A Life Centered in Crafts
Cassandra Shammel: the person, the artist, the transfer student
Higher education isn’t so neat and orderly as high school. It might take a few tries to find the right campus, the right faculty, the right curriculum. In some cases, time off is necessary. It’s time to dispel the picture perfect ideal of a 4-year-degree, in exchange for a much more real composite of student life.
It’s the first genuinely sunny Friday of spring term on the University of Oregon campus. The sun is not only bright, but its warmth reaches all the way to the students lazing on the Erb Memorial Union grass lawn. Just past high noon, a few throw a Frisbee around, some nap, but on the far side of the lawn is a growing group of students around three tables pushed together. Freebie Friday has started, and the embroidery workshop hosted by UO student Cassandra Shammel will be open for drop-ins the next two hours.
Spools of brightly colored thread, layered in scraps of white fabric and wooden hoops clutter the table. A finished hoop sits off to the side: “Free Workshop” in black gothic font on a red ribbon banner. No doubt a creation of Shammel’s. The hoop she has in-hand has a red heart already woven into it, with the word “Craft” slowly taking shape in the banner across the middle. She chats with the students, making herself available to anyone who might need direction. Monica Nunan, 21, is among the some 13 students. “I’m looking to learn embroidery,” said Nunan, but she is here more out of support for her friend. “She’s too cool for school,” says Nunan about Shammel. “Inspiring, really.”
Shammel is a craft veteran, but the cozy niche she has made didn’t always exist. Shammel’s college experience is less represented by the sunny day she now embroiders under, and more so by the sporadic rain showers that frequent Eugene.
Cassandra goes by Cassie. Her straight hazelnut hair is held back by a clip. Circular glasses with thin gold-wire frames are balanced by a septum nose ring. All told, she has 10 piercings in her two ears. A collection of silver and turquoise rings matches the cuff from her great aunt that is always on her left wrist. At 22 years old, her style is vintage from the choker around her neck to her platform sandals.
Shammel, a Medford native, started college about 2,800 miles away at Dickinson in Pennsylvania. High school had left her with the convincing feeling that she needed to get out; distance from home would help her discover herself. “I made some great friends, but once the shiny-newness wore off, I was far away from home,” said Shammel. “I started getting depressed.”
What might appear as a rough adjustment period had much heavier implications. “I’ve been struggling with my mental health since I was 13. I wanted to just die, and that was scary for me,” said Shammel, as she recalls the variety of doctors, diagnoses, and medications she has tried. “Things would be okay for a while, then they just wouldn’t be very suddenly.”
At Dickinson, Shammel went off medication she felt was ineffective. Fall gave way into winter, and things got darker. While her peers were studying for midterms, Shammel was struggling to make it on time to breakfast. She was quickly falling behind. “I legitimately wanted to put my best foot forward and take control of my life,” said Shammel. “But I didn’t know what could make me happy, what kind of people I should surround myself with. I didn’t know who I could trust—even myself.”
Shammel vowed to start studying so that she could go into the exam prepared. In her renewed ambition, she had gone to class ready to pay attention, only to discover that the midterm was that day. Shammel never took that midterm, nor did she finish out the school year at Dickinson. “I tried to kill myself,” said Shammel. “It was everything that just came shattering down at once.”
The suicide attempt put her in the hospital for a week before she returned to Oregon. There, she continued her recuperation in Roseburg with her father. “I was finally diagnosed as bipolar after eight years of back and forth diagnoses between anxiety and clinical depression,” said Shammel. “I had been medicated on the wrong stuff all along.”
The chatter around the craft table never ceases as busy hands make slow progress. Shammel has finished her second embroidery hoop, and is helping a student fit fabric into his own hoop. After work, she’ll walk about a mile to the home she shares with Abigail Turner and Liz Pentland, a friend who goes all the way back to St. Mary’s High School in Medford, Oregon.
The two reconnected after Shammel returned from Pennsylvania and made plans to transfer to the UO the following year. “She was closed off for that whole period,” said Pentland. “She didn’t explain why she was coming back until two years after, and not even in full detail. I just assumed it was because she missed her family.”
Shammel took slow steps to resume college life, with a reduced schedule and a new psychiatrist. “Once we started to reconnect she seemed—not better, but more comfortable,” recalls Pentland. “It was definitely a bit a of a jolt for her to start anew when everyone else has already established themselves. But I think she definitely fell into her own when it came to her art.”
Shammel discovered the university Craft Center almost by accident through a job search. “I was pretty amazed it even existed; I had no idea it was there,” said Shammel. “When the new EMU opened, we finally got a nice big open space. People actually started wandering in off the hall. A lot of people still don’t know the Craft Center exists, but we’re slowly getting out there.”
Shammel’s job also includes free workshops. Her skillset now ranges beyond the typical Bachelors degree to casting, woodworking, and weaving. “I made it a thing where I would take a workshop every term. I did casting as my first,” said Shammel, who has since taken 10 workshops, as well as bead-making five times. “I’ve made it a goal to go to each studio. Of the eight, the only studio I haven’t worked in is print-making.”
She teaches herself, then teaches others. “She’s very dedicated. She wants people to know that we’re here,” said Morgan Kender, 20, a student coworker of Shammel’s. “In a way, she embodies the Craft Center. Her true passion is art, and here—you don’t have to be good at art, this is where you go to learn.”
Summer term will be Shammel’s last opportunity for free workshops before her job expires. “I think it’s really valuable to be able to create. Being artistic is not the point. It’s about being curious and willing to try something new,” said Shammel. In truth to this, Shammel entered an art contest for the first time at the beginning of spring term. The theme: body positivity. She submitted an embroidered hoop of racially-diverse, nude, female forms. The piece won second place. The Counseling Center bought it from Shammel; it now hangs in its lobby.
The sun is leaning to the west. Shammel’s shoulders are sunburnt, and the needle is harder to hold with perspiring hands. Some students have come close to a final project: an almost finished succulent, a flower with a bee. A few students ask when they can come back to do it again. Shammel encourages them with a smile. She has experience now and is just the right duck to ask. In three weeks she’ll don the green gown with her customized cap, and cross the stage for her diploma. Her journey is almost over. “College has been less so about learning academically, as it is me growing up and figuring out what I want,” said Shammel. “I’m in a really good place now, so it seems—not silly—but distant.”