It may be that the craft arts have become so important these last several decades because we have lost our imagination for a living reciprocity with earth. We need to reimagine the reality of that connection. Putting hands-on helps.
~ Paulus Berensohn
From the age of about four, Paulus Berensohn knew that he wanted to dance. Initially, his parents resisted until a close friend admonished his mother, “But Edith, to dance is to spring from the hand of God!” While it may seem unlikely that Paulus himself could remember this exchange so vividly, the moment features large in his personal coming of age story. Described as the incident that led to Paulus’s first art lesson, passionate advocacy for art’s transformative power remained a central theme throughout his life’s work.
Growing up in New York City’s East Village and Greenwich Village, Berensohn attended experimental and preparatory schools before being admitted to Yale University. He studied there only for a few days prior to withdrawing and returning to New York. On the advice of a friend in the city, he travelled to Vermont and enrolled at Goddard College where he remained about a year. Once more returning to New York, Berensohn enrolled briefly at Columbia University before auditioning for the dance department of the prestigious Julliard School. Despite his less than rigorous technical preparation and formal training as compared to other candidates, young Paulus earned a spot. Finding the conservatory model of Julliard too rigid, Berensohn subsequently transferred to Bennington College, which although a women’s school at the time, was recruiting for male dancers. At Bennington, Berensohn not only continued his work in dance, he also immersed himself in literature courses with several of the college’s leading writers including the poet Howard Nemerov. His final choreography project in school was selected for a performance at New York’s 92nd Street Y and received a positive review in the New York Times. However, a mentor whose critical recommendation on the piece Berensohn decided not to incorporate, gave him a failing mark in his final term, and he never received a degree from the college despite the support of other faculty members.
Returning once more to New York, Berensohn became immersed in the city’s burgeoning experimental dance and theater scene, while also studying and working with Merce Cunningham and members of his company. One Sunday in the company of these friends, Paulus visited the Gate Hill Cooperative in Stony Point, New York. An intentional community and haven for artists founded in 1954 by graduates and former faculty of Black Mountain College including M.C. Richards, David Tudor, John Cage, and others, while wandering the Gate Hill grounds, Paulus came upon the workshop of Karen Karnes. Quietly observing her concentration and coordination of mind, body, and breath, the course of Berensohn’s life shifted. “I stood there and watched Karen from the back, sitting on her old Italian kick wheel where the wheel head was to her left. The first thing I saw her do was to pull up a cylinder of clay and at the same time lengthen her spine. And then—this was what got me—she reached for her sponge in the slip bucket, picked up the sponge, without taking her eyes off the cylinder, and squeezed some slip onto her work. The gesture of sightless reaching her hand made was elegant and inevitable. I thought, that’s a dance to learn.” Much later, Berensohn elaborated meta-cognitively on the memory, “What happened was a desire to de-professionalize my interest in art… As much as I admired the technical brilliance of my colleagues, I am very interested in the behavior of art rather than the achievement of art. I see all the arts as apprenticeships for the big art of our lives.”
That day was auspicious for another reason. Paulus met Karnes’s studio-mate M.C. Richards, who was also teaching clay classes at Greenwich House Pottery and City College. Richards encouraged Paulus to enroll in a workshop she was about to teach at the Haystack Mountain School in Maine. It was a pivotal time for Richards, who not long before, had left Black Mountain College to resettle at Stony Point. On her way to Haystack that summer, she had stopped in Connecticut for a lecture sponsored by the Wesleyan Potters Guild. It was this talk and the response that followed that led Richards to committing ideas on which she had been ruminating for some time into the book Centering: in Pottery, Poetry, and the Person (1963).
The sense of connection between Berensohn and Richards developed with great and fluent immediacy. She was 17 years his senior and he likened the ease, flow, and meaningfulness of their conversations about creation to being engaged in a choreographic experience. That summer at Haystack set a path of poetic and creative inquiry through clay, writing, reading, and teaching that Berensohn would follow for the remainder of his days. At the end of the summer, rather than return to his life in New York as a dancer, Berensohn went to Pendle Hill, a Quaker adult school in Wallingford, Pennsylvania, outside of Philadelphia where he began to teach crafts. Swarthmore College was nearby, and the following year, Berensohn was invited to begin teaching there. The studio at the time was an empty room, and he rallied the woodworking skills of Larry Wilson, a local teen, to help him build potters wheels from diagrams in Bernard Leach’s A Potter’s Book. Student interest in the studio grew robust, and Berensohn began to produce, exhibit and sell his work. He purchased a farm near Scranton and after four years of teaching at Swarthmore, decided to settle in there to work as an artist. The property came to be known as The Endless Mountains Farm, and Berensohn invited several close friends to live with him there—Larry Wilson, Laurie Graham and their infant daughter Sheligh, lived there for several years and built a gas kiln. Others included the dancer and author Remy Charlip, June Ekman, and Burt Supree, who had been the dance editor of the Village Voice newspaper.
Around that time, Berensohn developed a friendship with Byron Temple and became involved with the Wallingford Potters Guild. Richards, who was living and writing in New York at the time, began to develop a series of experiential hands on workshops for the group that integrated clay, movement, and poetics. In the late 1960s Paulus was invited to Penland through his long-time friend Cynthia Bringle who had been a classmate during his first workshop at Haystack. Over the years they had continued to connect through a women-led kiln building festival that Ann Stannard and Karen Karnes had initiated. (During the early to mid-1960s, the few leaders of kiln building workshops, otherwise excluded participation by women.) Around this time, Berensohn recalls having a dream in which he stuck his hand into the earth and drew out a ball of clay. Blowing on it, it became a bowl. He was also increasingly interested in reading scientific considerations about clay and energy. The image of clay receiving energy, storing energy and transmitting energy captured his imagination. Being a body-oriented person the leap between clay and the body and energy and the body was both natural and profound. After three weeks of teaching with Cynthia at Penland, Berensohn was fully committed to a new, yet very old way of working with clay. These experiences were journaled and captured along with marvelous photographs by True Kelly to ultimately be published in Berensohn’s Finding One’s Way with Clay: Pinched Pottery and the Color of Clay (1974).
Paulus lived for nearly forty years in the Penland community, a home from which he piloted learning experiences and ultimately travelled away from to lead workshops integrating clay, journal making, poetics, and deep ecological thinking at colleges and art centers throughout the United States and abroad. His approach to and work with journal-making inspired Penland’s outreach program in the Mitchell County North Carolina public schools, which has run continuously since 1997. For several years, he also co-led similar workshops at Penland for urban teens from Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild in Pittsburgh that had cross-over with multiple studios there. Along with colleagues at Penland, during these week-long residencies, Berensohn facilitated interactions that co-mingled urban and rural teens. In a time of political, social, and environmental dissonance, Paulus remained committed to the notion that art and connection to the earth were essential to the well-being of all life, the planet, and the human spirit.
Berensohn’s work as an artist and educator focused on restoring the lost harmony between humanity and earth, while combatting alienations of race, gender, and class. He was recognized by the American Craft Council, which elected him to be an honorary fellow, and the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts, which awarded him an honorary membership. He was also the recipient of the Distinguished Educator’s Award from the James Renwick Alliance in Washington DC. A film about his life and work, To Spring from the Hand: The Life and Work of Paulus Berensohn, made by Neil Lawrence, was released in 2013. The Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver wrote about that film, “Paulus Berensohn, whether he’s speaking slowly and thoughtfully as he does, or just smiling, is a gift. With his presence, life takes on a new radiance and energy. He teaches. He shines.”
Learn more about Berensohn, M.C. Richards and the Endless Mountain Farm at http://www.marywood.edu/galleries/docs/EndlessMountainsSpiritCatalog.pdf
Read the full transcript of Mark Shapiro’s 2009 interview with Paulus Berensohn at https://www.aaa.si.edu/download_pdf_transcript/ajax?record_id=edanmdm-AAADCD_oh_296474
Watch a 10-minute film produced in 2013 by Neil Lawrence on the occasion of Paulus Berensohn’s award as NCECA Honorary Member of the Council https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=92YYT9sYZi0
Donations may be made to the following organizations that provided care and support for Paulus.
- Hospice and Palliative Care of the Blue Ridge, 236 Hospital Drive, Spruce Pine NC 28777.
- Center for End of Life Transitions, 32 Mineral Dust Drive, Asheville NC 28806. www.ceolt.org.
A memorial celebration of Paulus Berensohn’s life will take place at Penland School of Crafts later this year.
This flat plate. This ladle and bowl.
Clay whirled on a wheel, raised slowly to the table.
Straight and curved, our primal gestures
take and give—speak out about
the way we stand and breathe.
Every leaf is saucer for the bread.
Every falling drop prepares its cup.
Always we are eating and drinking earth’s body,
Making her dishes.
Potters like sun and stars
perform their art—
Endowed with myth,
they make the meal holy.
My first memory of Paulus has lasted 30 years. It was at the beginning of a fall concentration, where he talked, using his body with his mindful posture, his hands gracefully moving in the air as he described the falling of red, orange and brown leaves on the grounds of Penland. He wove the metaphor of red iron oxide to the autumn leaves, tying together how it is used as an oxide in a potter’s glaze, for the passing of time, for the end of one cycle and the beginning of another.
~ Holly Hanessian
From his habit of walking barefooted to choosing not to fire some of his pinch pots, Paulus often questioned the status-quo. As a teacher, I was deeply influenced by the gentle and inquisitive manner in which he questioned the world around him. His compassion and curiosity will be greatly missed.
~ Chris Staley
Placing Paulus within the framework of the crafts pioneers in America illuminates the culture within which he helped establish the ethic of the crafts movement. Paulus was never at a loss to find the words to inspire those wishing to establish an honest dialog with primary materials. As we look back upon our long personal relationships with him, we are grateful for the way he helped us see our own paths more clearly toward an honest and fulfilling life and career. It’s not a time for sadness, as much as we’ll miss him. He lived his life the way he wanted to, and choreographed the end just the way it happened.
~ Jon Ellenbogen