Meet a Resident Artist at John C. Campbell Folk School: Martha Owen

Meet a musician, storyteller, teacher, and fiber artist.

Elizabeth Prose Jun 5, 2020 - 5 min read

Meet a Resident Artist at John C. Campbell Folk School: Martha Owen Primary Image

From left, Martha Owen with her banjo and right, teaching Bonnie Lenneman.

The John C. Campbell Folk School opened its doors in 1925. Over the years, the school and its community of makers have grown. Fiber artist and musician Martha Owen was first a student at the Folk School and then, about 35 years ago, became one of its teachers and then a resident artist in the late 1980s. We asked Martha to tell us what it’s like working at the well-known school.

Spin Off (SO): How did you become a handspinner?

Martha Owen (MO): My mother gave me a spinning wheel, which she had gotten from my great-aunt Sally. I was told it was of no family significance, meaning Aunt Sally bought it somewhere. Momma brought home the wheel, set it down in front of me, and said, “There, you always did like weird stuff,” and walked off. I could see where my foot was supposed to go but had never even seen anyone actually spin. Spinning wheels were the subject of fairy tales. About a day later, my grandmother was reading the local newspaper, the Cherokee Scout, which is in the same North Carolina county as the John C. Campbell Folk School. My grandmother said, “Look here, Sister, they are having a class in spinning and dyeing. Why don’t you go down and learn?” And that’s what started my whole adventure. We had a time getting the old wheel to speak to me since she wandered and shook and required shims and didn’t even have a bobbin.

SO: What are some of your duties as a resident artist? What crafts do you coordinate and schedule for the Folk School?

MO: I am the resident artist for spinning, dyeing, knitting, crochet, feltmaking, and surface design. My duties include finding and inviting teachers, maintaining and updating studio equipment and supplies, editing text for the catalog in my areas of focus, doing demonstrations, and playing music and telling stories.

SO: What types of programs and projects is the Folk School planning in the future that spinners should know about?

MO: We have spinning classes for beginners and others, too. Learn how to make a wheel go, focus on historical techniques or art-yarn constructions and novelties, or find out more about plant fibers. Also, we have all the equipment and small tools for students to use right here at the school, and they’re in good repair, so students can come to learn and see if they like the subject offered or try new equipment without having to purchase it first. And that’s just in spinning, there’s also a world to discover in how to color your handspun and how to knit, crochet, and weave with it, too. A week at the Folk School includes good food, nice lodging, a beautiful natural setting, trails, dancing, visits to other studios, on-campus demonstrations, and lots of interesting people who are here to learn about something else during the same week.

One new and exciting project is in the garden. In 2019, cotton, indigo, coreopsis, madder, and marigolds were planted, and more plans are being made for 2020.

SO: In addition to your work at the Folk School, you and your husband, David Liden, play music and tell stories. Do the crafts of storytelling and playing music ever cross over into your handspinning practice?

MO: Anyone who signs up for one of my fiber classes will see a request for a story, song, or poem having to do with sheep and wool or fill in the blank. Both my students and I have made great discoveries that way. I have had great fun the last few years offering “Sheep and Wool in Story and Song” at all the venues I have been lucky enough to visit. Am I the stand-up comic of sheep and spinners? Maybe so.

This article was published in the Winter 2020 issue of Spin Off.