Interview: Clay Blackwell and “Lace at Sweet Briar”

LaceNews is pleased to talk to Clay Blackwell, the guiding force behind “Lace at Sweet Briar”.   Clay is an American lace treasure for all her work on this event.

LaceNews:  Clay, we haven’t heard much about Lace at Sweet Briar for 2015, can you tell us what is going on?
Clay:     Last summer and fall were medically very difficult for me and all three of my sisters and their husbands.  I had had a bad fall which caused a concussion, which resulted in problems with balance, memory, and stamina.  By October, I realized that I would not be able to pull off the work required to organize LASB 2015.  I notified the many loyal participants and let them know there would be a hiatus. (Following Physical Therapy, I am much stronger and my memory has improved.)

LaceNews:  This event has been much loved for 8 years.  Please, tell us how it all started and how you managed to keep it going so long.
Clay:  Several years before LASB started, I got a call from Elizabeth Kurella, who was looking for a home for a client’s lace collection.  I directed her to the person on campus who was creating a museum collection reflecting the history of Sweet Briar Plantation, and in this collection were a few pieces of lace owned by the founder.  Long story short, the Connin-Barber Collection was donated to the museum.  That was really when I realized the potential.

I had organized a workshop with Michael Giusiana teaching Binche and Flanders in 2005.  At that time, he came to the U.S. each year to spend the summer, but always had to return to Germany at about the time the IOLI conventions were held, so I don’t think he ever taught at convention.  After-hours during the workshop  we were brainstorming.  As an Alumna of Sweet Briar,  I was very familiar with the Conference Center and adjacent Inn, and recognized it at a perfect venue for a small gathering.  Michael was the inspiration, and taught for three years.  Elizabeth taught a class in lace identification that first year, and introduced us to Sweet Briar’s lace collection. Susan Wenzel was our vendor, and taught each year as well.  At the end of that first year, Michael and I were discussing teachers for the next year.  It happened that Gunvor Jorgensen had died the year before, and I knew there was a void to be filled.  I suggested to Michael that I thought we should bring Bobbi Donnelly down to teach Tonder.  And so Michael helped Bobbi develop a syllabus and the rest is history!  I am really happy to have been the person who helped launch this great teacher, and have truly enjoyed having her as a friend!

After Michael stopped coming to LASB, Susie Johnson joined us.  Susan Wenzel sold Lacy Susan, and retired.  From that point on, we were very fortunate to have some wonderful teachers join us, including Anny Noben-Slegers and Sandi Woods.  While Anny was on campus with us for one year, she taught both Binche lace, and also taught design.  The following year, we experimented with Anny teaching design via Skype!  It was a great success, and she did this for several years.

Two years ago, I asked several participants to be my “committee”, adding more hands on deck!  This group included Mary Tod, Karen Douglas, Liz Redford, Peggy Spencer, and Susan Kuvelker.  The load they lifted made my week at LASB so much easier! But sadly, I did not have the foresight to involve them in the work that needed to be done to organize the event, and so while they were all very willing to do it, I felt it would be just as difficult (if not more so) to try and pull it off.  Therefore, I opted for the hiatus.

LaceNews:   Many lacemakers have noted the statement dated Feb. 28, 2015 on the Sweet Briar website:  “The board of directors of Sweet Briar College voted to close the College as a result of insurmountable financial challenges.”
What does this mean for future conferences?  And as an aside, do you know what might happen to the Connin-Barber lace collection if closure actually happens?
Clay:  Sadly, if the college closes, as it is likely to do, I doubt that I would have access to the facilities and services again.  There is a group of alumnae working to keep it open, but whether that will actually happen is unknown. As for the collection, I have been in contact with Elizabeth Kurella and also the Museum Director at Sweet Briar.  They are in agreement that the Collection needs to be placed in another location where it can be studied, and they will work together toward that goal.

LaceNews: What are your favorite memories from past events?
Clay: One of the happiest things about each week was forming close friendships with some of the most talented lacemakers in the world!  They likened it to our years of summer camp as children, and that was pretty much the tone each year!  I must say that in the evenings we behaved as adults, and festive little gatherings were held!  Some dedicated Lacemakers continued to work in the classrooms, which were open until midnight, when campus security secured the building.  Many participants said this was one of their favorite things about LASB. And the campus is beautiful, and there are miles and miles of hiking trails!  Many ladies got up early for a brisk walk before class.

LaceNews:  Thanks so much for sharing all this, and for the wonderful memories. Here’s hoping things will work out for the future, perhaps in a new location.

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