The Legacy of Craft

Made in Oregon: A History of Handicraft from 1907 to Now

You may remember the Oregon driftwood artist played by John Malkovich on Saturday Night Live sometime in the high-grunge era. Hunkering down in his chair on the mock talk show, clad in a flannel shirt, hiking boots and shorts over long johns, Malkovich's character cradled a sea-weathered hunk of wood in his hands, and, in the half-amazed drawl of a habitual pot smoker, described his patient, exacting search for the log's immanent form – I believe, a squirrel and its "nest."

The Northwest has a deserved reputation as a vigorous center of craft culture, a legacy that is both blessing and burden. We explore both sides of the coin in this special feature on craft.

What is craft? Many things: a knitted tea cozy, a Breuer chair, a Kwakiutl basket, a couture gown, depending on whom you ask. But perhaps more than anything, craft is, and always has been, endangered. One can imagine thousands of years ago a Kwakiutl woman drawing her daughter's attention to an especially comely basket woven by an elderwoman, and the implied warning of generational lapse.

At the end of the 19th century, however, this threat gained a new urgency in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution, as the replacement of artisanal culture by factories motivated the Arts and Crafts movement to come to craft's defense. Since then, the handcrafted object has continued to hold and build its talismanic power, coming to the aid of interestingly divergent social agendas, from the back-to-the-land movement to selling luxury cars – and most recently, in the antiglobalist, sisterhood-is-powerful cozying-up of young, urban women at knitting circles and beading parties.

As artists such as Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons and others have shown – with differing degrees of irony – craft has even extended its aura to mass-produced objects, including disposable kitsch. With factory- produced shoes, crystal beverage services, decorative figurines and cars having in many cases achieved, or at least convincingly simulated, a degree of aesthetic and functional refinement similar to that of, say, a Shaker table or hand-fired raku tea set, so have they attracted a similar response of nostalgic affection and awe.

The complications craft causes for fine art, and vice versa, are legion. To the fine artist, craft is a kind of doppelgá¤nger, a threatening muse. Artists have always drawn inspiration from well-crafted objects, whether the burnished silver rendered with optical precision in Northern Renaissance painting, Picasso's guitars or, to take a contemporary example, the Rhode Island collaborative Forcefield's knitted bodysuits. Equally, fine artists have aspired to "mastery" on their own terms, a word that derives from an earlier time when artwork was produced (like any other craft) by workers under a master.

Yet, as much as craft haunts fine art, to confuse the two is an embarrassment. The artist's measure is "genius" rather than skill and, increasingly, the aim of deconstructing culture generally (sometimes without regard for objects) rather than refining it within a particular medium. Which is sort of too bad – the embarrassment of confusion, I mean – especially in a region with as rich a craft tradition as ours.

Perhaps someday, people will watch that old Saturday Night Live skit and have no idea what the joke is, because the Northwest will have become the center of a highly developed driftwood art culture, our great grandchildren grown rich off eBay proceeds from heirloom Saturday Market bird feeders. We can hope.

Meantime, craft is alive and well and its meanings are as hotly contested as ever. Long live craft, forever endangered.

Thandi Rosenbaum, co-founder of the popular Tuesday night craft circle held at the Delta Cafe on SE Woodstock Boulevard, visited New York City recently. When she told someone she was from Portland, he asked, "So which is it: are you in a band, or do you do crafts?"

Nocturnal, an all-ages music venue on East Burnside, also hosts a weekly craft night. Midweek nights were slow when the club first opened in November 2002, and as art director and booker Seann McKeel explains, "It started out as a joke. One Wednesday I looked over to see the cook cutting out sewing patterns on the bar while the waitress knitted, and I asked, 'What is this, craft night?' We put it in our ads for the next week, and suddenly it was so crowded!"

From informal craft circles in coffee shops and parks to stylish fashion and furniture design exhibitions in galleries and boutiques, craftmaking is abundant in Portland these days. But this recent upsurge is just the latest chapter in the history of Portland's rich, ever-evolving craft community.

In the late 19th century, the Industrial Revolution displaced the traditional work of craftspeople and artisans; suddenly everything from dresses to chairs was mass-produced in factories. The Arts and Crafts movement arose in England and the United States in response to this unprecedented shift, elevating well-designed and finely crafted handmade work above common mass-produced goods. The movement also questioned the previously rigid boundaries dividing fine art and functional craft, later influencing the Bauhaus and other mid-century art and design schools.

Unlike most industries and disciplines, craft became an arena in which women could lead. Up until this point, sewing, embroidery and other handwork were done and taught privately in the home. The Arts and Crafts movement opened up the first significant opportunities for women to teach, discuss and exhibit their work in public. And, for the first time, this work was recognized for its artistic merit as well as its craftsmanship. Here in Portland in the early 20th century, the hard work and remarkable vision of a few women created a craft community that continues to thrive nearly a hundred years later.

Julia Hoffman, Portland photographer, weaver, painter, metalsmith and sculptor, founded the Arts and Crafts Society (ACS) in 1907, undertaking a mission "to educate the community in the value and creation of fine craft." Society members hosted classes and art events at their homes, and summer programs brought noted artists to lecture and teach. Hoffman also envisioned a gallery space to exhibit regional craft.

In the late 1930s, as the ACS continued to grow, Hoffman's daughter Margery Hoffman Smith began a monumental task: designing the interior architecture, furnishings and decoration of the new Timberline Lodge, which the Works Progress Administration (WPA) was building on Mt. Hood. Smith brought in 126 unemployed people, "training a great many of them" to make "the furniture, the rugs, the draperies, the decorations, murals, wood carvings, wrought iron . . . every type of crafts. We wove thousands of yards, literally, of hand-woven fabrics." The work, using exclusively Oregon materials, was done in a hastily thrown together studio in the First Commerce Building across from Skidmore Fountain in downtown Portland and on-site on the mountain. The project's luxurious interior was finished just before President Roosevelt dedicated the lodge in 1937. Smith said years later, "It was really [my mother's] training of me that made it possible for me to work on this big craft project. My mother's idea was to bring artists and the public together. So it was a natural for me."

Another Portland woman, Lydia Herrick Hodge, founded the Oregon Ceramic Studio (OCS) in 1937 with a group of her fellow University of Oregon alumnae. OCS's application for WPA help in constructing a studio facility was initially denied. But after Margery Hoffman Smith loaned her support, the project was approved. The city of Portland provided an empty four-lot site on SW Corbett Avenue at a nominal price in exchange for Hodge's promise to fire all the clay artwork of the city's schoolchildren, and the WPA used leftover materials from Timberline Lodge to build a modern wood and glass building. The OCS space was used for ceramic studio work as well as exhibitions, sales of clay and other art materials, and lectures. It also had the largest public kiln west of Denver, which served the Arts and Crafts Society's members as well.

Launching this ambitious project during the worst years of the Depression could not have been easy, but as Hodge said, "We stick our necks out. We are venturesome, willing to take the consequences and take the bruises." By 1949, OCS had begun hosting biennial ceramic shows as well as rotating craft shows and had started an artist-in-residence program.

In 1952 the Arts and Crafts Society merged with the Metal Guild and Allied Art organizations and moved to a large home in Northwest Portland. Ten years later the ACS purchased an old chiropractic hospital at NW 18th Avenue and Hoyt Street, which became a crafts school offering classes in a variety of disciplines. A small shop and gallery showcased both students' and regional artists' work – Julia Hoffman's dream was finally realized.

The 1960s also saw the expansion of the Oregon Ceramic Studio's gallery and workspace under the directorship of Ken Shores. OCS changed its name to Contemporary Crafts Gallery in 1965 and exhibited cutting-edge shows of textiles, glass and furniture throughout the decade. The artist-in-residence program was formalized, with each residency culminating in a show of the work created at the studio. As the largest population of Portland students ever, the baby boom generation, sent their thousands of unwieldy small clay animals and pots to be fired, CCG had to discontinue the original arrangement. In its place, they pioneered the popular Craftsmen in the Schools project (later Artists in the Schools), which sent craft artists all over Oregon to demonstrate, teach and lecture to children about their work. As executive director David Cohen says, "We found a niche in the community that needed to be filled. In the '50s, '60s and '70s, there were no galleries in town, just Portland Art Museum, the Museum Art School (now PNCA), the Arts and Crafts Society, Contemporary Crafts and Arlene Schnitzer's gallery (the Fountain Gallery of Art) – that was it. We expanded to fit the need in the community." By 1975 CCG was showing the work of over 175 craft artists each year.

The 1970s brought another community-based experiment to the city. Sheri Teasdale and Andrea Scharf, two craft artists who had sold their work at the Eugene Saturday Market, envisioned a similar open-air food and craft market in downtown Portland. The Metropolitan Arts Council gave them a $1,000 start-up grant in 1973. The two women also persuaded downtown parking magnate Bill Naito to let them use his "Butterfly Lot" (named after a colorful mural on an adjoining building) at NW 2nd Avenue and Davis Street on Saturdays. Teasdale and Scharf invited 35 craftspeople to sell their work at the new Portland Saturday Market co-op, charging a $3 fee per booth. Most of the early vendors sold handmade ceramics, woven goods, clothes and jewelry, and as Renee Conlee, promotions manager for Saturday Market, says, "That first year, you could throw a blanket anywhere on the ground, and that was your stall."

In 1976, as the market grew, it moved to its current location under the Burnside Bridge next to a boarded-up building (and across the street from the site of the 1930s Timberline Lodge craft studio). The following year, as the steady stream of visitors and shoppers continued, it began opening on Sundays as well. Spaces became more and more competitive and vendors would line up well before opening, darting to the best 8 foot by 8 foot spots at 7 a.m. sharp. Someone soon realized that hurling chairs in the direction of a coveted space was faster than running, and the "chair toss" method quickly caught on. In 1977 the market switched to a less hazardous method of site allotment through a sign-up sheet.

By this time the Arts and Crafts Society had outgrown its space as well. The back-to-the-land movement had firmly taken hold, and craft classes were full. In the 1970s, "production pottery was king, there was a huge weaving department creating functional rugs and cloth with an eye towards the home, and calligraphy classes were offered six times a week," says Mardy Widman, who has been with the school for 24 years.

The ACS school found its permanent home in 1979 on a 7-acre hazelnut orchard on SW Barnes Road donated by Tektronix founder and philanthropist Howard Vollum and his wife Jean. The newly renamed Oregon School of Arts and Crafts, comprising Hoffman Gallery and six new studio buildings, began offering artists' residencies in each medium. These visiting artists, most with MFAs from the Rhode Island School of Design and other art and design schools, brought a new philosophy and teaching style to the school. Widman describes a definite shift in the focus of the school's course offerings and shows during that period of expansion: "Now craft as art, a new concept, came in. The attitude about craft  really changed – ideas, issues and concepts became as important as making things by hand." One early resident ceramics artist's emphasis on huge sculptural slab-built work prompted the school to discard many of its pottery wheels, which had been used to create more functional pieces. In the weaving classes, newer techniques such as surface design rose to the forefront; teachers and students moved away from creating yards of material for decoration and toward the idea of fiber as art. Calligraphy gave way to a book arts program with emphasis on one-of-a-kind artists' books.

Contemporary Crafts continued to exhibit group shows involving work from outside the Northwest, such as the 1984 "International Tea Party," which drew artists from Canada, Japan and Scotland. Meanwhile, the Artists in the Schools program had grown so much that the Regional Arts and Culture Council assumed responsibility. OSAC also expanded during the next decade, first offering credit classes through Marylhurst College and then receiving independent accreditation in 1988. Saturday Market was thriving as well. After the MAX light rail went in, the Skidmore Fountain stop became one of the busiest of the entire transit system. As the neighborhood revitalized, the buildings near the market attracted companion shops like Made in Oregon. There are now 400 vendors, and over 15,000 people (many of them tourists) visit the market on an average Saturday.

1994 marked the first year OSAC granted BFA degrees, and two years later the school changed its name to Oregon College of Art and Craft to reflect that shift. Twenty-three graduates received BFAs in craft from OCAC last year. In 1999 OCAC hosted the first Craft Biennial, "an exhibition that stimulated artistic excellence in craft and encouraged artists to explore issues as well as further their creative expressions," curator Arthur DeBow says. OCAC offered its third Craft Biennial this past summer, showing work from 56 Oregon and Washington artists.

Lisa Conway has ceramic work in both the Craft Biennial and the Oregon Biennial this year; she is the first artist to show at both biennials. Conway, who studied at OCAC and did an artist's residency at Contemporary Crafts, appreciates the environment for craft artists in Portland. "Critical mass has been achieved. There are great schools here, and people see enough handmade work out there that they don't have to settle for commercial mass-produced stuff. It's not like this everywhere."

Contemporary Crafts still focuses on "excellence in fine craft and educating the community." As executive director Cohen notes, "We haven't changed our focus in all these years: traditional materials and process used in a totally new way."

The organization did undergo a recent name change, adding the word "museum" to its title to reflect its permanent collection of more than 700 works in clay, fiber, glass, wood and other mediums. And this year Contemporary Crafts inaugurates the first biennial Excellence in Craft Awards, honoring six Oregon artists.

Saturday Market is celebrating its 30th anniversary, marking the milestone with a season of weekend parties, street performers and, yes, a chair toss competition. The market is still run like a co-op, with members voting on which new vendors to accept and charging fees based on sales, and the board is currently considering a move to another, larger location in Old Town.

And the latest pioneering craft movement in Portland is flourishing, with shows, sales and hands-on events taking place each week. Though there is certainly a distinction between picking up knitting for the first time at a craft night and earning a BFA in fiber arts, Hoffman's and Hodge's legacies live on in the schools, organizations and grassroots events which foster both traditional and modern craft skills.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. "The Arts and Crafts movement was a reaction against industrialization; in today's technological world the perpetuation of fine handcraft is equally important to keep us in touch with our creative minds and hands," says Bonnie Laing-Malcolmson, president of OCAC. In the age of Photoshop, graphic designers are still drawn to letterpress and book arts classes, and even though digital work has become the cutting-edge standard for photography, many photographers continue to develop and print from their own negatives. Despite the technological advances, artists still choose to work in tactile media, using the "old-fashioned" tools of the trade. The latest permanent exhibit at OCAC, Julia Hoffman's well-worn and well-loved metalworking tools from the turn of the century, closely resemble the ones students in the metals studio use today.

Susan Beal is a jeweler and seamstress in Portland. Her work can be seen at Seaplane and Motel, and online at www.susanstars.com.

About This Story


  • Author: Susan Beal
  • Published Online: Jan 13, 2012