Iknew this was no ordinary trip when I got on the hotel shuttle at Portland International Airport. Two nicely dressed women about my age shared it with me, and for the first minute or two we sat in silence, like every other shuttle rider. Then one woman furtively looked around and said, "So . . . are you guys here for art camp?"
We were, and we had flown in from around the country to attend Art & Soul, a six-day art-and-craft retreat at an Embassy Suites hotel near the airport. The retreat featured workshops in mixed-media collage, jewelry, book arts, painting, drawing, fiber and fabric crafts, and doll making. But more than just classes fueled our arty fire: The retreat also featured field trips to local stores and art galleries, a vendor fair, a cocktail party and swaps, where you trade your work for someone else's.
For craftsy types like me, there may be no better vacation. The opportunity to do nothing for days but make things and be inspired by other people's work makes us weak in the knees. It's no wonder such retreats have become phenomenally popular, some nearly selling out within days of registration.
Their popularity has been fueled by a surge in the modern craft movement. Crafting is currently a $31-billion industry, up from $23 billion in 2000, and 57% of households in the U.S. participate in crafts, reports the Craft & Hobby Assn., a national trade organization for the industry. That renaissance is supported by glossy magazines, television shows, shops, countless books and, of course, the Internet.
Most retreats, like Art & Soul, are held at hotels, but one, Artfest, takes place at former Army barracks, where the funkiness of the accommodations adds to the appeal.
They are held across the U.S. and abroad, including Italy, Guatemala, Mexico, England, Spain, Greece and Indonesia. All offer the chance to soak up local culture and inspiration, do some shopping and meet like-minded people (mostly women). Each retreat is priced differently, but all-day classes at Art & Soul run about $135 each. Others offer a package deal of classes, lodging and meals that cost $500 to $1,200 and up.
I came to Portland to pack my brain full of new bookbinding skills. After studying book arts for more than a decade, I had trouble finding advanced classes around Los Angeles. For me, Art & Soul's main draw was the opportunity to take classes from Daniel Essig, one of the premier book artists in the country.
But I soon discovered that making stuff wasn't the only thing this retreat had to offer. Just strolling through the lobby of the hotel was like mainlining inspiration. My eyes landed on an elaborately altered denim jacket, then a chunky necklace made of twigs, stamped brass and pearls. I asked someone for a piece of paper, and she hauled out a hand-painted notebook decorated with stamped designs that she had carved herself.
My classes began the day after I arrived. At 9 a.m., I settled into a seat in a large hotel conference room to learn the Greek stitch, a stunning open-spine binding that we mastered in about seven hours.
I sat next to Tamara Gerard, who, I quickly discovered, shared my passion for books. A couple of hours after we introduced ourselves, she leaned over and asked, "Do you want to swap?"
"Excuse me?" I shot back.
"Books. Do you want to swap books? Did you bring any you made?"
I had, thinking I'd need them for a class. (I didn't.) And I had no intention of parting with them until she brought out a gorgeous pebbled leather book with a beaded spine and breathtaking, luminous hand-painted paper inside. She had made that too, and seeing it, I was only too happy to let go of mine.
Meeting someone often turned into a long session of show and tell. Ask, "What other classes are you taking?" and soon we were pulling out class projects and anything else we happened to have, oohing and ahhing over it all.
It's the bane of artists and crafters that people often don't understand or appreciate what we do. I've spent hours working on a book only to earn the reaction: "Um. . . . that's nice." Here at the retreat, it was safe to talk about the intricacies of a binding or a photo-transfer technique without worrying that someone would think you were queen of the craft geeks.
During a break from my Painted Papyrus book class, where we made covers out of laminated strips of papyrus covered with milk paint, I roamed the corridors and peeked into other rooms. I discovered classes I wish I had taken -- fabric journals and colorful felted beads and magazine collages and jewelry made out of bits of tin cans. Everyone looked happy, intent on their work.
As I headed back to my room at the end of a long day, I stopped in front of a display of altered papier-mâché houses, part of a contest and exhibition done by Art & Soul attendees.
Standing there, I struck up a conversation with Dr. Lynda Crawford-Sheppard, a dermatologist from Bowie, Md., who had attended a previous Art & Soul retreat in Virginia. We ran into each other again that night on a shuttle provided by some local stores. This one took us to Alberta Street, a walkable art and shopping district where, in recent years, small, funky stores, galleries, shops and restaurants had found homes. The shuttle dropped us at Collage on Alberta, an art-and-craft store filled with rubber stamps, paint, paper and embellishments galore.
After dropping some bucks there, we walked a few blocks to Bolt, a fabric store offering cute cotton prints, buttons, patterns and notions. Our last stop was Close Knit, a yarn shop where I found some gorgeous sea-foam wool (I recently learned to crochet) and checked out some antique buttons.
Hungry, and with some time before the shuttle returned to the hotel, Crawford-Sheppard and I stopped for a quick dinner at Lagniappe, promising home-cooked Southern fare. Over huge portions of jambalaya and fried seafood, we talked about what had brought us here.
"Even if you stay home and try to get something done," Crawford-Sheppard said, "you don't get that complete freedom. This is completely focused on you, and you're doing something you have a passion for.
"But," she added, "this is not frivolous time. You have goals you want to reach or something you want to explore you haven't done before. It's something you can't get flipping through a magazine or watching a video."
Recharging her creative batteries here, she added, ultimately made her a happier mother, wife and doctor.
FOR BEGINNERS TOO
Art retreats are not just for the experienced. Beginners are welcome, and students are encouraged to explore other media and techniques.
I took "You Can Learn to Draw," hoping that my horrific attempts at sketching would improve. They did, thanks to instructor Barbara Roth, who gave the class some easy tips. Although my portrait looked vaguely like a police sketch, my pig looked pretty much like a pig, and I was thrilled.
Event coordinators Glenny Densem-Moir and Cindy O'Leary say they strive for a nonjudgmental atmosphere. "When you're growing up," said Densem-Moir, relaxing in her suite at the end of the day, "you work to make something perfect and then you don't get an A, so you don't feel like you're an artist because you can't draw that tree."
Both women don't mind counseling attendees to find classes that fit their interests. Classes here, as well as at some other retreats, are juried by a panel of artists to ensure a range of techniques and disciplines. They're taught by well-known instructors, many of whom have written books and have their works in museums and galleries.
Both Densem-Moir, an event planner who founded Art & Soul, and O'Leary, a former human-resources executive, met at Artfest, a spring retreat in Port Townsend, Wash., that's held at Ft. Worden State Park. As funky as the old Army barracks sound, it's where most students want to stay, putting up with communal bathrooms and tight accommodations. (Some officers' suites are available, and the town has many B&Bs.)
It's not unusual to find people staying up all night to work on projects in their rooms or in the Art Asylum, a room filled with student-donated craft supplies. Talk about art camp.
That retreat's other lure is the surroundings: Port Townsend offers beautiful beaches and wooded areas, plus an artists' colony, and nearby Bainbridge Island features a nature preserve.
Tracy and Teesha Moore have been hosting Artfest for 10 years, and the husband-and-wife artists have added a spinoff: ArtFiberfest, held in the fall. "Here, people get out of their comfort zone," Tracy says, "and discover things about themselves and make lifelong friendships."
Artfest also has the requisite vendor fair, since artists and crafters generally love buying things almost as much as making them.
Art & Soul's vendor night is hotly anticipated, and booths sell such supplies as vintage hardware, beads, rubber stamps and ephemera. In Portland, several of the instructors and other artists had tables as well, selling their shadow boxes, books, paintings and jewelry.
Loaded up, I headed back to my room, staying up until 1 a.m. on a bookbinding high. I wasn't the only one. The next day, I ran into a woman who said she had made another book to practice what we had done in class. When I asked her what she used for materials, she replied, "Whatever I could find."
After a week of making stuff, I was ready to come home, but I wasn't happy about leaving my creative oasis. The class schedule for next spring's Art & Soul in Virginia is up. Don't think I'm not looking it over.