Story by Frances Figart | Photos by Mercedes Jelinek
Few institutions of learning have shaped the arts in North Carolina like the renowned Penland School of Crafts. Among the influential figures who have in turn shaped Penland’s community and craft school as educators, mentors, artists and champions are twin sisters Cynthia Bringle and Edwina Bringle.
Born in 1939 in Memphis, the twins were the first children of Dr. Carey and Eva Gene Bringle. Cynthia, who is 30 minutes older, took an early liking to the arts, but the route was circuitous for Edwina.
“In seventh grade an art teacher held up drawings and said we should all draw like those two students,” Edwina recalls. “One was Cynthia’s, but the other was not mine. I figured I could not do anything.”
While Edwina’s early career was spent in the lab as a radiologic technician, Cynthia went to the Memphis Academy of Art with the intention to study painting. Once she took her first course in clay, she was hooked. She continued learning about pottery at Haystack School of Crafts in Maine, where she met Bill Brown, then Haystack’s assistant director. Cynthia spent the next decade immersing herself in pottery, earning an M.F.A. in 1964 from the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University, where she studied with innovators Robert Turner and Ted Randall.
Meanwhile, on a mountaintop in North Carolina, Brown was building on the craft school foundation set up by Lucy Morgan (also a twin), who had come to the Penland community in 1920. Amid the vibe of the hippie culture of the day, Brown began to invite talented craftspeople from across the country to visit, teach, create and hopefully put down roots in Penland.
“I was in the car with Cynthia and had nothing to do when we arrived at Penland for her to assist Bill Brown for two weeks in 1963,” Edwina remembers. “Bill told me to go to the weaving room and Helen Henderson would get me started. That was really the first weaving I did. I do not think I ever said, ‘I will be a weaver.’ I just never quit.”
Learning to weave at Penland over the next few years, Edwina became a talented fiber artist and moved to Charlotte, where she taught for 24 years at the University of North Carolina. Retiring as professor of art emerita, she is now back at Penland and is known for her use of color and design in her woven textiles and free-motion embroidered pieces. She is also an accomplished photographer. Her work is in the collection of the North Carolina Museum of History, the Greenville Museum of Art, the Mint Museum of Art in Charlotte and the Gregg Museum of Art and Design in Raleigh.
Cynthia visited Penland to teach throughout the rest of the ’60s, helping to build the school’s first gas kiln and assisting Brown with the school’s development, guiding the ceramics program and recommending faculty in all media. She moved to Penland permanently in 1970 at the age of 31 and by 1975 had built a beautiful home studio in the woods.
Cynthia’s one-of-a-kind pieces include porcelain bowls, stoneware pitchers, large raku vessels and jars of all types. Still a skilled painter, this gift inspires her thought process about color and design, and so her work often incorporates painting. She is both a lifetime member of the Southern Highland Craft Guild and a fellow of the American Craft Council. She won the prestigious North Carolina Award for Fine Art and has been given an Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree by the Memphis College of Art. The University of North Carolina in Wilmington named her a North Carolina Living Treasure.
“When I started doing this, people thought I was nuts,” Cynthia says. “My father said, ‘Do whatever you want to do, just do it the best you can.’ I feel fortunate because I had supportive parents and I’ve been able to make a living at this for 50 years.”
Cynthia’s work comes from the hand, and she treats every pot as an individual piece. There are no two alike. She recently made work for the fourth generation of one family. Her aim for students is to improve their techniques along with helping them evaluate their pieces and create work that speaks to the viewer and to form and function.
“This is my passion and that’s why I do it,” Cynthia says. “It’s nonstop work to make a living at this.”
Today, the sisters remain close and are tremendously respected by all in their mountain craft community, and beyond. “We have striven to be individuals,” says Edwina, “going in opposite directions then both ending up in the arts.”
The 2017 Penland Benefit Auction, a gala weekend featuring the sale of more than 240 works in books, clay, drawing, glass, iron, letterpress, painting, photography, printmaking, textiles and wood, will be held Friday and Saturday, August 11 and 12. It is one of the most important craft collecting events in the Southeast.
“As part of the Auction, the school will honor Cynthia Bringle and Edwina Bringle as this year’s Outstanding Artist Educators,” says Robin Dreyer, Penland’s communications director. “Both were resident artists and they taught Penland’s very first eight-week Concentration workshops, which have become one of the school’s signature programs. Cynthia and Edwina both live near the school and they are Penland’s perpetual ambassadors.”
Cynthia and Edwina share the Bringle Pottery Studio and Gallery at 160 Lucy Morgan Lane across from the Penland School Gallery. Reach them at 828.765.0240 and learn more at cynthiabringlepottery.com and edwinabringle.weebly.com.