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Arts & Entertainment

Banjo Breeding

by Colin McCoy, staff writer

Junior Brad Smout works on his banjo in the Fine Woodworking shop. Photo by Wyatt Pace

The $2 million Art Department grant allowed for an artist-in-residence program at the Fine Woodworking shop. Musician and musical instrument maker Jim Huskins came to Warren Wilson to teach students and the surrounding community his craft of banjo-making.

Huskins was on campus for a total of four weeks, starting the second week of September, and ending last Friday.

He worked with the Fine Woodworking crew for 40 hours a week, and aided them in producing banjos for the college. Many of them were sold at Festival on the Field this past weekend, but more will continue to be crafted and sold. The cost for a single banjo is between $650 and $750.

Huskins was also hired to hold a three-week long weekend workshop for off-campus community members. Participants of this workshop paid tuition for the class and purchased their own materials. Students were also invited to participate in the weekend workshop for a cheaper tuition. There were a total of 17 students in the two programs.

“The students I’ve been able to work with have just been wonderful,” Huskins said. “They’re talented and coachable and eager to learn, and I’m very pleased with the quality of work. It’s been good for me; I’ve learned a lot.”

Doug Bradley, the Campus Support crew supervisor, was primarily responsible for hiring Huskins.

“He was thrilled to death to come in and do what he’s doing,” said Bradley. “He’s great; I couldn’t have asked for anyone better.”

“I’ve been peripherally aware of Warren Wilson’s work, and stand for sustainability and what I think is a healthy approach to secondary education,” Huskins said. “I was already a fan, so it’s rewarding for me to get to play a small part in the overall goals of [Warren Wilson’s] educational foundation.”

Huskins’s family has lived in Western North Carolina since before the 1800s. He grew up and still resides in the area.

His interest in making musical instruments stemmed from his love for banjo music. He started playing when he was 19 and built his first banjo a year later. After a couple years, he was building instruments he considered well crafted.

“At first, it was just a hobby, then it became a hobby business,” Huskins said. “Mostly my customers have been people that I know or friends of people that I know.”

However, for the last three years Huskins has been increasing production. He takes his instruments to festivals, craft fairs and, as of this year, the North Carolina state fair.

Though Huskins is knowledgeable about banjo making, he had little experience teaching the craft to groups of people prior to the residency.

“It’s been, at times, very frustrating,” Huskins said. “I would have liked to have been cloned several times, so I could help several people more effectively. . .There’s always a learning curve when moving to a new place. But [students] have been quite satisfied with the level of assistance they’ve received. I think we’re accomplishing a lot.”

Corrine Hertz, a student on the Fine Woodworking instrument crew agreed that Huskins program was successful.

Student-made banjos. Photo by Wyatt Pace

“He just makes me want to do better because I see his work, and he’s been doing this for 40 plus years, and he’s still perfecting his art,” Hertz said.

Hertz appreciates Huskins’ method of instruction.

“He allows you to do it your own way,” Hertz said. “He totally believes in learning at your own pace. That’s nice in a work environment, especially when you’re learning a craft.”

Huskins, Bradley, and Hertz all hope that the instruments crafted will be available for rent to students.

“I don’t want to just think of it as profit for the school,” Hertz said. “I want to be proud of what I’m doing at Warren Wilson. So I hope the school buys some of the instruments so that it wraps around to the classroom.”

Though concerns about where the instruments will end up have not been fully addressed, those involved feel the goals of the workshops and residency were met.

“I’m really glad the work program office and the grant allows us to take this opportunity to grow the instrument crew, as well as get other people from the community involved,” Hertz said.

“I think it’s a good thing for the school,” Huskins said. “I’m already getting feedback from people in the bluegrass community who’ve heard about it.”

Students on the fine woodworking instrument crew will continue to use Huskins as resource past the completion of his residency.

Huskins is delighted that his workshops and residency accelerated the initial learning stages of the craft and piqued student interest.

“At least a few [students] are expressing curiosity in taking up instrument building as a serious interest,” Huskins said. “I feel like I’m able to save them years of learning experience. That’s what I wanted to happen.”



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