The world through her fingertips
Maine is a long way from China.
And for Amy Putansu, that distance is a testament to her life, passions and career.
“That was a whole new level,” she smiled. “I was in heaven — it was incredible.”
A fiber instructor at Haywood Community College in Clyde, Putansu has gained a reputation as one of the finest in her field in Southern Appalachia and beyond. Last month, she was invited to give a lecture on textiles at the International Shibori Symposium. Held at the China National Silk Museum in Hangzhou, China, the conference brought together experts and artisans from around the globe, all in one space.
“I had never exhibited internationally,” Putansu said. “There were 65 short presentations from all over the world, all speaking on different textile topics. You’d be amazed at how much there is to talk about.”
Sitting in her office at HCC, Putansu is still glowing from her experience in China. At 41, she’s headlong into a career that is continually blossoming. Her interest and drive for what she does comes from a never-ending quest for knowledge, one coupled with the notion that good things happen to those who work hard doing what they love.
“It’s about preparedness meeting opportunity,” she said. “Learning is a lifelong process, for artistic growth, professional growth, and I wouldn’t be content if it didn’t continue.”
The girl from the North Country
Putansu grew up on the coast of Maine, right outside of Rockland. Although the state is known for its generations of folk art and other artisan trades, Putansu herself was raised in a household and community where she wasn’t really exposed to the idea of crafts.
“I wasn’t introduced to a very broad artistic experience in my early education or in my family,” she said. “I went to a tiny high school and the art programming was pretty slim. I mean, we didn’t even have pottery.”
But, Putansu did start to notice something. Of what little art there was around her, she showed an interest in painting and photography, mediums she excelled at. When it came time to decide on colleges, Putansu wasn’t sure what she wanted to do. She had a portfolio of art projects, so why not apply to art schools? With that, she found herself accepted by the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design in Providence.
“Being from a small town in Maine to going to art school in a big city, it was a total culture shock for me — it set the stage for the rest of my life,” she said.
Looking for an elective, Putansu took a fabric silkscreen class. And when she did, something inside of her clicked. She’d never thought about fiber or where our clothes come from, or that it was a possible career path.
“I didn’t even know textiles was a field of study or could be a professional pursuit,” she said. “Most people don’t know where their clothes or upholstery comes from. We tend to not think, ‘oh, someone engineered this’ or ‘someone hand-stitched that.’”
Putansu majored in fiber and graduated from RISD with a degree in fine arts (concentration in textiles). She headed west, finding work as an assistant designer at a small, independent crafting company in Seattle. There, she designed and made hand-woven upholstery, fabrics and interiors, learning valuable skills in the process.
“Part of the time I’d be designing, part of the time learning how to use production looms,” she said.
After a period in Seattle, she headed back to Maine, back home to start her own fiber studio. From 1998 to 2005, she spent her time making fabrics, then taking them on the road, traveling across America selling her wares. It was a bountiful experience, but soon she knew she wanted something more. Cue Western North Carolina.
The art of Appalachia
Putansu eventually found herself teaching a workshop at the renowned Penland School of Crafts in Bakersville. She not only fell in love with the area, but soon found out about a fiber instructor opening at HCC, which she then applied for and got.
“Haywood Community is a perfect fit for me,” she said. “The professional crafts program here is very unique. It promotes not only creativity and craft, but also how to market yourself as an artist, and I feel my life experiences in the field is what this training is all about.”
In early 2013, the school opened its multi-million dollar creative arts building, attracting students from every corner of the country.
“The students here are learning to make things, and make things well, with the emphasis around their ethics very positive, very minded in the local sustainability movement,” Putansu said. “I love it because they’re creating a whole new future, a different shape of manufacturing in America, a new design in conjunction with manufacturing.”
With textile crafting a large part of the heritage in Western North Carolina, the students are not only preserving the traditional skills, they’re perpetuating them.
“It’s about staying in touch with history,” Putansu said. “It’s maintaining that thread through generations, time and history. It’s about what we do, the objects we make, and it’s really important that history doesn’t get lost.”
And it’s not only students showing an interest in HCC. About a year ago, Putansu was doing another workshop at Penland. She crossed paths there with Yoshiko Wada, the founder of the World Shibori Network. Known as an ancient, sophisticated type of tie-dye, shibori is a textile practiced throughout the globe. Putansu invited Wada to visit HCC, where there the fiber expert examined and critiqued one of Putansu’s pieces.
Wada was impressed by Putansu’s work, asking her to come and present at the symposium. A once-in-a-lifetime chance, the conference opened new doors for Putansu, professionally and creatively. And to top it off, one of Putansu’s pieces, “Diptych,” was recently purchased to be displayed in the permanent collection at the China National Silk Museum.
“It was the icing on the cake,” she said. “Continuing to grow in my own career is serving as a great model to my students, where your craft and skill never stops at some point, it continues to progress, forever.”
Want to go?
Haywood Community College Fiber Instructor Amy Putansu will give a lecture on her travels to the International Shibori Symposium in China at 3 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 10, at the Creative Arts Building in Clyde. She will also hold a lecture on textiles on Wednesday, Jan. 21, at HandMade in America in Asheville.
www.haywood.edu or www.handmadeinamerica.org or 828.627.4672.