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.
When I found out Pattie Bagley (Resident Artist for Baskets, Brooms, and Chair Seats/local mischief maker) was teaching an introductory rib baskets class, I knew I wanted a spot in the class. Right before coming down to the Folk School to begin my term as a second-time host, I completed my masters degree in Occupational Therapy (OT) – a rehabilitation profession that focuses on working with people to regain function and get back to meaningful occupation (self-care, leisure and work) after illness, injury or disability. Traditionally OTs have used crafts such as basket-weaving as a way to work on rehabilitation-related goals. There is also a strong connection between OT and the Folk School. Murray Martin, who was integral to the growth and success of the Brasstown carvers, was trained as an occupational therapist. For all these reasons, I knew it would be a special week for me. What I didn’t know was that Jan Stansell, an expert basket-maker, long-time Folk School instructor, and recent stroke survivor, would be one of my classmates.
Jan agreed to sit down and have a chat with me at the end of our week together.
LD: Tell me about your history with this craft. What kind of baskets do you like to make best? What is meaningful to you about basket weaving?
JS: Oh gosh – I probably started 30 years ago just as a little hobby. It was one of those hobbies that became a small business. I learned initially from someone in the town where I was living. Generally people who have made baskets as long as I have tend to specialize in one kind or another (whether it be Nantucket, or naturals etc). I never did. I always called myself a basket generalist. Whatever class was going on that sounded interesting, I would come and try it, and generally incorporate it into my work. I guess what’s meaningful to me about baskets is that along with pottery, it is just such an old craft and an old way of doing things. You can also go in so many different directions with it – the artistic end, the functional end. You can use traditional materials or go to something else entirely.
LD: I understand you have a very long history with the Folk School. Can you tell me more about your relationship with JCCFS?
JS: My very first class here was 26 years ago. It was a white oak baskets class and was fairly advanced. It was so exciting to discover a whole other way of life and that there were people who just loved to be together and make things, and make music. At the time, I was not a person who made a lot of long-term goals in my life. I would go to these seminars at work and they would say “you’ve got to set goals, you’ve got to do this or that.” And I thought to myself “if I had a goal, what would my goal be?” And I thought “I know! My goal will be to teach at Folk School.” So I started thinking to myself about what I would have to do to make that happen. I suppose I’d have to get a portfolio together, volunteer to assist in a class and make myself known. And then as I was mulling this over I was at a craft show, and a woman who happened to be in charge of programming at the Folk School approached my booth. She asked if I ever taught at the Folk School. I said “No.” She asked if I’d like to. I thought to myself – this goal-setting thing is a cinch! If I had known that, I would have been setting goals years ago! It was at a time when the Folk School was actively looking for instructors so I started coming up as an instructor 20 or 25 years ago. Over the years, I have met so many wonderful people. Coming here is not like going away; it’s like coming home. I used to cry going home from Folk School (laughs).
It’s Valentine’s Day here at the Folk School. I caught up with some friends and classmates this week to hear more about what folks are doing to mark the occasion.
Karen and Paul
Karen is a second-time Folk School student who brought her husband Paul here for the first time. They did not pick this week intentionally for Valentine’s Day but are happy to be here to celebrate with the Folk School community. Karen and I are classmates in Martha Owen’s Sheep to Shawl spinning/dyeing class together, while Paul is over in the Woodturning class with Phil Colson.
Karen: I loved it here and knew he would love it too. So we looked through the catalog and found a week where we could be here and work on stuff together.
Leah: So between the two of you, who is craftier?
Paul: She is.
Karen: I might be more artistic, but Paul’s an engineer. He is into figuring out how stuff works and making beautiful things that function well.
Leah: What are you learning this week that you will take home with you?
Paul: In wood turning, you have to concentrate hard for short amounts of time and then stand back and watch to see the potential emerge. I think that’s something I am taking away from this week that applies in our life.
Karen: (laughs) So you concentrate on me for short periods of time??
Paul: (laughs) Yes – and then all the potential emerges.
Karen: I think the way we are spending time with each other this week is really reflective of how we want our lives to be, so it’s a good way to practice what to prioritize.
Leah: That’s beautiful you guys. However, I actually meant – what are you literally taking home for each other?!
Paul: I am making some spinning tools, and a bunch of stuff for our home. And I am working on a special thing that I haven’t told her about yet.
Karen: I am learning a bunch of techniques. I don’t know how much knitting I am going to get done, but eventually these techniques will turn into sweaters. Or socks.
As a host at the Folk School, sometimes really incredible opportunities come your way. Karen Mueller is an innovative, virtuosic musician and highly sought after music educator. I recently took Karen Mueller’s intermediate-advanced autoharp class and weekend beginner mountain dulcimer class back-to-back. At the end of our time together, she agreed to sit down with me and answer a few of my questions about her life, career, and relationship to the Folk School.
LD: How did you get started playing the autoharp and the dulcimer? KM: I have played both instruments since high school. I started because there was a bluegrass festival that I discovered in my hometown of Winfield, Kansas. I wasn’t raised with bluegrass music. I knew folk, rock, pop, and classical music, but the more I was around bluegrass and old time, the more I liked it. I saw people playing these instruments really well, doing things I didn’t know you could, which piqued my curiosity. My dad and I built my first dulcimer and I taught myself to play both instruments from recordings and just by watching people whenever I could. [Karen also plays guitar, mandolin and ukulele.]
LD:When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up? (laughs) I had no idea! I was really into art. I was thinking about visual arts, but I did well academically too. I didn’t see myself being a professional musician. I loved music more than anything, but I didn’t want to pursue the classical arena. I had really intense classical piano studies until I was about 15 and then I was ready to take a break. I picked up the classical guitar just as intensely. Once I picked up the strings, I really felt more in touch with that than with the piano.
To pursue music at college would have required I go to the conservatory and take the classical route and I was just done with that. I didn’t see a career as a folk musician being a viable option. That career just had to gradually develop over time. When I was in college at the University of Kansas I tried to meet other musicians in the community even though I was studying all the time. I met some people that I played with regularly and we formed a band. When I graduated, I thought I would take that proverbial year off and decide whether to pursue grad school and in what discipline (I was in Art History and English, with a minor in Fine Arts and had done journalism too).
So I took a year off and got a job with a jewelry maker doing really high-end gold and silver smithing and still played pretty seriously with my band from college. I also got a Celtic band going. Both bands rehearsed twice a week, and gigged on the weekends, so I learned the craft of being in a working band: the playing as well as the administrative end of it. Meanwhile I still had the security of a full time job. I was earning more with the band than I was with the full time job so I just kept going with that.
When I moved to Minneapolis, I hooked up with a music school and music store to give lessons and still did temping and office work while I was building up my student base. I started touring more as a solo artist, was quickly playing in 4 bands, and then gradually I realized that I had enough students that I didn’t have to do the other stuff. I had no illusions that it was going to be easy or that it was going to happen because I said it was going to happen. It really was a day-by-day thing. I get a lot of calls now inviting me to events, so I don’t have to do the same kind of outreach anymore. And your network of contacts keeps spreading so you get more ideas of where and how to set up things over time.
LD:If you could collaborate with a musician living or dead, who would it be? I’ve covered songs by Sting, and now he is playing the lute too. That would be a trip! I would add Maybelle Carter, Eliza Gilkyson, and the Swedish band Väsen to that list too.
As a Folk School blogger, one of the most requested pieces of information I receive from locals is: “Why don’t you introduce the Hosts?” Well, as a former Work/Study and Host, I think it’s a great idea. So without further adieu… Let’s get to know a little bit about our current senior host, Meredith!
CP:Where are you from and what do you do there? MB: Stone Mountain, GA, but currently I live in Mountain Rest, SC. I design and make leather travel gear for my craft business Nomad Travel Gear.
CP: You make a living through craft – very cool. How did you get into making travel gear? MB: My mom is an airline employee, so I have been traveling my whole life. I was always looking for the perfect backpack and cases for traveling light, so eventually I started designing and making my own. Nomad Travel Gear was born to share the efficient and multi-functional designs I developed during my travels.
CP:How did you hear about the Folk School? MB: I found out about it from my mom, who has taken a bunch of Woodworking classes. She especially loves Marquetry classes.