NORMAN — It had been years since I last visited the Touchstone Center for Crafts, perched high in the Allegheny Mountains about 60 miles southeast of Pittsburgh. So when I received an invitation to its Summer Arts 2 Reception at the end of June, I figured it was high time I ventured back for another look around.
Located in a 150-acre wooded tract, Touchstone dates back to 1972 and was imbued with the goal of increasing public interest in the preservation of traditional Appalachian mountain crafts used 200 years ago by early settlers to decorate their homes and survive on the frontier.
Ten years later, the mission expanded to include contemporary techniques and materials such as polymer and precious metal clay — things that didn’t even exist 100 years ago — to compliment and flesh out traditional methods in crafts such as blacksmithing, ceramics, metals, textiles, glass, oil and watercolor painting, photography, printmaking and sculpture.
During my visit to Pennsylvania’s only residential craft school, I enjoyed a catered reception for blacksmith and sculptor Greg Gehner in the gorgeous Blaney Lodge, followed by a concert by Calliope, a folk music ensemble from Pittsburgh, in the Lodge’s Great Room where a massive stone hearth dominates the front wall.
During the event, I managed to talk to executive director Adam Kenney, a talented young glass artist in his own right. Kenney oversees the three-season series of more than 100 weeklong and weekend courses that are offered to artists of all ages and skill levels.
“Visitors are always welcome to stop over and take a self-guided tour of the campus,” Kenney said.
Besides taking a leisurely stroll through the woodlands, where rustic cabins and two residence halls house the students, visitors can view some of the workshops which take place April through September. This includes the Hart Moore Blacksmith Studio, named for a turn-of-the-century blacksmith relative of benefactor Robert Eberly. The Eberly Foundation financed the construction of the $700,000 forge in 1999.
The blacksmithing workshops turn out everything from fireplace grates to bottle openers and the finely detailed hearth screen in the Blaney Lodge.
Next to the forge, a museum is full of blacksmithing, welding and metalsmithing equipment. Other buildings offer courses in everything from “Pottery for Everyday Use” and “Plein Air Painting” to “Exploring Imagery and Iconography with Stained Glass,” “Advanced Digital Photography” and “Jewelry Fabrication in Steel.”
Each year, Touchstone offers at least two rotating exhibits at any one time and offers for sale handmade artifacts made on site. The Iron Gate Gallery spotlights items made by the visiting instructor/artists, while the Bea Campbell Gallery Store sports both a formal gallery space as well as a retail section.
Visitors are welcome to stay overnight in both the residence halls and cabins, provided occupancy is available. Twenty-two cabins dot the wooded campus, some of which date back to the 1920s and 30s. Others are from the 1970s and 80s.
Two residence halls, built in 2001, have all the modern amenities, although WiFi and cell phone services are available mainly in designated areas. Each dorm room comes with two single beds and a shared bath. Tent camping options also are available as well as meals, with advance notice. Lodging reservations are required in advance, and various fees apply.
There’s much more in a 20-mile area around Touchstone to see and do. These attractions include Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater and Kentuck Knob, Laurel Caverns, Fort Necessity (where the first battle of the French and Indian War was fought), Nemacolin Woodlands Resort and Casino and Ohiopyle with its abundance of whitewater rafting, kayaking and canoeing outfitters.