Finding the Joy of Crafting at Peters Valley

At Peters Valley, students learn lost arts—and get away from it all.

Fine-metals assistant Kaleigh Jones.
Fine-metals assistant Kaleigh Jones.
Photo by John Bessler

“Not everybody was born to work on a computer,” says Sam Salvati, a modern-day blacksmith who teaches sword-making  and other metal arts at Peters Valley School of Craft in the tiny Sussex County community of Layton (population 250).

“There are some arts that shouldn’t be lost,” says Salvati.

Any arts in danger of being lost are likely to be found at Peters Valley. But you won’t find macramé here, nor are there earnest teachers of papier mâché and potpourri. Instead, Peters Valley reaches beyond the expected. And thanks to its ambitions, the school attracts a rotating faculty of crafting celebrities to teach its extensive array of courses.

“It’s a comfortable, relaxing environment,” says Bill Carty, a frequent faculty star. On a warm afternoon last summer at Peters Valley, we spot Carty sitting under a portico drinking lemonade from a Mason jar. “I like the fact that there’s no TV, and cell service is spotty,” says Carty. The crowd around him, clustered at rustic picnic tables and also drinking from jars, favors Birkenstocks and braids.

Peters Valley recruited Carty, a renowned ceramicist, to advance its reputation as one of the nation’s most serious, prestigious craft schools. During the academic year, he is chairman of the ceramic engineering department at Alfred University in upstate New York; for a week or more every other summer since 2006, he has been decamping to Peters Valley to interact with small batches of students—no more than 15 at a time—because he likes their style.

“They’re like sponges and piranhas here,” he says. “Totally hungry.”

Among the ravenous fans is Francine Epstein, who traveled to Layton from her home in Chester to spend five days learning in Carty’s workshop, Ceramic Science and Glaze Calculation for the Artist. Each student paid $670 for the privilege, not including lodging and meals.

“I could name-drop so many people I’ve been exposed to that I never would have been able to meet if this place didn’t exist,” says Epstein, 68.
Carty is not on the faculty this year.  Other stars, such as potters Takuro and Hitomi Shibata, originally from Japan and now living in North Carolina, will teach their much-lauded Noborigama Wood Firing Workshop. The master clay artist Bennett Bean of Johnsonburg in Warren County, world renowned for his ceramic vessels, also will lead a workshop this summer.

“This place,” says Epstein, “is the ceramic world’s best-kept secret.”

Also the blacksmithing world’s, and possibly the worlds of printmaking, hatmaking, paper folding, jewelry making, woodworking and photography, too.
The 47-year-old Peters Valley—a nonprofit funded in part by the National Endowment for the Arts and the New Jersey State Council on the Arts—sprawls across the site of a converted artists’ colony, tucked within the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area. Its 38 historic buildings, on 300 pristine, leafy acres, include an on-site dormitory for students and instructors (from $45 per night), who come from as far as Japan to attend two- through five-day adult workshops. Most take place from May to October. There is kids’ programming, too. Most programs sell out; advance registration is recommended to avoid the waiting list.

The fact that many people, including a healthy percentage of New Jerseyans, have never heard of Peters Valley has more to do with modern values than any lack of ambition on the part of the school, which is one of only seven similarly equipped fine craft schools in the country, says executive director Kristin Muller.

“The culture of wealth means not having to make things with your hands,” she says. “Everything from the Industrial Revolution to the advent of plastic to the lack of funding for art programs in public schools has contributed to the widespread erosion of knowledge when it comes to creating useful things.”

In 2014, Peters Valley and four other schools—Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts in Tennessee; Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina; Pilchuck Glass School in Washington; and Haystack Mountain School of Craft in Maine—began partnering in an awareness campaign called the Craft School Experience to right that imbalance. In New Jersey, the continuing effort to get people using their hands in concert with their imaginations includes 125 Peters Valley “immersion” workshops for adults at all levels of proficiency.

There are unusual-sounding workshops, like Imagery and Color in Jacquard Weaving, where students use a digitally controlled loom to enhance their understanding of “the woven matrix.” There are more practical-sounding ones, too, like rug weaving, seat caning and Cordwainer craft, in which students learn to make classic handmade leather shoes. Blacksmithing courses on offer this summer include Arrowheads and Spears, as well as Forging for Home and Hearth.

Some enrollees refer to themselves as artists, others prefer to be called makers, says Muller. On a typical week, 40 to 100 students flock to campus. About 60 percent stay onsite; the rest commute. Many, like the ceramics enthusiast Epstein, leave their cell phones behind.

“Mine stays in my car,” says Epstein. “You can get away from all that here.”

Stephen Midkiff, a retired military man from Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, was so impressed with Sam Salvati’s blacksmithing skills that he returned last summer for a second swordmaking workshop.

“This is a lifetime pursuit,” says Midkiff, “a chance to connect with the past and relive the experience of real craftsmen. The goal is perfection, but I will never get this perfect.” In fact, Midkiff’s family thinks he might be a bit off kilter, running off to New Jersey for five days of nine-to-five sword-making in the July heat.

It does seem a little crazy: The coal forges in the sooty blacksmithing workshop reach 3,000 degrees, says Salvati, who lives in Baltimore. And there’s no relief from the heat they throw off during long hours mostly given over to forging, filing and sanding blades. Patience, precision and sweat are all part of the deal.
At the fiber-arts center, a five-minute drive across campus from the blacksmithing studio, the action is a lot less sooty. Here, seven students in Jan Wutkowski’s hatmaking class are hunched over long tables, cutting and sewing.

It’s late afternoon, but they have been making hats since 9 am, with just a one-hour break for lunch. Most didn’t put down their fabrics and tools until 9 pm the night before.

“It’s totally worth it,” says Janice Austin, who commutes to the school from Stockton. She returned in 2016 after enjoying a course the previous summer in wet felting, which involves turning sheeps’ wool into soft, decorative shapes.

Austin, a contract analyst who negotiates work on cancer studies, appreciates the life-affirming atmosphere at Peters Valley.

“I get that community feel, that sense of Zen being around all these wonderful women in such a close environment,” she says. “I didn’t know how to thread a needle before I got here. And I don’t dress fancy. But I’m going to leave here knowing how to make a hat that can rock an outfit. And the right hat is as good as a kick-ass pair of shoes.”

Across the table, Maria Koruz of Manhattan has just completed a pillbox hat that Jackie Kennedy might have been proud to wear. Koruz makes hats professionally and sells them on her website, More than the Zen environment, the draw for her is Wutkowski, another of Peters Valley’s stars.

Wutkowski travels all over the world from her home in North Carolina to teach hatmaking. She claims to be one of only a handful of American milliners who still hand sew their creations.

“A lot of hats these days are Chinese imports,” says Wutkowski. There’s no room in her universe for that. “We also don’t like glue-gun queens,” she says. “Everything we do in my class is handmade. And there’s a market for people who want to continue to make hats when they leave here. There are Southern ladies who go to garden parties, and particular people who want to have one-of-a-kind hats.”

But Peters Valley is not meant as a vocational school. The students are more interested in mastering lost arts and reconnecting with their pioneering spirits.

“I didn’t know what to expect when I came here,” says Koruz. “But it’s very communal and very safe. You don’t have to lock your doors. And when you wake up in the morning, you hear birds chirping and see bunnies hopping outside.”

Students also come away with work they will savor for years.

“People take their swords home, and they consider it a huge source of pride,” says Salvati.

Oh, and it’s fun too. At the completion of their five-day workshop, Salvati’s swordmaking students assemble outside to put their creations to use. “We chop pineapples and whatever fruit we have,” Salvati says. “All the other crafts are lame comparatively.”

Tammy La Gorce is a frequent contributor to New Jersey Monthly. She sometimes makes hats out of paper plates.

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