Former Director of Haystack Mountain School of Crafts Will Serve As MECA’s President Until a Permanent Successor to Don Tuski is Hired

MECA’s Board of Trustees has recently announced that Stuart Kestenbaum has been selected as Interim President to help guide the institution through a leadership transition.

Former director of the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Deer Isle, Maine for 27 years, Kestenbaum is credited with establishing innovative programs combining craft and writing and craft and emerging technologies. He is also widely known for helping to put Haystack on the map as one of the world’s preeminent destinations for artists. He received his B.A. in Comparative Religion from Hamilton College in 1973 and went on to attend Haystack in 1975. Prior to arriving at Haystack, Kestenbaum served as an Associate, and later Assistant Director with the Maine Arts Commission.

Chair of MECA’s Woodworking and Furniture Design Department and current board President for Haystack, Matt Hutton, is thrilled about Kestenbaum’s recent appointment as interim President. According to Hutton, “Stuart has placed Maine as a destination and leader of art and craft through his stewardship of Haystack Mountain School of Crafts over the past 27 years. Now the State Poet Laureate, he continues to advance the field of creativity and maintain his role as a leader in this community. Having Stuart Kestenbaum as Maine College of Art’s Interim President is not only fitting but a privilege that we will benefit from in the upcoming academic year.”

A committee comprised of MECA’s faculty, staff and board of trustees is currently in the process of conducting a larger search to identify MECA’s next permanent president. More information on that process will be released in the Fall.

MECA’s Board Chair Debbie Reed said, “We are fortunate to have been able to hire an excellent leader to help us during this transitional period. He is universally respected and well liked. So much so in fact that in 2009 he was selected to deliver MECA’s commencement address. Stuart’s awareness of the college, his expertise and knowledge of our community and its current needs, combined with his considerable leadership experience will serve us well. Together with the College’s Board of Trustees, I am proud to be able to announce this appointment, which begins on August 15.

“Maine College of Art is at such a dynamic place in its history with record enrollment and exciting new programs” said Kestenbaum. “I’m looking forward to working with faculty, students, supporters, and friends as the school transitions to its next leader.”

Kestenbaum is also an honorary fellow of the American Craft Council and a recipient of the Distinguished Educator’s Award from the James Renwick. He is the author of four collections of poems, Pilgrimage (Coyote Love Press), House of Thanksgiving (Deerbrook Editions), Prayers and Run-on Sentences (Deerbrook Editions), and Only Now (Deerbrook Editions) and a collection of essays The View From Here (Brynmorgen Press). He has written and spoken widely on craft making and creativity, and his poems and writing have appeared in numerous small press publications and magazines including Tikkun, the Sun, the Beloit Poetry Journal, Northeast Corridor, and others and on Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac. Former US Poet Laureate Ted Kooser has written, “Stuart Kestenbaum writes the kind of poems I love to read, heartfelt responses to the privilege of having been given a life. No hidden agendas here, no theories to espouse, nothing but life, pure life, set down with craft and love.”

Kestenbaum's 2009 MECA Commencement Address

Prayer
Our problem– may I include you?– is that we
don’t know how to start, how to just close
our eyes and let something dance between
our hearts and our lips, we don’t know how
to skip across the room only for the joy of the leap.
We walk, we run, but what happened to the skip
and its partner, the gallop, the useless and imaginary
way we could move through space, the horses we
rode before we knew how to saddle up, before we
had opinions about everything and just loved
the wind in our faces and the horizon in our eyes.

1. Getting started is hard.
When we sit down to make something, our imagination meets the material, and it’s a much squirmier event than we anticipated. Things don’t always head in the direction we think they should and we need to readjust. This can apply to being a parent, a child, a student or a teacher.

2. We are all here because of someone else—
We didn’t spring up, fully formed, with a well written artist’s statement in mind. Our parents, our grandparents, our teachers, our friends, our lovers, have all touched us and shaped us. I’m no mathematician, but if it took two people to make you and four people to make those two and eight people to make those four, in a short while there were many people involved. Whether those people are here today, or with us in our cells and bones, we are connected to a larger world.

And within that larger world our lives are a series of encounters and a layering of experience and there are many journeys that are begun with a conversation in a particular moment. Just when you’re ready to hear the news, someone says to you, “you should think about art school” or ‘have you ever thought about Maine College of Art?’ and you’re on your way. Who knows? Maybe you’ll have a conversation today.

3. Deadlines are our friends
At least that was my mantra as I was getting ready for this. There is something about a deadline that focuses attention. Often times we can fill our making lives with phrases that begin with ‘if only’ as in, if only I had this kind of clay then I could make what I need to make, or ‘if only I had this information from this particular book’. Sometimes we can do best when we approach our studio like we are camping out. We don’t need every ingredient to make the perfect meal…we can surprise ourselves with what’s at hand and an open fire.

Deadlines focus your instincts and bring you into the present moment. Perhaps we could think about changing the phrase dead line to something more life affirming…knowing that the very moment that you are working counts.

4.Metaphors be with you.
That was a bumper sticker a poet friend of mine had after Star Wars came out. I’ve always appreciated the way it invokes art’s most powerful tool.

A few ago I was listening to the National Public Radio show Fresh Air and the host, Terry Gross was interviewing the Catholic writer and theologian John Dominic Crosen. I’m remembering now it was Easter time, and they were talking about the life of Jesus. Crosen was describing the symbolic nature of Jesus’ life. “Are you saying the virgin birth is just a metaphor,” Terry Gross asked, and I inferred in her voice a chance to separate the literal from the figurative. Crosen thought for a moment and agreed that it was indeed a metaphor, but not just a metaphor, the modifier that she had chosen, for metaphor, he said, is the most powerful tool that humans have. Metaphor is our way of seeing when we are creative– we are joining things together in a way that didn’t exist before– we are making one thing out of two things or three things. Metaphors can elevate us and take our breath away.

When a metaphor works it joins things together in a way that is unexpected and yet absolutely right at the same time. We live in the world we see and also in the world that we imagine and perhaps metaphor is the place in between.

5. Wear a seatbelt and don’t skimp when you’re buying tires.

6. Let things simmer.
Art isn’t soup, but many ingredients benefit from cooking together for a while. Experience the world deeply and it will find it’s way into your art, which is on the stove top now.

7. Be ready for opportunities.
If you don’t go to your studio, if you don’t write in your journal, if you don’t look for a something in your world everyday, then when the moment knocks on your door you might not be home.

8. Be a part of a community
Your community can be large or small, local or international. We live our lives in common; make art for your neighbor, who will come to know you in a new way.

And communities are full of stories, stories that shape us and make us who we are. We are accustomed to having our stories made for us now— from the endless repeated news, the endlessly repeated news—that we hear so many times we begin to think that’s what the world is about. It’s may be but it doesn’t have to be.

9. Don’t anticipate the end at the beginning
In his essay “The Figure a Poem Makes”, Robert Frost talks about the momentum of a poem and how the poem takes on a life of its own. He concludes that if there’s no surprise for the writer, there’s no surprise for the reader. When we feel lifted by art, it’s because we can sense that journey of discovery. It’s apparent in the design of a building, and in curve of a bowl. The scale of a discovery isn’t always important. You just need to go on a journey and come back with something you didn’t know.

10. Be deliberate
Jazz composer and flutist Nicole Mitchell told me that this is the key to successful improvisation. When it’s time for your solo, be bold. When you’re making art you have many opportunities for solos, to jump into the unknown with both feet. Don’t worry about failing, you’ll land somewhere you didn’t expect.

11. Give back what was given to you.
I’m not only talking about the tool you borrowed from someone in a nearby studio.

12. Love Your Neighbor as Yourself
That’s from Leviticus in the Bible. You can build a religion around it, a relationship, a community, or a world. What more would you need?

13. Artists and makers have an obligation to repair the world
In Judaism, this is called Tikkun Olam. What better metaphor for people who make and design things—to make things better. Literally and figuratively we can stitch together what is torn, we can provide vessels that contain what nurtures us, we can build spaces that dignify lives and honor the earth at the same time.

14. Slow the World Down
Because we have made so many rapid advances in the digital world, we sometimes equate ‘technology’ with ‘new’, but it’s really the most ancient of human stories. And what is technology but the manifestation of our creativity. Our challenge now is to create technology that makes us more human, more in touch– both through our hands and minds– with ourselves and the world around us. Art has the capacity to slow things down to make us stop for a moment, a minute, an hour longer and look deeply. Stop the world for other people like this and they may not live longer, but those moments will last longer.

15. Next time you have to write an artist’s statement, tell a story instead.
You’ll find this will be more interesting for both you and your audience. Stories connect one human to another. Let the voice that speaks in your art tell the story. Don’t try to speak like an artist—speak like yourself. People will applaud you and ask for copies.

16. Don’t bother with hierarchies, it will tire you out.
Some of you may be aware that a few years ago the American Craft Museum changed its name to the Museum of Art and Design. The reasoning behind this was that, after talking to focus groups and donors, it appeared that the word craft had a negative connotation. Words convey powerful messages and in what I found an unintended irony was that the new acronym for the museum is now MAD—which is how many people felt at the thought of thinking that calling something by another name might change its content, or that by dropping a word—craft—was like an immigrant changing his name to fit in with a dominant culture. The change also implied a hierarchy, it wasn’t about truth in advertising, it’s about what’s perceived as having greater status.

We can spend too much time trying to figure out where our work fits. Instead honor imagination, tradition, and ingenuity. Make work and let the rest take care of itself.

17. Pay your credit card bill off every month.

18. It’s not just us, it’s the material too.
When we work in our studios, when we work with materials, we’re not just enforcing our will on something, we listening to its voice as well. Every exploration goes beyond us, into the chemistry of the clay and into the voice that was once stone. Working with materials connects us with the planet and to the most ancient human impulses to investigate and transform.

19. If you’re going to be late, call and let people know.
You won’t drive too fast and they won’t worry. Just don’t call on your cell phone when you’re driving.

20. Grow something
Every seed makes a blossom, every blossom makes a seed, not unlike making art.

21. Let silence talk to you
I’m going to start with 10 seconds. Imagine fifteen minutes a day listening to all those things that are beyond our hearing. You can also feel your own heart beating.

22. Employ irony, but not at the expense of love.
Irony can leaven our work. It can provide the distance we need to not be too sentimental, and to reflect on the inconsistencies and flaws of our lives. It can provide just the right amount of zing we need to lift work out of the obvious. But our lives should transcend just the ironic. Make work that touches you in the deepest places, so that you might touch others with your work.

23. Thank the people who’ve made it possible for you to be here

April Prayer
Just before the green begins there is the hint of green
a blush of color, and the red buds thicken
the ends of the maple’s branches and everything
is poised before the start of a new world,
which is really the same world
just moving forward from bud
to flower to blossom to fruit
to harvest to sweet sleep, and the roots
await the next signal, every signal
every call a miracle and the switchboard
is lighting up and the operators are
standing by in the pledge drive we’ve
all been listening to: Go make the call.

Final Critique
You’ve had your last critiques with your teachers and will be heading off into a world without the daily conversations about intent and meaning. While nothing compares with the information you gather in discussing your work with others, here’s a substitute. It’s a wonderful paragraph called “Omit Needless Words” written by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White from The Elements of Style:

“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell”

What I have always loved about his passage is that it speaks a truth about how we make things—writers, artists, designers—and that the writing exemplifies the point. Use everything at your disposal and silence the inner critic while you’re creating, but once you’re done, divide the necessary from the unnecessary. This can be your critical mantra.

Prayer in the Strip Mall, Bangor, Maine
The week after Thanksgiving and the stores are decked out
for holiday shopping including a TJ Maxx where what was
once too expensive loses its value and attracts us, there is a
store with a big yellow banner proclaiming GIANT BOOK SALE,
a seasonal operation of remaindered books, which doesn’t mean
that the books aren’t good, only that the great machinery
of merchandising didn’t engage it’s gears in quite the right way
and I buy two books of poetry and am leaving the store, the first snowstorm
of the winter on the way and as I get to the glass double doors
a bearded man with a cane is entering, he has been walking
with a woman who is continuing on to another store and he
has the look that could make him either eccentrically brilliant
or just plain simple and as I open the door and he opens the other side
he turns and says “I love you”, not to me but calling back to his
friend who is departing, only he’s said it looking at me, closest
to me, which is unintended love, random love, love that
should be spread throughout the world, shouted in our ears for free.

“Let’s Review What We’ve Learned”
The simplest words of advice: find the people you want to be with, the places where you want to be, and make the best work that you can.