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Cynthia Schanink of Dardanelle leads a "Painting in Watercolor Outdoors" class in October.

Kelly McDonough, executive director of the Eureka Springs School of the Arts, does an admirable job of reeling off the various classes the nonprofit school offers to the public: “There’s painting, drawing, textiles, leatherworking, ceramics, woodworking — which, if you talk to the woodshop guys, includes wood turning and wood carving — forging, metal fabrication and welding, stained glass, mosaic, paper cutting, bookmaking. It’s anything you can think about, just about.” A few minutes later she remembers jewelry making and basket weaving. 

A scan of ESSA’s 2018 catalog reveals a few more: printmaking, concrete art, tool sharpening, stained glass, leather working, papier-mâché, glass fusing, calligraphy and needle felting. It’s no wonder McDonough can’t name everything ESSA does off the top of her head: In 2018, the school offered 90 sessions, which included all kinds of subcategories of the above. 

As unquestionably the top arts and craft school in the state, and arguably the region, ESSA draws students from all over the U.S. McDonough estimates that roughly a third come from all across the country, a third come from Northwest Arkansas and a third come from Eureka Springs, Holiday Island, Green Forest and other nearby towns. Classes range from a half-day to five days and often span a long weekend. Like most commerce in Eureka, the school’s schedule is heavier May through November. 

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Students work with torches and hand tools in a jewelry making class that introduced enameling techniques on fold-formed copper sheets. Eureka Springs artist Judy-Lee Carpenter led the class.

 

The draw is multi-factored: The campus, on more than 50 acres about 6 miles north of Eureka Springs on U.S. Highway 62 W., gives off the calming vibe of a woodland retreat, and its facilities are inviting and well equipped. An almost 4,000-square-foot metalworking studio stands out. It’s outfitted with four propane forges (which can be shared by two students), two large coal forges, welding tools and various heavy-duty metal-cutting machines. The studio has large bays that open to a covered area for fire-related projects that work better outside. Perhaps even more impressive: a similarly sized woodworking studio built in 2017. It has tall ceilings, a flood of natural light and is fully stocked with every machine a woodworker might need. One room has workbenches and another is stocked with lathes; each is equipped with big screen TVs that connect to digital cameras to record, in tight detail, the handwork of those leading the classes. 

Then, of course, there are the instructors, many of whom are nationally esteemed. They’re often drawn from the region. Billy Owens of Jenkins, Mo., just north of Eureka taught the 2018 basket-weaving class. Owens is a second-generation traditional white oak basket-maker who tackles the full production: He fells oak trees, mills lumber out of them and then hand planes the wood strips used for the baskets. He travels the country teaching his craft. 

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Dale Custer of Roland leads a beginners' blacksmith class in ESSA's large metal-working studio.

On a recent tour of the grounds, McDonough took a visitor through the clay studio in the basement of a former house that had been converted into a multi-use space. More than a dozen miniature sculptures of a woman sat on shelves, each capturing the nude model in different expressive poses. Students had 20 to 40 minutes to complete each model in a class taught by California-based artist Misty Gambill, who helped them understand body proportion and symmetry. Gambill has had residencies at craft schools around the world. McDonough pointed to a fully realized sculpture of a foot. Gambill did it in 15 minutes, she said.  

Teachers also include longtime Eureka Springs arts and crafts legends Eleanor Lux, a weaver and beadmaker; Mary Springer, a painter and sculptor; and internationally known woodworker Doug Stowe. (The Arkansas Arts Council has designated Lux and Stowe “Arkansas Living Treasures.”) Lux, Springer and Stowe co-founded ESSA, which had no campus at first: Classes were taught in local arts and craftspeople’s studios. In 2004, ESSA purchased a building and the acre of land it sat on. 

This year, Lux and Stowe not only taught but took classes in disciplines unfamiliar to them (Lux gushed about her concrete sculpture class and Stowe said he was “so proud” of what he created in his first blacksmithing class). They’re the most prominent examples of the dedication the local arts community has put toward ESSA, McDonough said.

McDonough became executive director in 2017 after relocating to Eureka Springs a few years back from Austin, Texas. “When I started here, the first thing that hit me was the idea of the village that has come together to make this happen. It’s almost a sacred thing, when so many people have put so much into it over so much time. You just don’t see this kind of thing everywhere.”

ESSA has eight staff members, all part-time, including McDonough. Many others volunteer.

Stowe said the origins of the school stretch decades before its founding. “I remember having a conversation with a friend who said, ‘Eureka Springs was a crisis waiting to happen.’ In association with Chinese philosophy, the idea was that crisis was actually a good thing and the important thing was to have the right people there to put the pieces back together, or reassemble them in a more meaningful way. Who were the right people? I believed that my fellow artists were the most sensible to lead our city in a sensible direction … instead of letting us wonder off in a theme-park mentality.” 

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ESSA co-founder Doug Stowe works a bandsaw in the wood studio's machine room (bottom) and uses a hand plane in the bench room (right). Students sign their names on particle board walls after completing classes.

That was the origin of the Eureka Springs Guild of Artists and Craftspeople, which formed in 1976. Springer was an early president and Lux was in the mix. The group drew inspiration from famed Arkansas artists and longtime Eureka residents Louis and Elsie Freund, who started the city’s first art school and were instrumental in early preservation efforts. ESSA emerged after the guild failed to get nonprofit certification from the IRS. The guild’s original aims have been realized, Stowe said.

When business leaders visit ESSA today, they see the broader value of an arts community and better appreciate the sense of place that comes with that culture, Stowe said. “We don’t look at our trees with the same disdain. We look at the curves and bends in our roads as being important to us.”  

Stowe said that much of his guidance for ESSA derives from his experience teaching across the country, particularly from the time he’s spent at the nationally esteemed Penland School of Crafts in Penland, N.C., and the Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts in Gatlinburg, Tenn. There’s no similarly highly regarded school in the Midwest, though ESSA is working toward filling that void. 

The campus includes a cottage set on a ridge with a lovely Ozarks vista dedicated to visiting instructors; nearby there’s a studio for the artist in residence. ESSA hopes soon to build more instructor cottages. There are grander plans, too, though Stowe said, “We are on a ‘grow slowly’ plan. … Arrowmont has grown to what it is over a nearly 100-year period. We want to do it right.”

To learn more, visit essa-art.org. A 2019 class catalog will be released before the end of 2018.