The malleability of hot iron has always intrigued local artisan Karen Rudolph. "As a child, I was captivated by the blacksmiths at county fairs and craft festivals," she says. "I could stand and watch them for hours as they worked pieces of glowing yellow-orange metal - bending them, twisting them, hammering them. I knew that I wanted to learn their craft."
And so she did. After studying blacksmithing at Warren Wilson College, Rudolph moved on to the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, North Carolina, honing her craft as the school's resident blacksmith. She thrived in the hands-on environment surrounded by talented blacksmiths, craftsmen and artists and soon ventured into other workshops to learn additional skills. Today, Rudolph works with tin, copper, and glass in a small downtown Chattanooga studio she shares with other artisans.
"The folk school is beloved to me. I describe it to friends as a year-round summer camp for adults," she laughs. "Really, you go to the campus, focus on art, music, or a particular craft for a week, meet new people, and return home feeling absolutely rejuvenated."
She's not alone. Everyone who has taken one or more classes at the John C. Campbell Folk School raves about it, describing it as a vacation destination for lifelong learners - a place to study the vanishing arts, crafts, and ways of life of Southern Appalachia.
On any given day, the 300-acre campus pulses with activity.
In the Putnam Fiber Arts Building, a group twists wool into yarn with spinning wheels while another class weaves cloth using ancient wooden looms the size of pianos.
Just down the road, students of all ages carefully shape wet clay into magnificent vases and pots. A young apprentice turns a wooden bowl using a lathe in the Willard Baxter Woodturning Studio, while a man learns to make a hand-tied broom in the Rock Room. One class bakes bread, another class makes soap, while yet another class hooks rugs. All the while, the thunderous clanging of metal emanating from the blacksmith shop floats upon an occasional mountain breeze and mixes with the musical sounds of various string instruments - banjos, fiddles, mandolins and guitars. Classes at the folk school cater to people of all skill levels from beginners to the ultra advanced.
The catalog shines with a seemingly endless listing of weeklong and weekend courses.
"The school was established in 1925 by two very progressive female humanitarians," says marketing manager Keather Weideman. "Their goal was to preserve and share with the world the wonderful crafts, techniques and tools of the Southern Appalachian culture."
The school offers a non-competitive, supportive environment for people to learn traditional folk arts, as well as a few modern arts and skills. Although not mandatory, visitors are encouraged to stay on campus in student housing.
"The fellowship of living and learning together is part of the overall experience," Weideman says. "There are lots of activities throughout the day starting with Morning Song at 7:45. Afterwards, everyone eats a hearty breakfast together."
Class instruction and tours of studios fill the day, and supper is served at 6 p.m. Students enjoy generous portions of healthy, homemade Appalachian fare made from fresh vegetables and herbs grown on the grounds. Evenings are filled with dance, music, storytelling, craft demonstrations and hikes down the Rivercane Walk, a creek-side trail showcasing art honoring the area's distinctive Cherokee heritage.
"It's a tranquil, pastoral setting with rolling green fields, a babbling mountain creek, patches of wildflowers and woodlands," says Maurice Edwards, a retired educator who lives on Signal Mountain. "It's a beautiful place, so very conducive to learning."
Edwards, who refers to himself as an unofficial recruiter for the school, has taken between 30 to 40 classes there. He loves mingling with the other students young and old from all different backgrounds.
"I started by taking a basic watercolor class and fell in love with both the school and with painting," he says. "I returned and sampled other media, until I finally found my passion - oil painting."
Edwards has spent many hours standing on a hilltop with paintbrush in hand, soaking in a sunset and capturing the natural peace of the spaces and scenery around the folk school - a technique referred to as plein air painting. Today, he paints landscapes from photographs taken on his travels to Yellowstone National Park and the Bavarian Alps.
"I don't want to live my life as a spectator," he explains. "I want to live it, and the folk school helps me do just that."
April 8-10 (Weekend Sessions)
Beads, Glass, Jewelry-Glass Beads to Baubles & Bling! $308
Blacksmithing-Smashing Iron $308
Dance-Appalachian Square Dance $180
Drawing-Intermediate Pen & Ink - Wildlife & Landscape $308
Quilting, Photography-Fabricating Faces $308
Stone, Sculpture & Mosaics-Stone on Stone Patios $308
Unique Offerings, Mixed Media-Peep Art! $308
Unique Offerings, Weaving-Woven Bamboo Window Blinds $308
Woodcarving-Caricature Figure Carving $308
Woodturning-Logs to Bowls in a Weekend $308
April 29-May 1 (Weekend Sessions)
Basketry-The Versatile Hen Basket $308
Beads, Glass-Beyond Basic Beads $308
Blacksmithing, Metalwork-Copper Roses and More $308
Dance-English Country Dance Weekend $180
Gardening, Nature Studies-Growing Your Own Mushrooms $308
Kaleidoscopes-Kaleidoscopes: A Journey into the Universe $308
Nature Studies-Beekeeping $308
Needlework & Thread Art-Japanese Temari Balls $308
Painting-Get Your Feet Wet with Watercolor $308
Quilting-Pyramid Quilt $308
Woodturning-Spindles to Bowls $308
Woodworking-Scroll Saw Projects $308