It is a typical Tuesday morning at the N.C. State University Crafts Center: The "working with clay" students straddle potter's wheels while creating clay objects with their muddy hands. Nearby, something is developing in the darkroom. And over on the woodshop's lathe, a piece of a pine tree is becoming a wooden bowl.
Located in the same building as Thompson Theatre, the Crafts Center has been quietly turning out some of the Triangle's finest handcrafts for more than 30 years. It is a place to learn a craft, to work in the company of others developing new skills and ultimately to create that special piece that will become a family heirloom.
"This is good place to try a wide variety of things and see what clicks for you," says Jim Pressley, Crafts Center director for the past two years.
The 25,000-square-foot facility is believed to be the largest of its kind on a university campus in the Southeast. It offers a pottery studio with 20 wheels for turning, four electric kilns, and a 50-cubic-foot, gas-fired kiln that heats to more than 2,000 degrees; a darkroom equipped for black and white as well as color film developing and a 5,000 square-foot, fully equipped woodshop.
Other facilities include a weaving room equipped with looms, a lapidary studio for cutting and polishing stones for jewelry, a flat-glass studio for creating light-catching designs with stained glass, and a lab for grinding and polishing telescope mirrors.
Classes are offered in all these craft areas, with studios open for novices or master craftsmen to hone their skills. Special weekend demonstration workshops have drawn artists and craftsmen of international note. And the Crafts Center's Gallery. open to the public, features some of the finest touring exhibits as well as exhibits featuring the works of local craftsmen.
The Crafts Center traces its origins to a 300-square-foot room located in the former Erdahl-Cloyd Student Union Building, now part of D.H. Hill Library. In 1963, the program moved to its current location, with permanent facilities for slip-cast ceramics, a woodshop, and a darkroom.
"We were just fortunate at the time we began to grow to get this space," Pressley said.
In the early 1960's the center was open September through May, and its programs were available to the university community exclusively. Over the years, new crafts disciplines were introduced as additional space was acquired.
Today, the program is open year-round to the general public, with special discounts for the university community. Courses in more than 30 disciplines are taught, and the center is used by more than 1,000 people each year.
Throughout its history, the Crafts Center has remained steadfast in its primary mission to serve the university's students. "This is the students' Crafts Center. It's for their support that we're here," Pressley said. "We believe we enhance the academic program."
"Many students use the center to work on projects related to their courses of study," says George Thomas, Crafts Center assistant director in charge of the woodshop. Several years ago, Thomas came across a group of three or four students building a prototype of an engineering project. The senior engineering students were competing against four other student teams to design a project that would travel aboard the Space Shuttle.
The project, a canister about the size of an outdoor garbage can, was designed to eject spheres into space to aid radar calibration on Earth. NASA selected the prototype designed in the Crafts Center woodshop, and the final project successfully completed its Space Shuttle mission in February 1994.
Some students who get involved with the Crafts Center can't seem to tear themselves away. Director Pressley (B.A. psychology '69) and assistant director George Thomas (B.S. industrial arts '81) are prime examples.
Pressley became involved with woodworking and telescope-making at the Crafts Center while he was an undergraduate. After graduating, he became assistant director in charge of the woodshop and photography programs. In January 1993, he became the center's director following the retirement of Conrad Weisner.
Pressley still enjoys the craft of telescope making, from grinding and polishing telescope mirrors to creating the wooden casing for the telescope. One of his telescopes appeared in a recent Crafts Center instructors' exhibit. Thomas came to NCSU in 1979 as a transfer student from Western Carolina University. A Charlotte native, he had fallen in love with the North Carolina mountains. But a passion for woodworking, especially woodcarving, has kept him in the Raleigh area ever since. "I always felt like if this place (the Crafts Center) wasn't here, I never would have settled in Raleigh," Thomas said.
An avid woodcarver since childhood, Thomas became a student assistant in the center's woodshop while Pressley was coordinator of the program. After graduating, Thomas taught "shop" for eight years at East Garner Middle School in Wake County. But he remained a "weekend woodworker" at the Crafts Center. The center's philosophy of teaching skills while allowing students' creativity to guide their choice of projects carried over into his own teaching.
Thomas became assistant director of the center three years ago. He teaches a popular class on learning the woodshop equipment and spends time in the woodshop making sure users remember their safety practices. Safety is strongly emphasized in the woodshop, which boasts a record of never having had a major accident.
Thomas' creative outlet continues to be woodcarving. At the Charlotte Showcase of Woodcarving, the Southeast's largest competition for woodcarvers, he has earned titles of Best of Show and the Peoples' Choice Award. At the International Woodcarvers Congress in Iowa, his work was recognized as Third Best of Show and Unusual Interpretation of subject matter.
Mountain Memories, Thomas' carving that won Third Best of Show, took two years at more than 40 hours per week to complete. Measuring 40" x 38" x 22" and featuring 13 individual people, the carving appeared in the center's instructors' exhibit.
Many different projects come out of the center's shops, especially the woodshop. Crafts Center legend holds that someone once constructed an entire airplane in the woodshop.
The Crafts Center is supported entirely through student fees. Therefore, NCSU students and their spouses receive discounts on most of the center's classes, a privilege that is also extended to NCSU alumni, faculty, and staff. Others pay full price for classes or a $35.-per-semester fee to gain access to the center's shops.
Once they have learned the basics, crafts students will often return to work regularly in the center's pottery studio, darkroom, woodshop, or weaving room. "We have people who are here virtually every day," Pressley said.
Working in the company of others, crafts people benefit from the mentoring they get from others with more experience. "If you work alone in a home shop, you have no one to learn from," Thomas said. "The camaraderie here is wonderful."
"One of the blessings of this place is the wonderful sharing of knowledge," said Audry Heatwole of Raleigh, who earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in Tennessee at the age of 48. Heatwole works in both the woodshop and the pottery studio. Last fall, she taught a class in porcelain coloring.
The center's pottery program has seen a good bit of growth and is heading in new directions, especially under the leadership of former director Conrad Weiser. When Weiser first joined the center in 1966, the pottery program had only one wheel, and not a very good one at that.
After 1970, when good potter's wheels became available, the Crafts Center began acquiring them at a rate of one or two each year. In 1974, when the center began opening its classes and studios to the general public, Weiser began to see a more serious attitude about the pottery among students. "People [who came to the center] had more mature attitudes about developing a craft, and things started happening," he said.
Weiser believes the Crafts Center has influenced a generation of Triangle area potters. He is proud of the fact that at least two former students of the center have become professional potters.
In addition to its crafts programs, the Crafts Center has become a gathering place for many of the Triangle's crafts guilds. Woodturners, potters, weavers, and basketry guilds meet regularly at the center.
The center's gallery hosts national touring exhibitions, guild shows, and occasionally an individual show for an artist who might be doing a workshop for the center. The gallery tries to attract crafts that have a natural constituency at the center. Gallery shows of the past decade have included Japanese kimonos, turned wooden objects, Art Deco clothing, and teapots, to name only a few. One show featured the pottery of the late Ben Owen, celebrated Seagrove, N.C. potter.
Each November, on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, the center hosts its annual fair and sale. Just in time for the holidays, the center's crafts people roll out their finest works for show and for sale. It is a way for the public to meet the center's creative people and for the crafters to earn some money to put back into their work. Events like the fair help draw new students into the Crafts Center's programs. Some come to dabble in a craft: others leave only because they have moved on the new heights of artistry. "At the Crafts Center, we've opened the door for many people," Thomas said. "Primarily that's our mission: to let people try out crafts."
--reprinted with the permission of The Alumni Magazine