The Sunday sun was sinking behind the Blue Ridge Mountains when my husband Randy and I arrived at the world-renowned John C. Campbell Folk School. It was the beginning of a week of classes set against the backdrop of purple mountain peaks and green valleys dotted with hay bales.
I had long set my sights on experiencing what many called this “summer camp for grownups.” I was born and raised in the mountains, and, like my kinfolks, hold a strong belief in the power of life-long learning.
Randy was headed to the Blacksmith Shop, while I opted for a photography course called “Finding the Moment.” Photography, while not a mountain craft, enables one to do what mountain folk do well—tell a story.
Though the Folk School provides a variety of housing options, we stayed in my grandmother’s house in my hometown of Tiger, GA, making the daily one hour trek across the curvy mountainous roads toward Hiawassee and on into North Carolina.
We pulled into a parking lot with car tags from Missouri, Pennsylvania, Washington and Maine. Walking into the opening orientation at Keith House we looked around at a group of about 120 folks. There were couples, singles, mothers and daughters, friends, mostly retired Baby Boomers, or as one person kindly observed, “an old bunch of hippies.” One lady sported short blue hair. Another resembled a Native American actor in an old western movie with her long gray braided hair and attire. We fit right in.
We took our meals on wooden tables in the sunny dining hall, lined as it is with glass cases filled with exquisite wood carvings. Mealtimes, signaled by chimes, announcements, blessings and farm-to-table fare served family style, are designed to foster fellowship and the old adage, “Many hands make light work.” Indeed, finishing each meal was a cooperative effort. One person from each table was charged with stacking up the used plates and utensils. It was another’s job to return the uneaten foodstuffs to the appropriate window, at which time they also picked up dessert—delights such as blueberry crumble, melon sorbet, and delectable chocolate chip cookies.
Randy spent his class days in the dim, sweltering blacksmith shop, for him a treasure trove of tools and metals and, for each of the ten students, their own fire pit and anvil. The capable, youthful instructor Derrick Bliss had brought along his granddad, both coming all the way from Michigan. Randy developed a rapport with the helpful older blacksmith, the one with a gray ponytail wearing a T-shirt proclaiming “I Play With Fire.”
And play they did, building fires, heating metal and pounding it into a variety of decorative and useful objects. They twisted and welded their creations as they sweated and stoked the fires, all perfectly suited to Randy’s experience with farm mechanics. Though a bit intimidated by the ornate creations of others, Randy forged ahead, designing simple plant hangers, a variety of tools, even a pine cone picker-upper.
As the Folk School reminds us, it’s not a competition. It’s all about the process.
While Randy played with fire, our talented photography instructor Stephanie Gross, urged us to play with light. Inspiration was all around. With our camera’s eye we found misty mountain vistas, walking trails, a garden gazebo, the rainbow bridge. We studied portraiture against the backdrops of the open air pavilion and the dappled light of summer leaves.
We meditated and pondered. Shoot, look, make a decision. Be curious. Try different angles. Don’t just take pictures, make pictures! Be intentional. Tell a story. Enjoy the process.
On our daily commute I would whip out my camera, urging Randy to stop whenever a barn covered in old signs appeared, or yet another mountain nestled in clouds came into view, too beautiful to drive past.
Time compressed as we packed in a week’s worth of intense learning, ending with a final gathering at Keith House reminiscent of an elementary school open house. Each class displayed their creations from the week and was applauded for their efforts, a time affectionately known as “Happy Clappy.”
We bid our classmates and instructors farewell, mindful that we’d likely never see them again. Loading up Randy’s heavy iron works and my thumb drive of pictures, along with a heart full of new experiences and mountain memories, we headed home.
Yes, a week at John C. Campbell Folk School is a learning process. More than that, it’s a pleasure.
—Dawne W. Bryan, Photography Student July 2019