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This Month's Feature.........
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
|Shauna Soom, Executive Director|
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
|Students attend a workshop in the new, open-air ceramics studio.|
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
|Touchstone's studio facilities provide ample tools and equipment for pottery students.|
Touchstone’s mission includes passing on craft traditions through fostering young people in the arts. A full curriculum 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
|Teens learn new techniques under the supervision of expert instructors.|
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
|Works by Touchstone students and instructors are displayed in the center's gallery and store.|
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.