Berea's Learnshops turn visitors into artists

Students in the Stained Glass Suncatcher with Overlay class at the Berea Festival of LearnShops created five designs.
Students in the Stained Glass Suncatcher with Overlay class at the Berea Festival of LearnShops created five designs.

BEREA — The email from Diane Gilliam, the stained glass artist who would be teaching the stained glass suncatcher with overlay class, was hardly comforting.

"Be sure you wear closed-toed shoes so you won't burn your feet in case you drop hot solder on them," advised Gilliam, owner of Gilliam Gallery & Studio in Berea's Old Town.

It turned out that a little solder between the toes might be the least of my worries as before class started Gilliam also warned us about the potential dangers of lead poisoning and getting acid in our eyes.

The luminous smile that accompanied her warning, however, seemed to indicate that in addition to her artistic talent, she was pretty good at pulling legs.

I needn't have worried. It turned out that my only "injury" was a slight paper cut from the foil I used to make the points of the sun in the design I chose for my overlay. Other possibilities being a tree, and for the really ambitious, a horse.

Gilliam's class was just one of more than 100 offered during the third annual Berea Festival of Learnshops, from July 13-28. The smorgasbord of classes and workshops, ranging in length from two hours to three days, are enough to tempt anyone with artistic aspirations.

Interested in blowing your own glass pumpkin or angel fish? No problem. How about making your own gourd bird house, stamping your own copper or brass bracelet or creating your own bead art using the stitch invented by the Ndebele people of South Africa?

They may not have an app for it, but the Berea Learnshops has a class for it.

There's even a class for making your own liturgical star stole (if you chose this one, you would have had Berea's mayor Steven Connelly as a classmate.)

The Learnshops offer a wide variety of mediums from which to choose. You can work in fiber, wood, iron or yarn; paint in acrylics or oil, learn printmaking or paper craft, even improve your photographic eye.

If music is more your thing, you can learn to play the dulcimer or clawhammer banjo or take part in a drum circle during a recreational drumming for wellness class.

If there's a hidden writer inside you straining to get out, give it a try in classes in contemplative poetry, beginning, intermediate and advanced storytelling, or even writing your own family album.

Some of the other classes remain more of a mystery (at least to me.) It took me a while to figure out that shiitake and oyster mushroom log inoculation didn't involve giving mushrooms shots and entering them in a log, but rather injecting a fresh oak or poplar log with spores in order to grow your own mushrooms.

Introduction to blacksmithing sounded formidable and I couldn't even begin to guess what painting and dancing a limberjack would involve.

Belle Jackson, executive director of the Berea Tourism Commission, says that participants are spoiled for choice in terms of what they can take, and are often surprised at the outcome.

"With our Festival of Learnshops, they arrive as visitors and leave as artists," she says.

The Festival has proven another boon for Berea, already widely recognized as the folk art capital of Kentucky. Drawing primarily from the I-75 corridor running from Cincinnati to Knoxville, this year's event has also attracted participants from as far away as Wisconsin and California.

I ended my experience with a day-long class in something called plain weave basket making. How hard could it be, I mused, recalling all those old jokes about college jocks in search of an easy A opting for a class in basket weaving.

I found out how hard it could be as I struggled to assemble long, unwieldy strips of material, and weave them into something I would be proud to carry to the Farmer's Market or on a picnic. The task proved daunting to say the least.

Fortunately, my teacher, Jackson County artist Dianne Simpson, provided both instruction and encouragement, promising that "the first three rows are the hardest."

She was right, and by the end of the day, a lovely basket had taken shape from what had initially resembled an assortment of wet noodles of varying sizes.

Still, I have some advice for any student who still thinks basket weaving might be a snap course. Take physics instead.

If You Go

Berea Festival of Learnshops

Where: At various locations throughout Berea.

When: Through July 28.

Cost: From $35 to $275 (for a 3-day workshop.)