At Glen Echo, anyone can be an artist.
Peter Kozloski’s profession is architecture, but his love is photography. He started taking classes at Glen Echo Park that taught him how to develop and print his own work, and he remembers his reaction when he first transferred a photo to paper: “I made that! I actually did that!”
Words like Kozloski’s are spoken and shouted, thought and whispered every day at Glen Echo. Most visitors come here for the carousel rides and the children’s theaters, the nature center and the swing dances. But tucked away in various corners of the park are workshops and studios that draw hundreds of students a week to classes in photography and pottery, painting and drawing and glasswork. And many discover a talent they never thought they had. Christine Hekimian, a glass instructor, describes people when they first enter the studio: “They always say, ‘I really can do this?’ And we always say, ‘Yes, we can teach you.’”
The stereotype of the lonely artist, toiling away in some tiny garret, does not describe Glen Echo. Here, art is a community activity, where neighbors learn together and encourage each other. And when the “kiln gods” are angry, and a pot or a platter turns out badly, they console each other. They share tips and trips, meals and meetings, and as Frank “Tico” Herrera, a photo instructor puts it: “We’re kind of a club, the Island of Misfit Toys.”
Glen Echo sits on a bluff above the Potomac River off MacArthur Boulevard. For 75 years it was a flourishing amusement park, but after it closed in 1968, the National Park Service acquired the land and shifted the focus from carnival to culture. Following major renovations in 1999, Montgomery County took over management of the arts programs.
One key project was the Yellow Barn, a “pile of junk” just a few years ago, according to park spokeswoman Jenni Cloud, and now home to 38 different painting and drawing classes. Walt Bartman, a longtime teacher at Walt Whitman High School, runs the program and Glen Kessler, one of Bartman’s students, has rejoined his mentor to teach at Glen Echo. “We feel like we’re in on the ground floor of something special here,” says Kessler, and the students are a big part of that. At the college level, where he has also taught, students are often forced to suffer through art lessons. At Glen Echo, he says, “students are taking a class because they have a passion for it.” High school seniors often work next to senior citizens, producing a creative energy that Kessler describes this way: “The class becomes its own engine; I just try to drive it.” Students are not battling for grades, so a sense of competition is replaced by cooperation. “People see things in each other’s work they can emulate—or avoid,” says Kessler. “It encourages the group to grow. They push one another.”
Ron Jensen, a former professor of Russian history, is working on the day’s lesson in Kessler’s drawing class. “People are very supportive,” he says of his classmates. “They don’t say, ‘that’s junk.’” At the next easel, Annetta Dexter Sawyer admits that she used to do nude modeling at Glen Echo, “when I was doing my master’s and was very poor.” Now a college dance instructor, she likes being a student again: “It’s good to teach myself to listen, and be on the other side.”
I wandered over to the pottery “yurt,” one of several round, squat buildings used by the arts programs. It was Friday afternoon, “open studio” time, when any student can use the facilities. Each potter was working at her own wheel, but they were close enough to toss gossip along with their clay. (“What goes on in the yurt stays in the yurt,” is their motto.) “I came here to develop humility,” laughs Catherine Naylor, a former second-grade teacher. Often, she says, a pot designed to be white emerges from the kiln “battleship gray,” but even the nagging aches in her hands and back can’t keep her away from the studio: “I work through my pain.”
At the next wheel, Kay Allan calls the work addictive. “I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about it, everybody here will tell you that.” A Foreign Service wife, Allan also teaches pottery classes and particularly enjoys working with children: “They sometimes do better than the adults, they’re less inhibited.” Barbara Silver, a retired headhunter, echoes a common theme: The potters are eager to learn from each other. After all, she says with a wry smile, “you don’t need any more ugly pots in your house, and your friends are tired of getting them.” But occasionally, this close community gets a bit too close. Allan was recently manning the gallery, where the potters display their work. After selling a large seafood casserole, she couldn’t wait to tell the maker. “I know,” he replied, “you sold it to my ex-wife.”