IT TAKES about an hour and a half to drive out to White Salmon, Washington. Passing the Gorge's gushing waterfalls and riverside trains, you follow a winding road outside of town to get to the WildCraft Studio School, a creative destination that you should strongly consider adding to your fair-weather calendar this year.
Launched last year by multi-disciplinary artist and designer Chelsea Heffner (you may recall her line of apparel, plainMADE), WildCraft is a country retreat aimed at people who want to learn creative skills from knowledgeable people, trading in the formality of a typical academic environment for an idyllic rural one that emphasizes the local flora and fauna. And while Heffner maintains some ties to Portland, for all intents and purposes she left the city last year for permanent residence in White Salmon to pursue the project's development. Nonetheless her connections to the city are apparent, and bolster the effort, incorporating the contributions of people she's met here through various channels including a teaching stint at the Pacific Northwest College of Art.
Set up on a hill with a dirt driveway, WildCraft features a large garden festooned with white ribbons meant to confuse wayward deer that would otherwise jump the high fences and ravage the plants. A small but warmly decorated house is where Heffner lives with her two dogs, and is also where local chef Sara Mains prepares dietary-quirk-friendly meals for WildCraft attendees (everything is vegetarian and local, and they'll happily accommodate gluten allergies upon request). Outside is a recently installed cob oven—functional but ultimately flawed; an upcoming oven-building workshop includes plans to use it as an example to learn from its builders' mistakes. Nearby sits a table covered in animal bones, gathered from a kill site Heffner discovered while hiking the surrounding area, where predators drag their prey to strip it.
Part of the vetting process for prospective instructors at the school is their reaction to the rustic setting. Heffner's not looking for people who feel like they can make it work despite its limitations, but for those who are inspired by its back-to-basics challenges. "They have to be into it," Heffner smiles.
Across from the house, a large, garage-like structure houses a set of beautiful weaving looms originally from Finland, donated by an older woman in a nearby town; an antique letterpress machine unearthed from the basement of a nun; and large tables where students gather to learn skills as diverse as fabric dyeing, bow making, felting, and natural medicine, taught by an evolving array of instructors gathered from the city as well as, increasingly, White Salmon and the surrounding area.
On a recent visit, during the first day of this year's classes (frame-loom weaving), there were a number of familiar faces from the streets of Portland, thanks in part to word-of-mouth that spread after last year, which Heffner refers to as the "beta version" of WildCraft. A smattering of bloggers (myself included) caught wind of the project and its scattered schedule of courses, which included wild mushroom hunting and apothecary projects alongside recognizable names from home, like Portland Apothecary.
Now that WildCraft has drawn some initial curiosity, this year's season of classes—from April through early November—has proliferated to serve what's shaping up to be a strong interest, with about four times the offerings planned for the coming months. The majority of these are craft-oriented, with one- and two-day weekend workshops on making handmade sandals, rag-rug weaving, macramé plant hangers and wall hangings, indigo and shibori dye techniques, basket weaving, pottery, and felting hats and slippers.
Emphasis on the regional wildlife is also a prevalent key to the curriculum, along with primitive skills. You can learn how to grow and forage for the raw materials to make your own natural remedies and dyes, with entire workshops dedicated to powerful elements like wild roses and evergreens. There are several workshops devoted to gardening and ayurvedic health approaches, as well as knife making and nature-inspired writing—in short there's a workshop to appeal to virtually any interest and ability. Heffner's got big plans for its eventual development, including lodging and artist residencies, but for now, it's simply one of the best possible ways to get your hands dirty. WildCraft Studio School, 27 Bates, White Salmon, WA, wildcraftstudioschool.com