Talking with Stuart Kestenbaum, Director of the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts

Episode #169

Transcription of Interview with Stuart Kestenbaum

Alison Lee: Well, I'm very excited to talk to today's guest today because I have a little fantasy to want to go to Haystack Mountain School of Crafts. And today I'm talking to their director Stuart Kestenbaum who is the director of Haystack and he is located I know right on the Atlantic Ocean in Deer Isle, Maine. It’s a school that offers intense studio-based workshops and a variety of craft media. I know we are all excited to hear about it. Stu thanks for coming on the show today.

Stuart Kestenbaum: Glad to be here.

Alison: So, tell everyone about Haystack. Give them the overview. People who don’t know or want to know.

Stuart: The biggest overview is that it’s a school or an intensive workshop program that is dedicated to creative process and working with a wide range of craft medium. We are located in Deer Isle, Maine. We are about, I think about six hours from Boston, right on the coast. We are kind of, I'd like to think the center of the universe but it might seem a little far to get there to some other people. And our workshops are, during the summer months we have one- and two-week workshops for adults from all over the country and abroad. Last year we had students from 17 countries and 44 states and they range in age, our summer program have to be at least 18 and last year our youngest student was 18 and our oldest was I think 90 years old. So, a great range of people and I think that heart of the program can come and they can work in an uninterrupted way so it’s a retreat atmosphere.

Alison: And you get amazing people coming in there to teach.

Stuart: We do. We have great teachers and sometimes even those teachers will come back and take workshops. So, it’s a great student body as well and everybody is really open to trying out new things. So, nobody is required to come so when people are here, they are ready to be here, eager to be and ready to work. Within a two-week workshop people can make tremendous leaps in their work.

Alison: You know, I know there is even something more going on there too. There is that unspoken essence that makes people leave with that inspired, I call it the high as the kite feeling, ready to go. How does that happen? What is that?

Stuart: What is that? Well, I think it’s partly the school's location contributes to that because we are seven miles away from the small town of Deer Isle, right on the peninsula of the island. We are far away from things. You are in a place where you don’t have to think about anything else because we take care of your food, you get to work in the studio. You get to eat; you go back to work in the studio. So, you are not thinking anything to do with

Alison: Life.

Stuart: Or humdrum parts of your life. You get to kind of reveal what you really want to do. I think that's part of it. You are in a supportive community because you are with people, everybody wants to be there and it’s a non-hierarchical community. So, it’s not like well it has, many skills are taught. It's not that there is a hierarchy of whose just beginning with their work and who has a master's degree. Everybody is in it together, so I think it makes it a supportive community. So, I think all those factors really build a sense of support so you are ready to make those kinds of leaps that leave you elevate even after you have gone home. In fact, people can carry those moments within them and get back to their studio sometimes for years based on the kind of catalyst of having been there and having seen it. So, there are other programs that are similar to Haystack. I think ours is kind of, of those is probably the most intimate in scale because we only have about 85 people at any one time. So, you also get a certain sense of safety and kind of knowing who everybody is for the time that you are here.

Alison: Yes. I think it must have to do with, I know and I've been to special places. That feeling of community. Artists tend to work a lot alone and then you are put in an environment where you are with people, sharing.

Stuart: I think the community is very powerful. In addition to the workshops that we have in the summer months, we have retreat sessions. We have people who have taught at Haystack that came back for five-day retreat that we have every other year and they get to work in any of the studios and we have technicians who can help them. And we have invitational conferences where we'll invite people from different kinds of communities like scientist and educators and writers. But all things dealing with create process and materials and whatever those gatherings there is a certain intense community that builds and people feel supported in a way that I think we don’t have all the time. I think people really yearn for community and there are many different kinds of communities. There is the one that you live in all the time but then there is a community where you're, what I would think of as a community of kindred spirts. You realize that you are in there and there are other people who are like you and I think it makes a huge different in your ability to feel safe to mess up and try new ideas and go places.

Alison: Yes. I agree. My shoulders just went down hearing you talk.

Stuart: [Laughter]. That's good. We have another program. It’s for high school kids throughout Maine. We had it for many years. There are about 70 kids from as many different high schools from all around the state and they are selected by their art teachers. And for some of them, it's the first time that they have ever been to a place like Haystack. And for some of them, they may think they come from a small town. They may think you are the only person that's like them in the world. And I've heard from many of them when they have gone unto careers in the arts that they got to Haystack when they were 17 or 16 and they realized that there were other people like them and it was possible to be that kind of person and be creative and do the things you wanted to do. And I think it’s very powerful to heard that from somebody who experienced it when they were in their formative years but I think that's replicated over and over with adults who come to it. It's like realizing, in a way there's a place for you, a creative place where there are other people who are like you.

Alison: It's so important. I was fortunate enough, my son who is now a professional actor, when he was young just seemed to be one of those that stuck out just like what you are talking about and found a summer program for him, Stagedoor which did the same thing. And it is so important especially for young people. For all of us but it really helps for young people.

Stuart: And I think realizing even if the length of time, doesn’t have to be a yearly long program to have that impact. It can be two weeks in the right context can be so profound.

Alison: Absolutely. I agree. 100%. Now Haystack was started in the 1950's, correct?

Stuart: Nineteen fifty-one was the first year and it was in Haystack Mountain is actually where the school is now, Haystack Mountain is a small mountain which is about an hour and a half southwest of the school between the town of Belfast and Augusta. And the school was located there in a kind of rural environment and the state's highway came through the property and the school had to move and it was a great move. We were about to move to Deer Isle which is right off the coast and move into a campus that was designed by Edward Larrabee Barnes who is one of America's most noted Architects and Haystack for many seen as his finest work. It was inexpensively built. It only cost when it was built in 1960, five dollars a square foot. But its (inaudible) in the landscape in a way that really is integrated with the natural world and because of that it’s really significant for many I the architectural community. And Haystack received from the American Institute of Architects an award called the 25-year Award which is given to a building or a group of buildings that have had a significant impact on design in the country. So, there are about 40 buildings that have that designation. Other ones are I think () museum and Rockefeller center, Vietnam veterans memorial, the St Louis Arch. Nathaniel Hall. It’s a, within a remarkable group of buildings and I think that in a sense contributes to the sense of community because you are in a series of cabins and studios that are all connected by decks and you are on the slope, it’s like going out of the water with a kind of main stairs, like the main street is a town. So, thanks to the state highway we got to move to a new place and because of that we had some remarkable architecture too. It’s kind of becomes one whole, the architecture, the site, and the program, and the food.

Alison: The whole experience.

Stuart: Yes.

Alison: It’s amazing, it’s not amazing but it just shows that the building and the environment how much it can nurture and provide a space in your brain to be more creative.

Stuart: I think it’s to me it’s very powerful to see the impact that the buildings have and also to realize that well it doesn’t take a lot of money to make a great building. It takes the right kind of design and that as some people look for bigger and better but really, it’s kind of an intelligent design.

Alison: I agree with you.

Stuart: Make those (inaudible) and then when you see that happen it becomes like another partner in the program.

Alison: Yes. I totally agree with you. Well, where do you see right now, obviously over the years in the history of Haystack, where is it right now in craft? Like what is, I don’t like to use the word trends but what is the style, what is the interest, what is the, you know, where is it at for people what they want to study? Because so many things have changed in craft certainly over the past 20 years and I am wondering how that is reflected at Haystack?

Stuart: Well, I think that now you have a lot more elected in terms of how people will pursue their work if you look at ceramics and maybe 30 years ago maybe all high fire, wheel () stoneware. not all but lots of it would be in now. You can go everywhere from people building work that's never going to be fired to slip casting to low fire to high fire to installation work and that’s just within the one medium. And then you have areas like in the kind of textile fiber area where people cross over into so many different techniques. And it’s hard, there are techniques and traditions of work in fiber. It can be manifested in many different materials and many different ways. I think there are lots of cross over willingness to experiment. I think there is still a yearning for the specific connect with materials and how the material helps define the work that's made. But I do think that and there are people who definitely work in one specific medium, functional pottery for example would be some of our most sought-after workshops for people to take or working in.

Alison: Meaning where you are actually making, in the ceramics that would be functional meaning dish ware.

Stuart: Yes. making a cup you could use. It’s definitely and I think there is maybe a greater sense of industry that goes along with that. The larger scale our culture becomes maybe even the most sought after that might be of the individual object. But there are also people who just draw from so many different sources not only within their medium but across different media now. There are new technologies. We just became involved with a collaboration with the Center for Bits and Atoms the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and we have what’s called the fab lab.

Alison: That was my next question. I was dying to hear about that.

Stuart: So that's a digital fabrication studio and its part of an international network of these small-scale labs which were developed at MIT. Which it takes like technology that would be very high technology but it allows you to use it on a smaller scale or a human scale. So, you have a basic configuration of equipment like a laser cutter and a CNC router and a milling machine. And within that configuration you can make many things. There are labs in other countries that are making prosthetic devices for kids to use. You can use it for boat building, all different kinds of designs. And we are using it to augment and compliment the work of our studio. So, if you are working in print making and you can use the laser cutter to make stencils or ceramics, that is one application. If you want to do a prototype of a table, you can do that on a smaller scale and cut it out on a CNC router quickly. So, we don’t see it as taking the place of hand we see it as really that humans are creative and we are at our most ingenious when we are creative that can be technology means. Everything from, anything that augments the work of a hand is a kind of technology. So going from the wheel to a computer, a laser cutter is really just one big continuum of creativity I think for us. So, this is a way of doing it on a scale that is appropriate. So, we are not using one in spite of the other. We are using them all together as a way to make what needs to made. To me it’s very exciting because it feels that it’s like in our voices as a place to use it but it’s not taking the place of something that you can. If scissors are the answer, then go scissors. If you need a laser cutter then go with the laser cutter. And the other thing that's been exciting is that part of this we have doctoral students from MIT who have been the assistants in the lab when we have it during the summer. So, then it’s just great to be around people who are creative in their own endeavors but not necessarily that craft makers would be. And just to get to know them and see how they look at the world and get to know us and it really builds a lot of bridges between areas that you would think don’t have things in common but I think it fact really do which is ingenuity. It kind of ties it together so it’s very excited to see that.

Alison: Oh, I live for that. I think that I love it when techno brings into art, makes more things possible. It doesn’t replace, you're right. It just gives you more tools to play with.

Stuart: Yes. And it just, I think another trend going back to that when you were asking, I think people who are in university programs they are already so used to being eclectic it’s not a moment where they say I can’t believe I'm going to try this piece of equipment. They just do it. It’s the world that they have come into. It’s not one where those barriers. I think they are just ready to use what they need to use.

Alison: And you are saying that barriers removed because of age?

Stuart: I think so. I think it’s a certain technology they are used to. They may have grown up always knowing that there was an internet, an email. So, it’s not like, to use a touch screen isn’t a novelty. It’s just what is. So, I think they are always, for them it’s not a shocking thing. The first time we got involved with MIT was an invitation symposium that we did called Digital Dialogue Technology in the Hand in 2001. And half the people were from MIT and half Haystack invited with a craft background. It seemed like a wedding where the families are very different. And it was at Haystack and then it wound up being, I began to see just with the interaction that we weren’t that different but I think the feeling at the time was, oh well these things would be so different. How would they get along? But now I think it’s a much more natural thing for those areas to get along but still great to, I find it very exciting to have the conversations with somebody in science or research and to see what we have in common. It feels like it’s the best of humanity.

Alison: I agree. That is great fun. I just have the line that distinguished, that's drawn in the sand where people say, when putting something in front of them new and technology, oh I don’t want to touch it. I might break it. And that line has disappeared. People just sort of jump right in now. I mean in such a few years that has change.

Stuart: You realize you are not going to break it that easily.

Alison: No. Not by touching it. Also, what I have noticed. I don’t know maybe you have seen it too if people want the important, they are willing to take the risk of trying something they have no idea how to do. And the internet has definitely given that to people in the arts.

Stuart: And it allows you to be I think much more eclectic too and the sources you can draw from. The way that you have to use your skills is different now.

Alison: Yes absolutely. Absolutely. Well now you yourself I know that you have a book coming out with my friend Mr. Tim McCreight from his publishing company, Brynmorgen Press. Why don’t you tell us more about your book?

Stuart: Sure. It’s a collection of writings that I have done at Haystack. Many of them came from every year I've write to newsletters and I will write a column for those reflection on community after craft and creative process. Something's related specifically to Deer Isle, some to Haystack, some to the weather. So, I've been at Haystack for 23 years now so it's a significant number of them and that is the kind of core of the book and then in addition there are talks are given at different conferences looking at craft and creative process and how we approach our work. The book is a combination of those two things.

Alison: Oh, that will be exciting. I always love books that Tim puts out.

Stuart: He does a great job.

Alison: And you just want to sit down and have a long sit and be able to have a cup of tea and just go through it slowly and take it all in.

Stuart: Tim volunteered to design a book for us. It was a book about Haystack's architecture. Last year was the 50th anniversary of the campus and we celebrated that through a number of things. But one was a book called Vison and Legacy: Celebrating the Architecture of Haystack. Tim produced and designed that book for us which includes essays by people who were involved with the school and architects and people who have used it in different ways and historic photographs. It’s a beautiful book.

Alison: Is that still available?

Stuart: Yes.

Alison: I'll make sure then that everybody can check that craftcast site to get the link for that. I'd like to see that as well. Well, that's lovely. Do you find also that young people are, because some of us who talk worry about is craft dying out? Will young people show up for these things? Do you find young people? I know you mentioned you have the high school program. Do you see it also in the 20’s- and 30’s-year old’s for people showing up?

Stuart: Yes. I think there is a, that desire is still there for them and I think in some ways, there are lots of places where you can get the kind of technique workshops. One used to be, they weren’t as many until 1960, 1970, there weren’t as many resources. There are so many now. I think that there is a lot of interest. We have a program that we started last year for arts schools in the northeast where we had 10 different schools, eight students and teachers each so they could basically have a chance to talk to one another and we did some creative process workshops but they have a chance to see what other programs are doing. And in terms of the summer programs, we have scholarship program which I think helps to attract. Could attract anybody but in some cases, people are just starting out and ensure that we have a more diverse community in terms of our age mix. So, I think that desire is still quite strong and I think really if you look at all the things with DIY and Esty, then if that is kind of a concurrent or complementary trend that there is a lot of interest in the sense of scale and community and what makes things human and craft is like, in some ways is the great humanizer. So, I think to me there is always a yearning for that and we still see that.

Alison: Well, I think I see that on the internet and globally as well. Craft has brought it together because of the internet, its brought together people interested in craft globally. And no matter the medium will pull people together when there is a passion for a medium.

Stuart: Yes.

Alison: And that is always exciting. That goes through all kinds of boundaries and it doesn’t matter.

Stuart: Yes. I think that in some instances here you have people who are drawn to a particularly to a medium and then others who are drawn to maybe the overall concept of communication and within everybody there are combinations of that too.

Alison: Oh, it sounds wonderful. Thank you, Stuart, for sharing all that with us today.

Stuart: You are welcome.

Alison: I am going to start at the pictures again and think about it. I have been going through the catalogue there. It looks very exciting for the upcoming 2012 year.

Stuart: Yes. And everything is online so it’s really easy.

Alison: Yes. Let’s just give that, let me give that URL. It's haystack-mountainmtm.org plus come over to the craftcast.com site and you can get a link so you can check it out. Well thank you very much once again. I know you said it’s snowing there so maybe we get snowed in and work away.

Stuart: Yes. I will.

Alison: It's always good. Thank you.

Stuart: Thanks Alison.

Alison: Bye Bye.

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