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My first hint that The Clearing Folk School was something special appeared as I enter the 128-acre campus of native landscape dotted with tucked away cabins and workshops, a labyrinth, hiking paths, and see a young deer on the gravel driveway, perking up his ears at the sound of my engine and leaping into the forest. The leaves, just beginning to turn their fall colors, sparkle with the morning’s raindrops. I meander the forest path to the Jens Jensen Visitor Center and find myself breathing slower. Hint number two.
“Students reconnect with nature, break away from their day to day concerns, relax,” says Tammy Musiel, The Clearing’s program director who is currently working on the winter program schedule. “There are no grades, no competition.”
My kind of class, I think, studying the students’ weekly itinerary complete with nature hikes, home-cooked meals, and a warm, welcoming atmosphere to boot. I pop in on the weavers and woodworkers – students engaging in two of three weeklong classes taking place during my visit; next week it’s watercolor, felting, writing, and rustic furniture.
Four weavers sit at their looms, somewhat bulky, intimidating concoctions to this beginner’s eye. “We started from scratch,” smiles instructor Carol Heil. “We went over the vocabulary.” And the surprising amount of mathematics involved as student Barbara Lee of Madison explains to me. She’s making a table runner. “You pick what colors work in harmony that you enjoy and there is a sequence.”
Lee took her first class at The Clearing in 1998. “I saw an ad for this ‘Native American Spirituality’ class in Wisconsin Trails and came with a friend. I’ve had a lot of good experiences, learned to play the flute!”
Working alongside her is Craig Johnson, who she introduced to The Clearing four years ago. He’s creating a wall hanging inspired by Finnish fabric artists. “You add texture and fun things,” he smiles. “This is more than just a class, it’s the comradery, the history. I work at a garden center and am interested in landscape architecture, like Jens Jensen.”
If you haven’t heard of Jensen, he’s kind of a big deal, like “America’s most important landscape architect” kind of a deal. He founded The Clearing in 1935 at 75, after designing many of Chicago’s parks and helping establish the Illinois State Parks system. Being a city boy, he understood the need for urbanites to reconnect with nature. And with our society’s current constant exposure to screens and the overwhelming pressure to stay ‘connected,’ even rural dwellers need an escape, a place to clear their minds and create. Arlene West of St. Paul has been relishing The Clearing’s technology-free policy - no televisions, no Wi-Fi, limited cell phone use. “It’s refreshing,” she says, weaving a colorful sampler piece to practice different combinations. “We’re so task-oriented. I gotta do this. I gotta do ten more lines before bed. And Carol gently reminds me, ‘You don’t. Give yourself time.’”
Meanwhile a woodworker sits on the porch with his legs resting on a bench, whittling away at a spoon topped with a Celtic knot. A chipmunk, comfortable to close human proximity, darts circles around my feet. A woman in a white apron begins to sets out the lunch buffet in the Lodge. Birds sing. The weavers ooh and aah at Carol’s intricate curtains of abstract cranes in fight. A Monarch butterfly flaps its wings and flies upward. Hints number three, four, five, six, seven, and eight.
An experience at The Clearing is “incredibly transformative for some,” says Tammy. “People can be their authentic self here.”
I leave the weavers and woodcarvers with a ‘farewell’ and a wave, envious of their experience, surprised by how much I didn’t know about this Door County treasure in Ellison Bay, determined to one day take a class, clear my mind, and create at The Clearing.
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