In her 1962 classic A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle used the term “tesseract” to describe a way to transport through the universe without moving in physical space. As her character Mrs. Whatsit puts it, “you can travel through space without having to go the long way around.” To demonstrate how distance can be mitigated, Mrs. Whatsit takes two folds of her skirt and places them against one another.
I was thinking about Mrs. Whatsit and her skirt when I recently visited the Peters Valley Craft Fair, usually held in the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area. This year, without leaving home, I could drop in on artists in their studios in Buffalo, New York, Portland, Maine, and Bristol, Connecticut, within a matter of minutes, watching them work and talking with them one-on-one about their processes. And this past summer, I was able to attend Peters Valley faculty presentations — one of the highlight events for those studying at Peters Valley School of Craft — every Friday night via Zoom. I traveled to studios all over the world.
Physically based in Layton, New Jersey, Peters Valley School of Craft is celebrating its 50th anniversary with an exhibition at the Hunterdon Art Museum in Clinton, New Jersey — and yes, you can tesseract your way to see it, or even visit live if you are properly masked. From the Ground Up, on view through January 10, recounts the story of Peters Valley from its earliest formation as an experimental craft colony, to the prominence of its women blacksmiths in the early 2000s. What better way to tell the story than through the works in fiber, jewelry, ceramics, wood, photography, and metal produced during artist residencies?
Peters Valley began in 1970 as a planned colony of resident blacksmiths, ceramists, fiber artists, metalsmiths, woodworkers, and photographers who populated the site’s 18th- and 19th-century buildings. Over time, Peters Valley’s (non-degree) educational mission evolved into the craft school it is today, bringing together students with artists of local, national, and international renown for immersive workshops.
Peters Valley was the ancestral home of the Delaware Tribe of Indians, Delaware Nation, and Stockbridge-Munsee Community. Dutch and British colonists forced their removal beginning in the 17th century, then worked the farmland for generations.
Peters Valley acquired the land as a result of the aborted, and controversial, 1950 proposal to build the Tocks Island Dam, which would have created a 37-mile reservoir between New Jersey and Pennsylvania but instead became the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area. Among the 72,000 acres acquired through eminent domain was the village of Bevans, now home to Peters Valley.
The founders had to convince the National Park Service of the value of putting a craft community there, and the original craft fair was produced to gauge interest. With 30 exhibitors, the organizers expected hundreds would visit; thousands came.
In a soon-to-be-published catalogue, Andrew Willner, one of the first residents-in-wood, recounts that a week before students were to arrive that first summer in 1971, the small team realized everyone had to be housed and fed, and sprang into action.
“We found a prep table, an old refrigerator, and made a dining room,” Willner said. “The dormitory was fashioned from an old farmhouse. We planted a garden, and by August that garden was feeding people who were enrolled in classes and staying at the valley.
“For many of us, it was our first experience living communally and it has had lifelong implications,” Willner added during the exhibition’s opening reception (on Zoom). “Learning from each other was an important element. We were in and out of each other’s homes and studios. All of us were able to take a hand at iron forging, jewelry making, ceramic and fiber arts. We even baked bread together.”
My enchantment goes back to visiting as a teenager when my parents had a summer home in the nearby Pocono Mountains. It was the dawning of the age of Aquarius, the back-to-the-land movement, and Woodstock was not far away. I attended what I remember to be one of the school’s earliest festivals. The hand-made ceramics and weavings, as well as the soot on the blacksmiths’ overalls and the stir-fried veggies served over brown rice at that early craft festival made me feel like I was among my people.
As an adult I went back to take workshops (encaustics, glass mosaic), and succumbed to the charms of this idyllic community. Participants share meals, mostly vegetarian, in the communal dining hall. In the summer of 2019, I met and was starstruck by the blacksmith and faculty member Elizabeth Brim, who renders frilly dresses, strappy stilettos, and bonnets in iron, transforming the gender expectations of her childhood. As she once told the late, great Anthony Bourdain, her mother often admonished her, saying that blacksmithing was not “ladylike.”
Furniture designer Vivian Beer remembers blacksmithing as a largely male-dominated field in the 1990s, when she served as a studio assistant at Peters Valley. Screen-sharing a vintage photo of herself and the other blacksmiths on Zoom, she said, “It was me and a pile of dudes.” Two decades later, she notes, the community had “changed quite a bit in integrating different ages, different genders, different perspectives. It was a formative time for me, and I fell in love not just with metal but with this passion for intimate process, this experience with our hearts and our minds, that is key to the craft school experience.”
At the opening reception for the Hunterdon exhibition, curated by Elizabeth Essner, other faculty reflected on their experiences. “Peters Valley helped me form the structure of my life as an artist, craftsperson, and educator,” the artist Janet Lipkin said. “I never let my techniques restrict my artistic vision.”
Lipkin’s “Jacob’s Coat of Many Colors” is true to its title. She was one of the first fiber arts residents in 1972 and was part of the original art-to-wear movement, using the body as canvas. Not only is it many colored — she dyed her yarn to achieve her palette — but it is many media: crochet and felted wool, ceramic, beadwork, weaving. There’s enough detail to hold the gaze for a long time, including a face woven on the back of the hood.
In addition to its acclaimed blacksmithing and fiber art classes, Peters Valley is known in the ceramics world for its anagama kiln. “It gives you surfaces that are stunningly beautiful and really can’t be made any other way,” said Peters Valley Executive Director Kristin Muller, who found her way to Peters Valley as a ceramic artist and wood-fire expert. Muller’s “Pod Vessel,” fired in the anagama, is on view at the Hunterdon.
Anagama kilns were introduced to Japan from Korea in the third century. Japanese kiln builder Katsuyuki Sakazume spent a year constructing the 46-foot long, tunnel-like structure, burrowing into the hillside at Peters Valley. Fired only once a year, it takes two to three days to load, and another five to six days to fire, burning 25,000 pounds of wood. A community forms around the ritual, which involves stoking the fire round the clock. The flames, gases, and ashes exposed to the clay in the single-chamber kiln impart their magic to the finished piece. It is said that the fire is an active participant in the process.
The Hunterdon Art Museum, located in a 19th-century stone mill listed on the National Register of Historic Places, focuses on contemporary art, craft, and design, and is a perfect venue for this exhibition. Director Marjorie Frankel Nathanson notes that the boundaries between fine art and craft are disappearing, as fine artists are using what had formerly been considered craft materials, and craft persons, such as those at Peters Valley, are making fine art. Adds curator Essner, whose projects focus on things made by hand: “The use of materials is breaking down traditional hierarchies and erasing boundaries.”
From the Ground Up: Peters Valley School of Craft, curated by Elizabeth Essner, continues at the Hunterdon Art Museum (7 Lower Center St, Clinton, New Jersey) through January 10, 2021.
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.