Jean McLaughlin, left, and her husband, artist Tom Spleth, at their home in Little Switzerland

Leaving a Legacy: McLaughlin driving force behind today’s Penland

The first thing that comes to a lot of people’s minds when thinking about the arts in Mitchell County is the Penland School of Crafts.

Since Penland was founded 88 years ago by Lucy Morgan, it has evolved from a small community, craft-based economic development project to a 420-acre campus with 57 buildings and more than 1,490 annual enrollees. This evolution over the years is a result of the efforts of visionary leaders, dedicated students and staff, and individuals who are passionate about supporting the arts.

While all successful endeavors result from the efforts of many, there must be a leader who provides the vision and drives the direction to achieve it. Jean McLaughlin is the latest in the line of visionaries who have made Penland the institution it is today.

As the director for the past 19 years, McLaughlin’s hard work and devotion have taken the school to new levels. During her tenure, Penland has thrived in cultivation of the craft movement, but the accomplishments do not stop there. The school’s endowment has grown from $2.1 million to $17 million and numerous infrastructure changes were initiated.

One of the more visible and highly anticipated events, the annual Benefit Auction, has grown in sales from $190,000 to $702,000. The school has a new legacy with a placement on the National Register of Historic Places as the Penland School of Crafts Historic District, and the Jane Kessler Memorial Archives was established to preserve Penland’s history.

Helping the community in which she lives is a high priority for McLaughlin, and her work has been a vehicle for that service. She is proud of the fact Penland today has a strong impact on the economies of Mitchell and Yancey counties – more than $7.9 million annually. McLaughlin has successfully positioned Penland for further growth, which should benefit not only Penland, but also the broader Mitchell County community.

“Nourishing Penland’s early symbiotic relationship with the community was important to me,” she said.

The school’s relationship with the community goes back to the early 1920s when the community helped build the Weaving Cabin still standing on Penland’s campus. During the Great Depression, the community came to Lucy Morgan’s aid when she wanted to take the handmade items of the Penland weavers and potters to sell at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. After state officials declined her request for support, Morgan accomplished this feat with backing from the people of Penland, Bakersville and Spruce Pine.

Armed with a deep love of art and strong sense of the importance of education, McLaughlin has supported giving back to the community through Penland’s Community Collaborations program.

“Coming from a family of educators, I developed a strong social conscience and always knew I wanted to go into education,” she said.

Two other passions of McLaughlin’s are family and travel.

“During these years at Penland, I have made it a priority to spend time with my three sisters,” she said. “We plan an annual trip together without our husbands just to keep ties strong.”

Her husband, Tom Spleth, is an artist and art intersects with family life at home, where Spleth is constantly creating from his studio.

“Tom and I share common interests and the same philosophy on life,” McLaughlin said.

Art also intersects with McLaughlin’s passion for travel.

“For as long as I can remember, I always wanted to see the world and go somewhere different every year,” she said. “When I travel, the world becomes smaller and I become more aware of how much we are all alike. Craft is a fundamental part of the evolution of every culture and we are interconnected through craft. Take the glass and clay communities right here, for example, with their strong influences and relationships in Italy, Japan, the UK and the Czech Republic.”

Her philosophy about the importance of connecting with other cultures is shared by Penland. The school has routinely brought in instructors from around the world since the 1950s. Morgan took a group of instructors and friends to Scandinavia in the mid-1950s to meet with craftspeople and organizations she had gotten to know. Some of these craftspeople had taught or been students at Penland. McLaughlin is taking a group from Penland to Denmark in September to follow, metaphorically, in Morgan’s footsteps.

She is also looking forward to her first trip with Tom after she retires this coming December. In early 2018, they will travel to an artists’ retreat in Tasmania. Peter Adams, who was a resident artist at Penland in the early 1980s, has started a residency program modeled on his experience at Penland. Spleth and McLaughlin will spend the time drawing, painting and taking walks.

So what will retirement look like for a woman who has accomplished so much?

“Taking classes and volunteering at Penland, making my own art, writing, gardening, traveling and spending more time with Tom,” she said.

Jean’s accomplishments were recently honored nationally when she received a 2016 Distinguished Educator’s Award from the James Renwick Alliance.

The MItchell News

Mailing Address: PO Box 339 
Spruce Pine, NC 28777 
Phone: 828-765-7169
Fax: 828-765-1616