Spotlight on the Arkansas Craft School
Recently I had the chance to sit down and chat with Rachel Reynolds, executive director of the Arkansas Craft School in Mountain View, Arkansas. If you haven't heard of it, please check out their website. This place is a not-so-hidden gem in Mountain View. What they're doing in our community is amazing and innovative and I could go on and on. But I'll let Rachel tell you. Her passion is contagious.
Meet Rachel Reynolds
Emily: Your profile on the Arkansas Craft School site says you're an artist and folklorist. And that sounds amazing. Tell me more! What type of art? What is a folklorist?
Rachel: Well, I do a little bit of everything. I'm a multi-media and textile artist and a fiddle player. And as a folklorist, I study the things we learn from each other. Not things we learn from books, but things that are passed down over generations. I work with mainly vernacular music, foodways, and crafts.
E: I'm not familiar with the term "foodways." What are foodways?
R: Foodways are a genre of folklore. They focus on food culture — things like the casserole recipes that get traded at the church potluck. Recipes that are passed down, like the cornbread recipe I learned from my great grandmother when I was six years old. And regional food traditions, like the different types of barbecue sauce you find when you travel around the country. Those are all examples of foodways.
(At this point I had to pause the interview to ask for Rachel's great-grandmother's cornbread recipe which she promptly shared from memory. I knew I loved folklore. I promised not to share it, but you can ask her and she might just give it to you. She's nice like that.)
Art in the Ozarks
E: I guess Mountain View is the perfect place to do this type of work.
R: Absolutely. To be living and working in a place with strong traditions that are still vibrant is pretty special. Communities are my canvas, specifically rural communities. I'm passionate about using art and culture to create a sense of pride, and using them as tools to identify and solve community issues.
E: That's fascinating. I've always loved folklore but I guess I never realized it could be so powerful.
R: It really is. I love pulling together all different kinds of people, hearing their stories and perspectives, and helping them share and develop skills to express who they are and where they come from. It's kind of like painting — being able to combine all those perspectives and traditions and work together to create something beautiful that folks are proud of.
E: What do you love about the Ozarks Mountains?
R: Just about everything. I grew up in Mountain View. Being able to bring all these things I've learned, networks I've been able to build, resources I've gathered over the years, and bring them back home to my community and use them to do important work, that's a great gift. But the main things that I enjoy about this area are the natural landscape of the Ozark National Forest, the outdoor activities, and the cultural resources.
E: Tell me more about the Arkansas Craft School.
R: We're a non-profit that focuses on traditional and contemporary craft education. We have seven studios where we teach ceramics, digital photography, glasswork, textiles, jewelry making, visual arts, and woodworking. And we just added a second campus that has a full metalsmith shop — blacksmithing, welding, metal sculpture. We educate all ages, usually eight and up, and we pair youth and adults with world-class master artisans. Our instructors and our students come from all over the country.
E: Impressive. Do you have a "typical student"?
R: (Laughing) Yes, but we're trying to change that.
E: I'm intrigued. What do you mean? R: Well, we have three initiatives right now that are focused on increasing the diversity of our student body, and it's really working. We have a Rural Youth initiative, a Diversity and Access initiative, and a Veterans Healing Arts program.
E: I want to hear more about all these. Start with the Rural Youth initiative.
R: Sure. The goal of that program is to provide the young people in our area with hands-on experience in all different types of crafts. Thanks to a sponsorship from Stone Bank, we're able to offer these workshops on a pay-what-you-can basis, including full scholarships for students experiencing economic hardships.
E: Fantastic. Wow, that's incredible, and so important. Tell me about the Diversity and Access program.
R: Well, unfortunately there are so many wonderful artisans across the state and country who don't get enough recognition for the work they do. The reality is that there are master artisans from all experiences and backgrounds, especially women and people of color, younger generations of artisans that do not get their fair due. So, we're working really hard to represent the full breadth of craft in our workshops by inviting those folks to be a part of our instructor family and hope that more people can see themselves doing crafts when they see relatable and masterful artisans. We also aim to reflect this practice with our staff and board.
We're also working to provide scholarships to students who are in "underserved" categories, including people under 18, over 65, disabled people, anyone who doesn't self-identify as Caucasian, LGBTQ students, low-income students, and Veterans.
E: Speaking of Veterans, tell me about that third initiative, the Veterans Healing Arts program.
R: This program brings Veterans, artisans, and behavioral healthcare specialists together by using craft as a form of therapy for PTSD, depression, and anxiety. Craft involves the whole person — the head, hands, and heart. It provides an outlet to help these Veterans work through trauma and create something beautiful out of it. The program is free for the Veterans who participate.
something for everyone in Mountain View
E: This is all just incredible. I've known about the school but learning all this makes me even more impressed and excited. Do you have programs for people who are just in town for a few days and are looking for things to do in Mountain View?
R: Yes, that's something we've really focused on, providing shorter classes so folks who are here from out of town can experience a piece of our culture through craft. We have all kinds of classes for adults and kids. One of the things I'm most excited about is our summer youth series, which launches in mid-June through July. It's called Crafting Reality, and it's nine workshops that let the kids make in real life what they make digitally in Minecraft. They do everything from painting banners to making the Minecraft crafting table to forging an enchanted shovel. The goal is to get kids off the screen and into the shop. They're all pay what you can.
And it's not just for kids, of course. We also offer adult art classes, glass bead classes, wood carving, silversmithing, tie-dyeing, jewelry making, all kinds of fun stuff.
E: Amazing. I need to sign up for these, but I don't know what to pick! They all sound awesome. It seems like there's something for everybody. Why do you think this type of education is important?
R: Well, coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, I think people were in one of two camps. Either they were thankful they had the skills to do and make things for themselves, or they realized they didn't know how and they couldn't get those things. It's important to connect with craft, using your heart, your head, and your hands to make things that are functional and beautiful. That's what really distinguishes craft from other art forms, that element of functionality. Even contemporary craft items still have an aspect of functionality that goes back hundreds or thousands of years. And that connectedness is so important and grounding for people. It can be very restorative.
E: What's your favorite part of your job?
R: I love the matchmaking aspect of it. Pairing students with just the right craft and just the right instructor. Helping students move their goals forward. That's really fun for me. And I will tear up and cry when I see someone experience that Aha! moment with a craft where it clicks and they take ownership of it and you can just see the sheer joy that they're experiencing through it. Being able to be a part of that in some small way is so rewarding.
E: This has been so amazing. Thank you for taking the time to talk with me and share your mission and your passion. Is there anything else you want people to know about the school?
R: That it's a safe, welcoming, open place for people from all experiences. It's so important for people to realize that there are spaces like that in our community. I want people to know they can come and have a great time, learn a lot, and be welcomed no matter what their background is.
See? I told you Rachel's passion was contagious, and that the Arkansas Craft School was incredible. I hope you'll go check it out. Go to their website. Drop by. Whether you're a lifelong Mountain View resident or a weekend guest, it's worth a visit. You might find yourself rolling up your sleeves, connecting with a craft, and finding a little piece of yourself you had forgotten was there.
For now, I've gotta run. I've got cornbread to make. ;)
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