Touchtone Center for Crafts began over 50 years ago as Pioneer Crafts Council and blossomed into a craft school where people come together to learn in a fully immersive hands-on environment. Occupying over 150 acres in the Laurel Highlands, a scenic rural area near Ohiopyle State Park in southwestern Pennsylvania, Touchstone has enchanted artists and arts enthusiasts from all over the country hosting workshops and conferences in their well-equipped studios. Students and instructors enjoy communal meals, with many choosing to reside on campus throughout their workshop. There is a remarkable intimacy and openness at Touchstone that makes it an incredibly special place to study, teach, and work.
With such a small year-round staff, Touchstone relies on interns -emerging artists who live and work on the campus all summer- to help the school function; in return, Touchstone offers them the career development experience of a lifetime, along with studio access, room, board, and stipend. Whereas in some larger settings, interns might be inclined to form separate cliques, here they are fully integrated into the Touchstone community. On any given day, you might find them working on their own artwork, managing the studios, assisting instructors, chatting with students, having lunch with Executive Director Lindsay Ketterer Gates, weed whacking, and helping out in the dining hall.
Perhaps the greatest benefits for the interns are the professional development opportunities that abound. Over the past five years, Lindsay has made it her mission to refocus the Touchstone internship program to make the program mutually beneficial by broadening the interns’ professional development opportunities. These range from introducing them to organizations, such as The Alliance for Creative Rural Economy, which brings creativity-driven economic development to rural areas across the region, to inviting interns to reapply the following summer for a second internship with a greater degree of responsibility. Touchstone also introduces them to residency opportunities at organizations like Fallingwater and Contemporary Craft, offers sales opportunities through their gallery store, and provides them the opportunity to work collectively to design and mount an exhibition of their choosing in their Bea Campbell Gallery. Other opportunities may be as simple as assigning interns to pick up instructors from the airport and driving them an hour each way to and from the campus; the interns understand that such a seemingly mundane task is an excellent opportunity to connect with professional artists.
As Ren Higuera noted, “You really get to know the instructors because you have a captive audience for the entire trip to and from the airport.” Making those connections can be critical for emerging artists as they are figuring out how to carve their own paths in the craft field. Lindsay remembers a similar internship at a craft school being a life changing event in her own career.
The interns, along with many of the students and faculty, reside in rustic, no-frills wooden cabins, scattered around the campus, all sharing a central bathhouse. There is limited wifi in some campus buildings, with cell service largely unavailable. In such an isolated setting, the interns become a tightly knit cohort of fast friends who support each other, and help each other with their own studio projects and assigned tasks. To unwind, they design raucous spiffs on classic board games. (Ever heard of Nuclear Risk?…of course, not. They made it up.)
What impressed me most about the interns and the staff at Touchstone was not only the practice of mutual benefit, but also the sincere gratitude and respect emanating in all directions with everyone willing to lend a hand. As Lindsay put it, “These interns are tomorrow’s instructors and staff and we want to support them. We will also be following their career path as they move on from Touchstone. It’s incredibly exciting to see interns forge their careers and make their way in the field.”
When asked what the best part of their internship experience was, here is what they said.
“One hundred percent, the best thing is the Touchstone community. Touchstone also doesn’t expect you to be any one thing, so it feels like taking the shackles of identity off entirely. Here, I’ve been able to explore ceramics and experiment with forging metal.” – Zachary Morphew– Touchstone Intern
“The best things are the other interns. And, having my own bench to make for the entire summer. It’s also a great experience to live among nature.” –Ren Higuera – Touchstone Intern
“For me, the best part is having access to the studio and tools, which are otherwise very expensive. I feel super lucky to be here in the woods.” -Arthur Bilder – Touchstone Intern
“It’s one of the only opportunities where you can be an emerging artist and be fully immersed. I’m figuring out my relationship to making things and trying to carve space out within the craft community. I’m very interested in the people and the culture.” -Phil Stephens – Blacksmithing Studio Management Intern
“Connecting with people and learning how instructors work is the best part of this internship. It helps me to think about how I will approach my work in the future. Being here is an immersive experience. You are drawn away from the hustle and bustle of daily life and have the ability to really focus.
–Bonnie McEachren – Ceramics Studio Management Intern