Arriving at the Arrowmont School without having suffered a crashing headache from the visual cacophony that is Pigeon Forge can be quite a relief. An oasis surrounded by the ever-bustling Gatlinburg, Arrowmont’s 14-acre property on the Parkway is home to a highly esteemed arts and crafts center that, in turn, serves as an annual home for groups of artists-in-residence. Hosting such artists each year since 1991, the school presents the culmination of their efforts in an exhibition every spring.
The 2014 show, Five Lines, which runs through May 9, is memorable. It features an impressive collection of sculpture and other objects, drawings, and textile art by Lynn Batchelder, H.P. Bloomer, Rachel K. Garceau, Tally Locke, and Rena Wood, Arrowmont’s visiting artists and also the participants in the school’s booth at the Dogwood Arts Festival’s Art Fair on Market Square this weekend.
People familiar with the Arrowmont School likely know its history. The school was established approximately a century ago by the Pi Beta Phi women’s organization as a “settlement school,” in response to the lack of formal public education in the region. Arrowmont initiated, in conjunction with the University of Tennessee, a summer art program beginning in 1945. Inspired by a distinctive tradition of local crafts, the program eventually expanded to offer year-round classes.
Facilities once used for settlement school purposes are now studios and classrooms for workshops; they include a narrow but spacious exhibition area with clerestory windows incorporating mountain light into the overall viewing experience. In Five Lines, various pieces interspersed throughout the gallery in a mixed display, rather than separated according to artist, reflect what gallery manager Stefanie Gerber Darr has called “a palpable shared energy” between this past year’s artists-in-residence. Whatever the configuration of art—whether or not the work is wall-mounted, on pedestals, occupying floor space, or ceiling-hung—the offerings in Five Lines signal a departure from what visitors to Arrowmont might expect.
For instance, however predictable his medium seems at Arrowmont, H.P. Bloomer creates ceramics that would give your grandmother goose bumps. In addition to functionality, his predominantly porcelain work (i.e., bowls, vases, lidded jars, etc.) represents a satisfying marriage of form, glaze, and applied image. The Texas-bred Bloomer identifies 20th-century modernism as an influence, but his pared-down, International Style and Bauhaus school-inspired fare comes with a twist: exuberant, albeit often understated, color. Alongside other simultaneously earthy and bold pieces are his 16 dinner plates, mounted together on a single wall.
Employing porcelain in an entirely different way, New Hampshire-educated Rachel K. Garceau is primarily an installation artist. In Five Lines, work fitting that description is both present and documented—that is, seen in photographs of objects occupying nearby outdoor locations. By removing portions of white slip from the surfaces of pillow-shaped and larger wedge-like forms prior to firing, Garceau produces surface imagery, frequently of leaves and chain-link fencing.
Garceau’s piece “never spoken” transforms porcelain into something looking like the tufted vinyl upholstery found in classic cars. Its long, 2-foot-wide black-and-white swath composed of ceramic “bricks” laid end to end extends approximately eight feet up a partition wall. One can’t help but be reminded of a piano keyboard, the differing lengths of ceramic sections producing a visual rhythm of sorts.
Also large scale is Rena Wood’s installation with lace and felt titled “Fabricated Perspective.” About eight feet wide and 10 feet high, her black “curtain” has round elements positioned within cascading threads, the ends of which, pooling onto the gallery floor, form curls echoing circular shapes above. Smaller wall hangings, at times in the form of runners, utilize vintage tablecloths and other household textiles. Some pieces feature purple and blue-gray embroidery on raw silk, grommets, or both feathery and muscular sewn-together sections. The central portion of Wood’s nine-part, quilt-like “Bridge” is a mandala of sorts that might allude to domestic enlightenment.
Michigander Lynn Batchelder’s combining of linear drawings and related metal objects sets her work apart. Balancing intricate ink markings on paper that seem every bit as labor-intensive as Wood’s art are simple three-dimensional pieces in copper and sterling silver. The quirky “Inlet Brooches,” composed of silver, have a matte surface, and in one instance, a multitude of small holes resembling a man’s whiskered skin. Batchelder has described trying to capture “small moments of contrast where control and imperfection collide,” an aim embodied by bottomless pouches suspended from chains—the non-functional parading as useful.
Finally, wood, another material associated with crafts, dominates work by Tally Locke. Be it a pedestal-mounted pile of log ends capping off dowels, a locally sourced black walnut table, or an assortment of smooth bowls set into salvaged chunks of osage orange, maple, cherry, or oak, Locke’s love for wood is obvious. And she, like her fellow artists-in-residence, appears to possess the skill to do with it whatever imagination allows.