhibit hall, gathering space. It’s at the heart and the hub of what’s going on and I love living here. And I like the way it smells.
CP: What do you like best about being a host?
LD: I love having the role of a host: working with all the departments, the students, and instructors. I love how easy it is to make someone’s day. You can do something so simple and it can really improve someone’s experience at the Folk School. I love living at the Folk School, and being here for a good stretch of time. It’s a really special thing to be able to take a class every week and to dedicate this time to making art and music. When people ask me whether I get annoyed or stressed about being on call and the many tasks that come with the host position, I tell them that this is truly the best gig ever. Someone feeds me dessert twice a day, and I get to spend my days learning new skills and making beautiful things, in a stunningly gorgeous place. It’s true that being a host involves some amount of work, but by and large it’s an amazing privilege to get to be a host. Twice.
CP: If you were a contra dance move, what move would you be?
LD: A ladies chain. Definitely. I am a ladies chain for real.
CP: So I know you like to dance.
LD: Yeah – put that in the list of reasons I love living in Keith House. There is a concert venue and dance hall below where I sleep! Bob and Charlotte have graciously let me practice calling square dances on Tuesday nights. I have also been invited to dance with the Dame’s Rocket Clog Morris team. And this weekend I am in Aubrey Atwater’s Clogging class. It’s so pleasurable to have so much dance so proximate and accessible to where I live.
CP: Have you learned any new favorite tunes since you’ve been here?
LD: When Larry Unger was in town with his band, Notorious, he taught me one of his tunes called Door County #2. I’ve been a little obsessed with it for the last couple months. Though my new favorite new tune is the Riddle Song (I Gave My Love a Cherry), which I learned this past week in Aubrey Atwater’s Mountain Dulcimer class focusing on the body of work of Jean Ritchie.
CP: What’s your favorite dining hall food?
LD: Classic host interview question! Okay – I have to break things down into daytime crew and nighttime crew. First daytime – I know it’s cliché, but the Caribbean shrimp salad is a favorite for sure. Also Susan made these coconut macaroon things recently that were out of control. For nighttime crew – Tillena recently made this southern meal that was incredible – Mac and cheese, collard greens, and corn bread. I could have eaten that every day for a week. She also makes really good gravy and lets me ladle it out onto the dishes when we are helping to plate the food in the kitchen. It’s my favorite part of working in the dining hall.
CP: If you stayed here on campus for the rest of your life, which house would you stay in? Keith House?
LD: Maybe Keith House, actually no. Keith House needs to be lived in by the hosts and work/studies. I revise my answer. If I were to live at the Folk School forever I would choose Orchard House, for the view and the porch swing.
CP: Any closing words?
LD: I just want to say a few thank yous. To the ladies in the office, and in particular my supervisor in the programming department Tammy Godfrey and her assistant Kim Zimmerman for all of their support, as well as Kate DeLong in registration who patiently helps us with course selection and all manner of other things. To my senior host, Meredith and incoming jr. host Bonnie, as well as the work study crews I have worked with over my two terms. Thank you for teaching me tunes, and skills, and being generally wonderful company. To the dining hall staff – thank you for keeping me fed and watered, and for setting aside a little cup of fruit I am not allergic to on Thursdays when you make fruit salad for breakfast. To maintenance and housekeeping for always picking up the phone and being so responsive when I need something.
Finally to all of the instructors, students, and members of the extended Folk School community – I am so grateful for your friendship, warmth, and generosity. You have enriched my life tremendously. Thank you.
Cory Marie Podielski is a freelance graphic designer, photographer, and writer for the John C. Campbell Folk School. She has been writing for the Folk School Blog since 2012 and enjoys interviewing artists, musicians, and craftspeople. In her spare time, she enjoys playing the banjo, dancing, printmaking, playing in clay, and assisting in Folk School bread baking classes. podielski.com
I had the pleasure of getting to know Leah in both Karen Mueller’s autoharp class and Aubrey Atwater’s dulcimer class. What a wonderful time we had! My “silver bullet”: hearing Leah’s voice sing harmony as I struggled to get my fingers to play the right notes. Making music together is the best thing!
I’ve dreamed of taking a class at the school and hope to do so within the year. Leah describes the experience I’ve imagined — the joy of making, making and learning in a beautiful setting that bolsters true community.
Please change one of those “makings” to “creating.” Mea culpa.
Leah , it has been a joy to to know you these few month. Thanks for everything,and good luck on your journey
Leah, I just wanted to add to this excellent interview that, as a Folk School student, I found you to be helpful, encouraging, engaging, and a great team member! I’m so glad you were able to be a part of Aubrey Atwater’s “Song of Jean Ritchie” class this March. I can hardly wait to return for more adventures in learning and living!
I was a host in 1995/1996 and I totally get so much of your interview. Thanks for sharing it! I had forgotten about the term “silver bullets”. The smell of the wood in Keith House never leaves you. : )