Arts event offers a place to teach, a place to learn

McDaniel: Common Ground on the Hill gives instructors a chance to expand their skills.

SUMMER In Carroll County

July 17, 2005|By Gina Davis | Gina Davis,SUN STAFF

At Common Ground on the Hill, the line between student and teacher is often a fuzzy one.

Artists Laura Russell of Westminster and Barbara Neel of Arlington, Va., said that's what they like most about the traditional arts and music event, which draws hundreds to the campus of McDaniel College in Westminster each year for the first two weeks of July.

"You can be an instructor with an expertise in something and then also [take another class] and learn something from someone else," said Russell, who has been quilting for more than 15 years.

A scholar of quilting and its history as a vehicle to give voice to groups such as slaves, women and people with AIDS, Russell also conducts quilting workshops throughout the year at the Carroll Arts Center in Westminster.

Russell is an encyclopedia of quilting facts, such as the use of quilts to send messages during the days of the Underground Railroad. Back then, she said, quilts were made using specific patterns and then hung from a window or a fence to send word to runaway slaves.

A quilt displaying the "crossroads" pattern indicated the halfway point of the journey. The "flying geese" pattern indicated that it was time to head north. The "stars" pattern indicated the direction to freedom.

Russell began teaching her passion - applique quiltmaking - at Common Ground three years ago. Last week, though, she was not only teaching the technique; she was also a student in the South Carolina sweetgrass baskets class with Neel.

`A big perk'

"That's a big perk for our instructors, to be able to take each other's classes," said Linda Van Hart, who teaches metalsmithing at McDaniel and has been Common Ground's visual arts coordinator since its inception.

Russell had one student enrolled in her quilting class last week, and she was initially intimidated when she learned who it was.

"I was thinking she is so talented, what can I possibly teach her?" she said of Neel, a tapestry weaver, watercolorist, quilter, knitter and designer. Neel also teaches fourth grade at an Arlington elementary school.

Neel, who has been attending Common Ground for five years, also taught during Common Ground's first week at the World Village, a program for children ages 5 to 12.

To quickly dispel Russell's unfounded concern, Neel held up a fabric square upon which she has been diligently stitching with her newly acquired applique technique.

"Everything on here I did not know" how to do before Russell's class, said Neel, who has been quilting for more than 40 years.

During the past two weeks, more than 100 artists and musicians have taught such classes as gospel singing, photography, Latin American guitar and Chinese painting.

"This has been our best summer ever," said Walt Michael, founder, executive and artistic director of the event. "Our student reviews have been strong."

He said about 400 participants - including instructors - enrolled in classes during the first week and 80 signed up the second week.

Michael, a leader in the revival of the hammered dulcimer who has toured as a professional musician for more than 25 years, started Common Ground because he wanted to pass on traditions of art that he felt were falling by the wayside.


He credited a new scholarship program helping organizers enroll more people who otherwise might not have been able to afford to attend.

"The scholarships went to families, people from the inner city and the mountains, as well as migrant workers," he said "Regular folks who needed the help."

He declined to specify how much money was given in scholarships but said the funds were the result of private donations.

Michael estimated that about 3,000 people attended last weekend's eighth annual American Music and Arts Festival. The two-day festival was held at the Carroll County Farm Museum in Westminster and featured more than 75 musicians, dancers and storytellers.

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