By: Jonna Rae Bartges
Since its construction on Blanahassett Island right off Marshall’s Main Street in 1925, the venerable Marshall High School was the hub of the city for half a century. The sturdy, two-story brick building had 28 classrooms, a 4,000 square foot auditorium with a 1,000-foot stage, and was ringed by trees. Athletic fields sprawled behind the school and neighboring gymnasium building.
Proms, homecomings, graduations, sporting events, science fairs, community gatherings – Marshall High was the granddame of the city, opening her doors to all.
Things changed, though, in the fall of 1974. That’s the year the county opened the new Madison High School, which consolidated students from Hot Springs, Laurel, Mars Hill, Marshall, and Spring Creek high schools.
Time was not kind to Marshall High, and she began to fall into disrepair. By the turn of the century, the once imposing school had become a liability and an eyesore.
With no one stepping forward to rescue the school, the city announced plans to demolish the structure. Even though the building really wasn’t usable in its current state, emotions ran high that it shouldn’t be torn down.
“There were countless rallies and petitions to Save Our School,” recalls Rob Pulleyn. “You couldn’t stop at a convenience store in the area without someone trying to get your signature on their SOS list. It was constantly the lead article in the local news. Out of curiosity, I just had to see for myself what all the commotion was about.”
Rob wasn’t your typical Madison County kind of guy. He was a transplant from New Mexico, and was snared by the Smoky and Blue Ridge mountains during a first-time visit to Savannah, Charleston and… Asheville. At the time, he and his then-wife had a small retail store selling craft supplies and a little wholesale business. They were also the publishers and editors of FIBERARTS magazine, which catered to the weaving and dyeing crowd.
“I realized we could easily do that work in this beautiful setting,” Rob said, “So we moved the business here with us, and then started producing ‘how to’ books that eventually swept us into the future.”
That ‘future’ included launching Lark Books in 1979, the year Rob relocated to the area. Lark soon created a name for itself and became a major publisher of craft books – so major, in fact, that Barnes & Noble bought Lark in 2002.
A few years before he sold that business, Rob got a flash of the new direction in which his life was about to move. A sociology and anthropology major in college, he had no formal business or art classes under his belt. The geometric tapestries he wove from various textures and weights of camel hair yarn were purely intuitive – and quite beautiful.
On a lark, Rob decided to take a clay sculpture class at Penland School of Crafts.
“That was pivotal for me,” Rob recalls. “The second day of class I had my hand on a slab of wet clay, and I just got this overwhelming feeling that something had just happened, and my life was about to change. The coolness, the wetness, the scent of the clay. The only way I can describe it is a feeling of destiny.”
With such a visceral reaction to clay, one would think Rob immediately created a ceramic masterpiece. He is refreshingly honest about his initial endeavors. “I strictly followed the teacher’s instructions for that first clay piece,” Rob says. “And I created some outstandingly ugly stuff. I look at a lot of that now and think, ‘what a waste of perfectly good clay!’”
Despite his early humbling experiences, Rob was hooked, and knew the region’s famously pure Appalachian clay was going to be significant from then on.
After Rob sold Lark Books he continued at the company five more years, but increasingly scaled back his workload per his agreement with Barnes & Noble. “That gave me the perfect transition from full time work behind a desk to doing something very real,” Rob said.
With persistence and enthusiasm, he began to coax some beautiful creations from slabs of wet clay, and worked in a studio in Asheville’s River Arts district. Eventually he built a studio at his home.
“I’m too much of a type A personality to dabble,” Rob said. “I didn’t want my art to be a weekend warrior activity. I took it very seriously, and made it my new career.”
As part of his quest to transition from businessman to artist, Rob haunted galleries, and pushed himself to master his craft. He felt lucky he didn’t have to support himself with his art. Instead, he could focus on doing the type of pieces he really wanted to do – primarily sculptural vases, about half of which could hold water for floral displays.
It was at this stage of his life that Rob kept running into the “Save Our School” contingent, and his natural curiosity drove him to take a tour of the crumbling Marshall High.
“It was in terrible shape,” Rob laughed. “The roof had fallen in, and everything was rotting through. But as dilapidated as it was, I really felt there was just enough ‘there’ there to be interesting.”
Through his artist’s eyes, Rob saw past the warped floors, cracked plaster and decay to focus on the sunlight streaming in through walls of windows; the spacious feeling of the 16-foot-high ceilings; the maple floors throughout; the convenience of blackboards and bulletin boards permanently mounted in the classrooms; the eight-foot-wide hallways that would create a natural gallery display area; the overwhelming beauty of the park-like setting, and the close proximity of this unpolished gem to Asheville, Charlotte and other creative communities.
“I know it sounds absurd,” said Rob, “but just like when I had that knowing after first touching the wet clay, I walked out the door of the school and thought, ‘I know what I’m going to be doing!’”
Through his years learning how to sculpt, Rob had discovered the passionate and growing artistic community in the region. If there was a way to bring these artists together in a dynamic, synergistic hub, he reasoned, surely they would come.
While the SOS crowd was thrilled this knight in shining armor had appeared, many others, including the county attorney, weren’t initially so trusting of Rob’s vision.
“It was 10 minutes before our scheduled closing in 2007,” Rob remembered, “and the attorney pulled me to one side and quietly said, ‘I can make all this go away. You don’t have to go ahead with this! I have no creativity, but I think you’re crazy to take this on.’”
“And I answered him, ‘you may be right! But I have to do this.’” And do it, he did. Rob signed the papers, and the creation of Marshall High Studios began.
The next nine months were a blur of activity on the island, and in Marshall. “Because of the size of the school,” said Rob, “we could have all the crews working at once.” When the electricians were at one end of the building replacing wiring, adding Wi-Fi and hanging new lights and fans in each of the 28 studio spaces, plumbers were installing a sprinkler system and sinks with hot and cold running water in every room. Carpenters replaced floors in one section while painters brought new life to old walls and ceilings in another. It took less than a year to bring the once dilapidated old school back to her former glory, and completely up to code.
With the renovation completed, the artists did come.
Pottery artists, painters, a wood worker, fiber artists, a book binder with antique equipment, an artist who restores museum pieces; an apothecarist with row upon row of glass containers cradling dried, scented herbs, even a studio devoted to Bucky Domes – just about all of the natural sunlit rooms were quickly scooped up by creative types wanting to be working in close proximity to like-open-minded people.
To Rob’s surprise, nearly a third of the artists are from Madison County. Other resident artists include a professor who lives in Georgia and commutes. One is from South Carolina. One moved down from New Jersey, and one moved east from San Francisco.
“To this day,” Rob admits, “I’m still kind of surprised I did it because it was such a stupid thing to do financially. What if no one had shown up to rent space? Where would I be then? Then all these fantastic people just showed up…” his voice trails off and he shakes his head and smiles.
Rob has a lot to smile about these days. Marshall High Studios is relishing its new life as a creative community hub, a breath of fresh air for Madison County and a catalyst for the arts. It’s hosted an arts camp for kids for the last three years. It’s raising money for the high school art department. Annually it hosts a hand-made market which attracts master craft artists from all around the region. That 4,000 square foot auditorium frequently hosts public events.
While the studios themselves are not open to tourists, a number of its artists created a bustling gallery on Marshall’s Main Street, showcasing many of the one-of-a-kind pieces MHS creates, and bringing more visitors and revenue to the area.
The website for Marshall High Studios pays homage to its deep community roots by featuring photos from old MHS yearbooks. (marshallhighstudios.com)
Despite how he’s made the seemingly impossible project a resounding success, Rob remains humble and unassuming about his role in it all. “Just being part of something much bigger is its own reward,” he insists.
“Art is important because of the way it defines a culture,” Rob said, drawing on his studies in sociology and anthropology. “We are all, as people, most happy when we’re creating something we love. When we allow ourselves to get lost in the experience, it’s simply phenomenal.
“Some people will tell me, ‘I don’t have a creative bone in my body.’ And I have to say, ‘Oh, you have lots of them! You just need to find them!’ That’s what we do here, for the artists, and the people who come to experience their art. We have the safe space for them to discover their creativity, and enrich their lives with the artistic passion and beauty they all have inside.”
For more information and to keep abreast of upcoming events, visit marshallhighstudios.com.
Jonna Rae Bartges, Emmy winning producer, speaker and minister, is the author of Psychic or Psychotic? Memoirs of a Happy Medium. She is the founder of PSI, Practical Spirituality Institute, the happy medium between the worlds of science and spirit. PSI offers Reiki training and healing for the body; psychic consultations for the mind and intuitive development workshops for the spirit. To register for her next workshops June 2 in Seattle, WA, June 17 in Johnson City, TN or July 7 & 8 in Asheville, NC, call her at (828) 337-4017 or visit her website at JonnaRae.com.