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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
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 here.” Soom’s interest in the
arts began as a child. “My parents always took us to performances, to
museums,” she recalls. She plays piano and clarinet and encourages the
creative spirit in her daughters. She comes to Touchstone with strong
administrative, management, and teaching skills
|Shauna Soom, Executive Director
and has found that
working with artists adds a new dimension to her executive functions.
“Artists tend to bring their creativity to all aspects of their lives.
They seem to be very good at figuring things out, lending creativity to
planning and problem solving,” she says.
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 support
from foundation partners, Touchstone was able to make the repairs and
expand the ceramics studio. The damaged roof was reconfigured to create
an open screened space that allows potters to work out-of-doors,
immersed in the wooded setting, while remaining protected from weather
and insects. The new space passed the test at recent weekend
|Students attend a workshop in
the new, open-air ceramics studio.
the “Throw-Down” Ceramic Symposium and the Mosaic Symposium in May. Soom
says that both events were successful: “I’m thinking of combining them
next year because the artistic feel of both groups was so similar.”
DDuring 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
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 sought out by students. Soom says that
Touchstone’s instructors are a great marketing tool, bringing their
followers to the center. “Student numbers are growing,” says Soom. “We
have been able to launch a
|Touchstone's studio facilities
provide ample tools and equipment for pottery students.
strong marketing campaign, thanks to
foundation support, this year. We are in seven regional NPR markets.”
Students come from all over the United States and Canada. This summer
will see the first student from Brazil.
Touchstone’s mission includes passing on craft traditions through
fostering young people in the arts. A full curriculu
m 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
offers summer-long positions as Studio
|Teens learn new techniques
under the supervision of expert instructors.
Assistants and Studio
Technicians. Usually art majors, the students live on campus, work in
the studios, and have access to the facilities for their own creative
Touchstone’s idyllic setting belies its real impact on the surrounding
communities. An economically depressed region that is still recovering
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 and patronize local businesses and tourist
sites, such as Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater and Kentuck Knob house
|Works by Touchstone students
and instructors are displayed in the center's gallery and store.
Caverns, and several historical sites. The student
experience expands to the region that gave birth to the very crafts that
are at the heart of the artists’ work. Local residents and visitors are
welcome at Touchstone’s Blaney Lodge, which houses the center’s gallery,
store, and library. Every October, an annual gala is held, featuring an
auction of students’ and instructors’ works. This year’s event will be
held October 3, from 2 – 6 p.m. Soom says that the drive to Farmington
from Pittsburgh is beautiful when the leaves are in their fall colors.
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