Southwestern Pennsylvania is an area rich in preserved history that marks the development of the American nation. A region that stood as the gateway to the west in the 19th century and that fueled the industrial revolution into the 20th century, its people have a long tradition of using the materials of the earth to create useful things and to put their personal imprints of beauty on their creations. It was this tradition that inspired the creation of the Touchstone Center for Crafts in the Laurel Highlands near Pittsburgh.
Originally founded in 1972 as the Pioneer Crafts Council by a group of local artists, the school focused on preserving the rich tradition of craft forms that were an everyday part of life in this Appalachian region. Today, Touchstone stands as the only residential craft school in Pennsylvania, serving over 500 residential students during its five-month summer season. Touchstone Executive Director Shauna Soom oversees the operation of the center that offers residential workshops in blacksmithing, ceramics, glass, metals, jewelry, painting, drawing, printmaking, and fiber/ paper/book arts.
The Touchstone campus is a mecca for artists. The center is located about an hour south of Pittsburgh, near the town of Farmington. Well-appointed studios nestled throughout a wooded landscape provide the means for inspired creating. Simple housing is available in residence halls and rustic cabins. Those who want an even more pastoral experience can pitch a tent on the property. Meals are offered in a common dining hall, bringing the community together for physical and communal nourishment. Meryl Elliot, Touchstone’s Le Cordon Bleu trained chef, prepares a menu using locally sourced ingredients. Director Soom says, “Having fabulous food is important here. The intensity of the creative experience demands a revitalizing break, with food as beautiful as the art.”
A native of Southwestern Pennsylvania, Soom came to Touchstone in January of 2015 from a position as a regional director for the American Red Cross. “I learned about Touchstone from my two daughters,” she says. “They each have attended youth programs here.” Soom’s interest in the arts began as a child. “My parents always took us to performances, to museums,” she recalls. She plays piano and clarinet and encourages the creative spirit in her daughters. She comes to Touchstone with strong administrative, management, and teaching skills and has found that working with artists adds a new dimension to her executive functions. “Artists tend to bring their creativity to all aspects of their lives. They seem to be very good at figuring things out, lending creativity to planning and problem solving,” she says.
Soom’s staff helps her plan curriculum, secure instructors, recruit students, and manage an 150-acre facility with multiple buildings. Maintenance is an ongoing project, especially with the harsh mountain winters. Damage is not uncommon. A recent winter storm badly damaged the dining facility and the ceramic studio roof. Thanks to generous support from foundation partners, Touchstone was able to make the repairs and expand the ceramics studio. The damaged roof was reconfigured to create an open screened space that allows potters to work out-of-doors, immersed in the wooded setting, while remaining protected from weather and insects. The new space passed the test at recent weekend workshops – the “Throw-Down” Ceramic Symposium and the Mosaic Symposium in May. Soom says that both events were successful: “I’m thinking of combining them next year because the artistic feel of both groups was so similar.”
During the summer season, Touchstone offers over 100 workshops in a variety of media. Some are offered over a short weekend; others are a full week. Many students return year after year, enrolling for multiple weeks. Part of Touchstone’s success has been its ability to attract prominent artist- teachers. For example, noted ceramicist Steven Hill will offer the weeklong “Atmospheric Effects for Electric Firing” this July. Other instructors, such as Valda Cox, Joe Sendek, and Akira Satake are well known potters who are sought out by students. Soom says that Touchstone’s instructors are a great marketing tool, bringing their followers to the center. “Student numbers are growing,” says Soom. “We have been able to launch a strong marketing campaign, thanks to foundation support, this year. We are in seven regional NPR markets.” Students come from all over the United States and Canada. This summer will see the first student from Brazil.
Touchstone’s mission includes passing on craft traditions through fostering young people in the arts. A full curriculu m of youth workshops exposes children to a variety of media during day camp sessions. Older teens can attend a full week onsite during August, sitting side-by-side with adult students in the regularly offered workshops that week. They stay in the residence hall, chaperoned by adults, and share in the camaraderie of the dining hall meals. For college students, Touchstone offers summer-long positions as Studio Assistants and Studio Technicians. Usually art majors, the students live on campus, work in the studios, and have access to the facilities for their own creative work.
Touchstone’s idyllic setting belies its real impact on the surrounding communities. An economically depressed region that is still recovering from the loss of the steel industry in the 1980, Fayette County counts on Touchstone as a resource for arts in its schools and benefits from the tourism dollars it brings to the region. Students are encouraged to explore the surrounding area and patronize local businesses and tourist sites, such as Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater and Kentuck Knob house tours, Laurel Caverns, and several historical sites. The student experience expands to the region that gave birth to the very crafts that are at the heart of the artists’ work. Local residents and visitors are welcome at Touchstone’s Blaney Lodge, which houses the center’s gallery, store, and library. Every October, an annual gala is held, featuring an auction of students’ and instructors’ works. This year’s event will be held October 3, from 2 – 6 p.m. Soom says that the drive to Farmington from Pittsburgh is beautiful when the leaves are in their fall colors.
While hundreds of artists learn new techniques and discover old practices this summer, Soom will continue to keep things running smoothly and make plans for the future. “We recently broke ground to rebuild our glass studio,” she says, “and we’re thinking about adding a food arts component along with one of our ceramics workshops.” She envisions students gathered about a community oven, crafting plates, firing them, baking pizzas, and sharing the simple pleasures passed on through a regional history rich in creativity.
For more information about Touchstone Center for Crafts, visit www.touchstonecrafts.org.