About South Bear School
"It is to be remembered that one of the significant craft masters of a very old guild system was Max Krehan. Marguerite Wildenhain called him “the last potter of his lineage.” She in turn became the first master in what was becoming the rumbling thunder of the Studio Pottery Movement. Lightning struck thrice in the big bang, bang-bang of the Bauhaus Dornburg! Burg Giebichenstein!! And Abstract Expressionist Schools!!! South Bear employs this legacy by teaching its craft, through which the skills of the hand, and a healthy disrespect, might ignite art." -Dean Schwarz
Geraldine Schwarz Writes:
While studying with Marguerite for three summers, the third as her teaching associate, Dean Schwarz had often heard her arguments against the university schedule of teaching pottery-- a few hours a week spread over a semester, far from an ideal way to learn the craft. Pottery Students needed full days of work for many weeks just to gain the basics. Even though Dean’s classes at Luther College provided students with good blocks of class time and generous open labs with wheels and materials always available, Marguerite pointed out that this was still not nearly as good as her nine-week sessions at Pond Farm.
So Dean and Doug Eckheart, a fellow Luther College professor, launched South Bear School in the Summer of 1970 in the tiny town of Highlandville, Iowa, near the South Bear Creek trout stream. It was in the tradition of Pond Farm, and, in a letter to Dean that year, Marguerite referred to this venture and said, “This is fine and good luck: I won’t be teaching more than one or two years at the most, so all of you will have to take my place.” Actually, she went on to teach ten more summers, and many South Bear students went on to study with her at Pond Farm.
Other inspirations for “the Bear” were gleaned from master potter William Daley, whose inside-out pots have challenged convention with flexed muscles. Bill’s humorous workshop demeanor at Haystack Mountain School of the Crafts on Deer Isle, Maine, was very influential. In the center of Highlandville (population 30) was a fourteen-room house, which had been built to serve as a hospital. While excavating the interior of the barn, a beautiful cement floor was discovered. After some remodeling, the barn and the house were ready for Dean to teach Pottery and for Doug to teach painting. Students lived in the Hospital House or camped in the area or commuted. They provided their own meals, sharing cooking and clean-up duties, occasionally sprinkled with squabbles about who washed the dishes last time or who defiled the vegetarian refrigerator with a baloney sandwich.
During succeeding summers the offerings grew from pottery and painting to include poetry taught by Joseph Langlandor Richard Simon Hanson, and Oriental painting taught by Kim Pok Yun from Taegu, Korea. Paul Roland Smith was a painter-in-residence, and Josiah Tlou from Zimbabwe generously added flavors of another continent as a potter-in-residence. Peter Deneen taught pottery during a period when Dean lived on a kibbutz in Israel while serving as a pottery restorer on an archaeological dig.
Numerous generous grants were awarded by the National Endowment of the Arts, and the Iowa Arts Council to South Bear School projects such as the Artists-in-Residency Program and a film titled A Day at South Bear: An Arts Festival in Highlandville. Featured in the film were the String Quartet from the Cedar Rapids Symphony Orchestra and the Dieman-Bennett Dance Theatre of the Hemispheres performing Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake on the lawn. The film has been aired on many occasions by Iowa Public Television. Potter Steve Cunningham first heard of South Bear through one of this film’s showings on Public TV and was inspired to become a student and then to make his own humorous and insightful film South Bear Goes to Pot, which featured the pottery teachers and students of South Bear.
Many of the objectives of the educational structure of South Bear School are principals that were used at the Dornburg Bauhaus and at Pond Farm Pottery.
South Bear is involved in the lingering period of growth that is changing the direction of contemporary pottery. The main tools for maintaining the tradition while changing its direction are primarily demonstrations. Demonstrations of challenging assignments lead each student up a step-by-step ladder to accelerating achievement. The first set of rungs is used to help students learn the basic forms, one by one. At this stage students begin to feel good about themselves through learning the physical properties of their materials. A second extension of the ladder helps students climb to higher levels of understanding about principles that apply to form. The upper rungs offer views of the possibilities of personal expression.
During the student’s climb toward the thin atmosphere of art, teachers often employ the tool of critique to measure student achievement. Two different types are used. The first, and most prevalent, is the one-on-one student and teacher examination of specific works. An example of this type of pottery critique starts with a teacher finding positive things to say about a student’s pots. Then starting at the rim and descending to the neck, shoulder, belly and foot -- leaving no aspect of the pot unconsidered-- the teacher frankly discussed each individual element and the total effect of the pot. Often the students are more critical of their own work than the teacher is. The results of these introspective investigations generate assignments toward ever broadening expression of the character of each student. This usually involves more than a half hour while sitting in the shade of a white pine or in the bright humor of a Paul Roland Smith painting. Other than this time apart from the group, the students and teachers do their work in the studios at South Bear.
Morning break has often featured lectures on local history and prehistory (which might lead to arrowhead hunting in nearby fields after class), and guest speakers such as psychologist Wolfgang Weilgart who explained his ideas about “the language of space” as he drew its symbols in blue chalk on the students skin -- which may or may not have dissolved his peaceful dread of “the Slavery to Slogans, the Idolatry of Ideaologies” (p. 339), when they jumped into the nippy waters of the swimming hole.
After six rewarding summers in Highlandville, South Bear School-- with its additional programs and increasing number of students-- outgrew the facilities, especially the septic tank. Because of the wonderful relationships developed over the years between the students and local residents, a move to a new school home was a difficult decision. Norwegian-American Genevieve Kroshus, a mother/mentor to students and faculty alike and a central resource of the school, commented, “Dean, you put Highlandville on the map and now you are tearing it right off again.”
When the 1914 Aase Haugen nursing home near Decorah was replaced by new facilities in town, this 65-room home with several outbuildings was for sale. John Nellermoe became Dean’s partner, and in the summer of 1976 the summer classes began with Dean and John teaching pottery, John Whelan teaching painting, Michael Borich and later Barton Sutter teaching poetry, and Kate Ruane Martinson teaching spinning, weaving, and dyeing.
Schwarz and Nellermoe families moved into two remodeled apartments; students filled the other rooms and camped in the pasture. The chicken house and the two-car garage became pottery studios, the caretaker’s cottage became the painting studio (and later the fibers studio when painting moved to the fourth floor of the Home), the chapel became the art gallery and a gathering place for morning breaks, the institutional-sized kitchen and dining room continued in their original roles, and I became the cook.
Students came from as far away as Denmark, Alaska, California, New York, Virginia, and many states in between. The largest South Bear community in one summer has reached nearly one-hundred. Glen Swanson, Jeff Morgan, and Tim Langholz have given generously as artists-in-residence.
The cycles of demonstrations followed by critiques are the most important in-progress artwork of the school. What kind of assignments follow the critiques? In pottery a student might be asked to make ten teapots, or in poetry the project might be to write at least one sonnet each day for a week. When these projects are completed another critique would be held. If students become bogged down, another demonstration would be presented. Students and faculty are encouraged to express themselves through the most characteristic aspects of their own personality while remaining focused within the restrictions of the objective.
Group critiques of the whole pottery community are sometimes offered. Although pottery is mentioned in reference to critiques above, other classes such as poetry, drawing and painting participate in similar methods. For example, Michael Borich, a master of the poetry class, assigned himself the task of writing a sonnet every day for a year in an attempt to improve his skills. His class discussed these poems and those of other well-known poets, as well as their own works.
Even though the school had not started as a utopian dream, as Pond Farm Workshops did, it took on some of those aspects.In the first summers at this location, we realized that a large garden was needed to feed all those hungry mouths. Legal advice was needed to arrange for contracts, liability, and non-profit status. Plumbing emergencies, electrical emergencies, leaky roof emergencies, even mowing and cleaning chores meant that more people had to be pulled into the team. Luckily the Nellermoes had skills in carpentry and gardening. And luckily too, the government had a program called CETA (Comprehensive Employment and Training Act) which provided young people with work experience within a non-profit organization. These teens helped keep the grounds and house trimmed and tidy, and they showed interest in the students’ work and the morning break speakers and musicians.
The Wednesday afternoon drawing sessions at Pond Farm were changed to community work projects at South Bear. Students built stone walls, cleaned brushy areas and converted them to open-air park-like studios and planted gardens and trees. The initial grumbles of the students soon turned to murmurs of pride in accomplishment. What had been a pleasant place when they arrived became more beautiful because of their creative energy. The momentum achieved by Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin was carried on at South Bear.
In the summer of 2003, Brent Johnson spearheaded a South Bear Reunion. Students from the early days in Highlandville to the most recent students in the Aase Haugen location came together for three days of seminars, discussions, gallery shows of current work, music, poetry and great meals (thanks to Brent, Don Hunt, and their recruits) It was inspiring to be with a group filled with so much energy and talent. The contributions that students at South Bear School are making in many disciplines are astounding. It makes us feel truly proud, and very humble.