Stepping back, or “How I spent my summer vacation”

Categories: Blog, Uncategorized

By Robert Bush
ASC President

Robert Bush | President | Arts & Science Council
This past July, I was given what may be the best gift I have ever received – time. After 15 years at ASC, the ASC Board gave me the opportunity to disconnect from the day-to-day of Charlotte and ASC for an entire month and challenge myself to new ideas, creativity and innovation.

During my ‘sabbatical,’ I could have taken off to Europe and visited museums and cathedrals or gone to an isolated place to read and reflect. I instead chose to step into an environment where I would be forced to see and do things I have never done before and in an art form that I barely knew.

I chose to spend a large part of the month at the Penland School of Crafts.

For those of you unfamiliar with Penland, it was founded in 1929 in the Blue Ridge Mountains by Lucy Morgan as an outgrowth of a craft-based economic development project she had started several years earlier.

One of the great stories of Penland relates Miss Lucy loading up her Model T truck with the textiles woven by the women in the area and driving to the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933 and coming home with everything sold and funds to invest in building the school.

You might want to visit Penland’s website or take a look at the short film below on the history of the school.



Since Miss Lucy’s retirement in the early 1960s, Penland has established itself as an internationally known creative and inspiring retreat center for both artists and interested folk alike.

So, on July 5, I went to Penland as one of those ‘interested folk.’ Over the next two weeks, I was immersed in a different world. My art background is in the performing arts – theatre and music – and while I’m a lover of the visual arts, I’m at a loss when it comes to techniques or understanding of materials.

What I do bring is a willingness to try, no fear of materials and a zeal for the creative process. I was in a special book-making residency titled The What & The Why: Books as Idea Generators. At that first class meeting, I found myself in a class of 12 individuals from across the U.S. – 10 of who are professional artists, all familiar with the book as an art form.

A look at some of the artwork Robert Bush created in a book-making residency at Penland School of Crafts.
A look at the artwork Robert Bush created in a book-making residency at Penland.

I could recount the 12 hour days, ‘one word’ prompts each afternoon that required a book be made for a 10 a.m. group show and critique the next morning, the mistakes I made….let’s just say I now understand ‘make it work’ and I held my own.

I totally stepped away from my job and the world (no TV, barely internet) for two weeks, immersed myself in an unfamiliar setting doing unfamiliar things. It was nothing I expected and everything I had hoped for.

Living in a community of 190 artists and students of the arts for those two weeks left me with many gifts:

  • A renewed appreciation for the role of the individual artist in society and more importantly in community – they give us gifts of seeing the world through their eyes or the opportunity to see a world we would never know…they make us think and stretch and use muscles that we haven’t used since we were children…they are the voices that future generations will look to for an understanding of who we are as a people. Without them, what good are our grand theatres or museums?
  • A clearer understanding of the incredible opportunity that we have been given to re-imagine and create the new ASC that Charlotte-Mecklenburg demands for the 21st century. Built on the vision articulated by my fellow citizens, we are on a journey to engage our audiences and fellow citizens at a level never known – here or anywhere in the U.S.
  • A sense of joy that I get to work every day with incredible, talented team both at ASC and in the leadership of our cultural institutions to step up to the challenges we have faced and see ourselves anew. Partners who have put before us this coming year one of the most interesting and exciting seasons of exhibitions, plays, musicals, concerts and participatory offerings that I’ve ever seen – something for everyone…so get out there and go!
  • The power of the individual ‘creative’ that spends most of their life as a banker, lawyer, doctor, accountant, school teacher or most any other job. How do they do their job all day, take care of their families and still finds time to entertain from a stage, to make pottery or paint or sculpt…all for the love of the art form and how it gives their lives purpose.

After the past three years of intense planning efforts and assuming my new role at ASC, my adventure at Penland could not have come at a better time. I spent a lot of summers as a child, teen and young adult at camp – both as camper and counselor – so in some ways, Penland reconnected me to that joy I experienced in camps long ago.

But, more importantly, my time at Penland gave me so much more – a clear head, an affirmation of the important work I get to do, the chance to make mistakes and figure out how to fix them, to see in the work of others things I can only dream of doing, the importance of being present and engaged in community.