Be Still Enough to Listen
As Artisan Development Program alumnus Elise Kyllo wraps up her Scandinavian travels, she takes a moment to reflect on her experiences and think about how they will influence her life and work going forward.
I’m nearing the end of my artisan development travel study, with just a few days remaining. I’m now enjoying Midsommer in Stockholm and feel the intoxication of this fantastical, international city. Next I’ll be working with Vera Z in southern Sweden and a final necessary diversion to the Felt Museum in Germany. Looking at all of the photos from my trip, I am recalling the immensity of it all and sure it will take some time to digest and process so much! What I can sanely write about is my last week in Denmark at Skals Højskolen for design og Håndarbejde.
I had no idea how important it would be to visit a folk school in its home place, Denmark and to experience the inspiration behind American folk schools. In Scandinavia, high school graduates will often travel abroad or go to a folk school for many months. They live together, eat together, sing together, and learn crafts together under the expertise of numerous craft instructors. In less than a week there, I wished to be a student and think about all of the young people I know that would love an opportunity like this. How great it would be if we all had 3 months to practice hand work skills like sewing, knitting, and weaving and truly appreciate the textiles and fabrics and other items that are so important and often unappreciated in our lives.
There is a world of difference between the American and Scandinavian schools, because the culture and values of their locations are different. This could be a graduate study research paper, but I will summarize it in three words: intentional beauty and coffee. The school campus is full of hand crafted things, from pillows, the gardens, furniture, curtains, and the delicious food. As important, I think, is the ritual of coffee. Within every day, there are coffee breaks locked into the schedule. In-between meals, three times a day, everyone breaks from what they are doing and gathers to sip coffee, share a sweet, breathe, and be social. At times it feels like a distraction from my western mind, but I feel the sweet routine and sane pace of stepping back from one’s work and being in community. I question how driven I am when I teach and how busy the classes are; students forgetting to drink water and wishing to work through lunch. At North House we have only a few days together and so much to share in a short time.
We are so very lucky to have the North House Folk School Internship Program and the Artisan Development Program, which I can see are inspired by and resemble the folk højskoles. North House wisely created two ways to immerse yourself in craft and community with access to dedicated craftspeople to learn from. I am fortunate to be one of 7 “graduates” from the Artisan Development Program and there are likely 60 interns who have lived, worked, and crafted over the last 25 years. Focused times like this are often life changing experiences.
I was lucky to be invited by Mette Østman to be her assistant in a 4 day felting course for a group of students who were just finishing 3 months of living together and studying textile hand work. This would be their last class and their introduction to felting. It was fun for me to observe someone else teaching and also learn in the process. Even though I’ve been felting for 15 years and I’ve taught all the things that Mette taught, I still felt I had much to learn. I can see the influence of Mette’s guidance and her 35 years of experience on everyone’s felt projects from the week. For me, there’s a thicker and more durable quality of patience than my usual and a design style that she effortlessly passes on.
Even though all of us were given the same materials and the same directions, each person's projects were unique to their own hand. Our first project was a small square. I recall that in Norway there is a felting proficiency exam and making a square is one of the tests. I think about this as I felt a simple square with even edges, square corners, and consistent layers. The students have never wet felted before and their edges are wonky and their layers uneven, BUT they have experienced what wool can do in a matter of minutes. Our second project was a three-dimensional hollow vessel made with a flat resist. The third project would have been a sculptural ball (which we didn’t do). With these three foundational projects—flat, hollow, and sculptural—the world of felting wool is opened up! During the next three-and-a-half days, the students made bags, slippers, tea cozies, and flat items using Danish Wool and merino roving. Even though the students had never felted, they had a sense of ease working with their hands and confidence to create. I believe this is the influence of their time at Skals, being creative makers and confidently learning handwork skills. Mette’s loose teaching style gives them freedom to choose, feel ownership and excitement, allowing them to see their individuality in their work. Mette’s influence on everybody’s projects is evident, making sure all projects are successful and satisfying.
As I consider my Scandinavian experience, lessons, and learning, inspiration and questions swirl around me. It has been such an incredibly rich experience, that asks me to stop, take a cup of coffee, and to be still enough to listen. There will be a couple of long train rides as I complete my travels and I can’t think of a better place to be present with time to process and consider, to appreciate and be so thankful to all the people who so kindly were a part of my journey.
Thanks to Mette for inviting me to Skals and to Skals Højskolen for hosting me so generously! It would be great if there may be a continuing relationship between Skals and North House Folk School, a student or instructor exchange perhaps. We shall see. If you’d like to continue following the end of my trip you can find me on Instagram, @elisekyllo, posting every couple of days.