Wildcraft Studio School
Chelsea Heffner's dream of a rural craft studio school gets real
It’s in the hills above White Salmon, Washington, a town in the Columbia River Gorge that calls itself “The Land Where The Sun Meets The Rain,” that Chelsea Heffner is carving out a meeting place of another kind. It is there that the artist and teacher has opened her personal studio space during the warm months to offer workshops in traditional skills, studio arts, plant medicine, and sustainable practices.
It has been a Stone Soup enterprise, with Heffner putting the metaphoric pot on to boil by opening up her space and working alongside students and friends who have volunteered their time to build an outdoor oven, to move equipment, and to turn the soil for a large garden for dye plants, medicinal herbs, and vegetables. Others have donated equipment and supplies, like the 8 harness floor loom and 1910 Challenge Gordon Letterpress donated by a nun named Sister Elaine.
Opened in summer of 2013 after years of preparatory work and a Kickstarter campaign, her WildCraft Studio School now has a screenprinting shop, letterpress, knitting machines, floor looms, clay tables, and kiln.
Though she teaches at PNCA in Portland, Heffner lives on the property that she rents from a couple who has owned it for more than 20 years. That couple built the two houses on the property and Heffner’s studio that once served as the woodshop for a furniture business.
“After living for six-plus years in Portland (Heffner received her MFA in Visual Studies from PNCA in 2009), I knew that I needed more space, a more affordable rent, and access to wild spaces in order to be happy and also to make my dream for this studio come to life,” Heffner says. “The Gorge is an incredibly un-tamed landscape and turns out to be a pretty extreme place to live. I moved out here looking for space, wilderness, and a little more sun, and living here year-round has turned out to be quite an adventure.”
Before moving to the West Coast, Heffner had worked for six seasons on an organic market farm. She says, “That shaped my experience with plants, agriculture, and labor, making it very difficult to transition to being a city-dweller, and farmer’s market shopper.”
“It has always been a dream of mine to come to the country, build a studio, plant a huge garden, and create a way for others to share in the experience,” Heffner says.
“The momentum and creative energy of a group is truly incredible. I love having a space that can accommodate a group, and can be a site of experimentation and collaboration. There is a steady stream of guests, teachers, students and friends coming to the studio, and I’m so pleased to have created that kind of environment.”
The bulk of her students are coming from Portland, Heffner says. They are primarily designers, artists, and small business owners. Many PNCA students have been to WildCraft as well, as early volunteers as well as for workshops.
Last fall, 40 people traveled to WildCraft for an event Heffner called, WildSupper. They enjoyed a four-course meal of flat breads from our outdoor oven, foraged mushrooms, pasta and garden produce, plus local wines, and a cider-pressing party.
Heffner had been teaching for four years at PNCA while running a textile design business. And she had done a great deal of experimentation with natural dyes.
“My interest in dye plants and medicinal herbs is an extension of my early experiences on that organic farm. I’m obsessed with plants and love any excuse to turn a hike or ramble into a foraging hunt for a dye plant, or a medicinal. Last fall I worked with a mushroom hunter, neighbor-friend, who bought piles of fungi to the studio every weekend, and we experimented with extracting color for textiles. The possibilities are just endless with natural dyes, and it’s a wonderful way to interact with wild things, and understand the landscape in a different way.” Heffner has also partnered with the women who run Portland Apothecary to offer classes.
This spring and summer WildCraft Studio School will offer classes in everything from Beautiful Health, an Ayurveda class, to courses in primitive ceramics, frame loom weaving, dye plants, and knife making. “We offer courses that integrate the practices of art, craft and sustainable living,” Heffner has written. “Our vision is to create a space where these practices can live side by side, informing and expanding the approach to each discipline. The classes we choose to offer strive to embody this goal, by bring nature to studio work, aesthetics to the garden, and design-thinking to all projects. Through this integrated curriculum, we hope to dissolve the divisions that exist between art and everyday life.”