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Age-old Art

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    Renee Kuhnel Gillespie '95 spins fiber from flax, heirloom cotton, alpacas and an Angora rabbit.
February 04, 2014
Art is a way of life for Renee Kuhnel Gillespie ’95 and her husband David, colonial re-enactors who demonstrate, practice, and teach 18th century crafts from their homestead in Pickens, SC.

This lifestyle would have been difficult for Renee to imagine as an undergraduate. The biology major had her sights set on a career in medicine until courses in the art department moved her to major in art instead. “I really appreciated the small department,” recalls Renee, of her time studying under Dr. Susan Tessem and Dr. Robert Janson-La Palme. Her work as a painter earned Renee the Lynette Nielsen Art Award, given annually to acknowledge excellence in art.

Following graduation, Renee moved to Chicago to serve as a church youth director, a position that allowed her the flexibility to continue studying art in courses through The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Seven years later, Renee moved to Laurens, SC to assist her father in opening a nostalgic gas station and vintage soda shop. The old building, sorely in need of renovations, proved to be the ultimate blank canvas. Using her construction skills—acquired during Habitat for Humanity volunteer work—Renee was able to incorporate age-old crafts, including mosaic tiling, hand forged ironwork, and recycled woodworking, into the building’s new design. Her appreciation for these traditional art forms deepened over time, as she found herself enjoying the physical labor that accompanied the trades. “It is such a rewarding privilege to be able to create with your hands,” explains Renee.

While practicing one of her newly acquired trades—spinning at an 18th century living history demonstration—Renee met her husband, David, a man who had long since embraced the idea of a simpler life, and specialized in making rifles, banjos, and slate carvings.

The pair married in 2005, and today, Renee practices crafts from their homestead in Pickens, SC—a rustic, two-story, nine-room log home the couple built themselves atop Corbet Mountain. Their site www.pumpkintownprimitives.com showcases striking, one-of-a-kind products including handspun and dyed fiber, marbleized paper, and ornate tombstones. As part of their commitment to preserving historic art forms, the couple also provides demonstrations at festivals and historic sites, as well as personal instruction in the form of classes and publications (i.e. books & DVDs) available for purchase.

Though Renee could not have predicted how she would use her Washington College degree, she is often reminded that those “essential tools” she relies on for teaching and art-making were nurtured at WC. “I laugh at the thought of being a learned extrovert. I’d never dreamed I would be speaking and demonstrating in front of so many people and enjoying it!”

Last modified on Feb. 4th, 2014 at 10:13am by Jesse Schaefer.