A Quilt of Connections

The Adirondack folk school is weaving the social web of appreciation for natives and artists alike

Story by Adam Patterson
Photos courtesy of Adirondack Folk School

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Be prepared to use your hands at the Folk School.

The way in which the Adirondack Folk School has come together, found its instructors, and gotten an audience resembles the childhood of game of telephone. One person tells another, and then another, until the word of the place, the skill of the instructors, and the excitement of the paying customers is so diffuse that it’s hard to tell where it started.

Before a game of telephone or word of mouth excitement can start, there has to be something to talk about. Jim Mandle, founder of the school, was ground zero.

"Everything’s an accident in life."

Grace Mandle, Jim’s wife and one of the school's weaving instructors, says her husband modeled the school after two other culture-centric schools in the country. One of the schools focuses on the Scandinavian culture, and the other is strictly Appalachian. “My husband… decided that the Adirondacks had enough artists and unique crafts to be able to do the same thing.” Mandle says if the craft has any kind of link to the Adirondacks, cultural or otherwise, it can be considered.

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The life of a wooden Cardinal.

On its website, the school bills itself as aiming to spark inspiration in Adirondack natives and enthusiasts through their unique instruction of all things Adirondack. But once the idea was planted, they needed instructors before opening their doors early in the summer of 2010, and that was when the word of mouth started to reach the ears of a local blacksmith.

“I’m president of the North East Blacksmith Association,” says Johnathan Nebdor, blacksmith instructor. “We have a pretty good sized group. One of the guys in our group is involved with some friends in their little kind of hobbyist group up in the capital district. He somehow connected with Jim Mandle.”

According to Nebdor, that group member passed the word that Mandle was looking for tools and instructors for his new school, and after getting in touch with him and arranging a few visits to his blacksmithing shop, the duo started working together.

"There were many people locally who were very skilled and willing to do this."

In another effort to reel local artisans in, to gather interest and word of mouth for the group was what Grace called a 50-50. They invited about 50 artisans from a 50-mile radius to come and check out the school, but after all the people had arrived there were more than 100. “There were many people locally who were very skilled and willing to do this,” Grace says. Not only were local artisans willing to help, every instructor is personally interviewed to ensure they’re a good fit for the school.

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The Adirondack Chair, an icon of the region

If the willingness of the instructors to join the school was something, than the excitement by the local community to partake in the school was directly proportional to it.

Grace says that they’re turning people away from some of the more popular classes, like quilting and even soap making. She also explains that while the school initially offered an array of courses, they carefully listened to student feedback and suggestions and incorporated certain courses accordingly. “As long as they’re crafts that have been done in the Adirondacks, we’re adding those to the curriculum.”

Some classes, like Nedbor’s blacksmithing course, features students from their teens all the way through adulthood. While blacksmithing hasn’t been a part of the larger workforce's skill set for quite some time, he understands the allure his class has and attributes it to something he can’t quite put his finger on. “It’s very primal, I think,” says Nebdor. “I think that’s the best way to describe the hook it has on people.” However, other ways to better describe it seem to elude him. He recalls his fascination with metal as a child and can’t remember why he was drawn to it, but thinks people like it because they get to handle metal, work with fire, and get their hands dirty. Not to mention, he also thinks that there’s something sensual about metals.

“Then again, there’s the practical side,” Nedbor explains. “People can come in there and learn how to make something that will serve them, whether it’s a tool or something for their house. It’s really quite practical to do this as well.”

These practical things, once made by either the instructor or the student, can be sold at the maker’s leisure, or put to use. The school also encourages its instructors to put some of their items in the gift shop.

Among the things that can be made and potentially sold are toboggans, a wintertime favorite arriving just before the holiday season. Jim Mandle says, “I just thought it would be an interesting thing to do because of how toboggans are made; it’s bending wood. We’ll use that same technique.” Quick to do and in time for the holiday season, Jim thought the idea fit with the school and the time of year.

The school that was founded through networking and bright ideas continues to grow, and Nebdor is aware of the notion of randomness in life.

“I started as a jeweler,” Nebdor said. “Everything’s an accident in life.”


What could you make that you would use in your home?

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