Is it Art? Or is it Craft? 

How Portland's Museum of Contemporary Craft Made Itself Modern Again

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On the first floor gallery of the Museum of Contemporary Craft, a 5' x 11' industrial windowpane of the type used to build skyscrapers is balanced carefully on a thick wall partition, bowing at either side under its own weight. Upstairs is "Generations," a retrospective installation of the ceramist Ken Shores' life's work, chronologically arranged to include everything from early decorative owl figurines to the later, more experimental "Feather Fetish" pieces—embedded with fans of feathers from wild birds—that he became most known for.

Together these two intentionally very different exhibitions capture the cutting-edge approach to the understanding of craft being put forward by curator Namita Gupta Wiggers under the executive direction of David Cohen. While the Shores exhibit is closer to the common expectation of "craft" as a functional object rendered artistically by a skilled craftsperson, the starkly displayed windowpane, flipped out of context and onto its side, is distinctly non-functioning. A meditation on sheer materiality by Melissa Dyne, and titled simply "Glass," it challenges the often materially defined delineations between what is designated art and what is craft.

The joint purpose of preserving the past and reintroducing it in a relevant, original context, as well as providing a home base for contemporary manifestations of the craft genre, is a task to which Wiggers has taken with exuberance. (Even in arranging the more traditional exhibit, Wiggers made unusual choices, showing Shores' work next to those of his mentors as well as his own students. Shores' work is displayed among huge blown-up photographs taken in his West Hills home, impossibly crammed with art and artifacts collected obsessively over a lifetime, the influences of which are clearly recognizable in his output.)

"We want to stay flexible," Wiggers states regarding her curatorial role. "We think of 'craft' as a subject, as a verb, and through a range of perspectives." Wiggers' work has also resulted in outreach events that have drawn in local communities that may not have immediately identified as craft communities (spring's Action/Reaction fashion show drawing local apparel designers—and their clients—comes to mind), and this week marks another opportunity for the museum to surprise us with what it's doing. Suffice to say, it's time to think beyond the quilt.

CONTEXT IS EVERYTHING

Sunday, July 13, marks the second anniversary of Craft PDX, a free community block party that last year attracted thousands with live music and food as well as art demonstrations and lectures. Last year's inaugural celebration marked the move of the museum into its current, centralized location, and this year the festivities serve as the launch of Unpacking the Collection: Selections from the Museum of Contemporary Craft, an exhibition publication documenting the history of the museum as well as the craft movement in the Pacific Northwest and, in turn, the country. Written by Wiggers, it walks the reader through the history of craft in the 20th century and beyond, as specifically manifested within the walls of the museum. It's a storied institution that, until recently, existed largely out of the sight and mind of the average Portlander.

Portland's Museum of Contemporary Craft was founded in 1937 (originally known as the Oregon Ceramic Studio). For 70-odd years it resided on the outskirts of the city, in Lair Hill, where even those who ventured out to it often got lost. During that time, it saw American craft culture evolve, experiencing an explosion during the '70s, when "back to the earth" hippies—many of whom, obviously, were in the Pacific Northwest—seized upon craft practices as a way to make a living, giving rise to the somewhat stanky stoner-peddler stigma that still haunts the craft world, not to mention flooding the market with crafted goods, making it in fact rather difficult for anyone to make a living throwing bowls.

In the '80s and '90s, craft began to be considered from a fine art perspective, initiating an identity crisis and resultant experimentation that continues into the 21st century. In what critics have termed a "promiscuous" merger, previously craft-specific skills like woodworking are now offered in art schools along with traditional fine art programs like painting, and the borders are dissolving. In an era when this conversation is continually evolving as a sophisticated and complex arena rich with innovation, Wiggers and Cohen thrust their institution back into the heart of the city two years ago, when they moved the museum into a corner building downtown that, appropriately enough, used to house the excessively grandmotherly floral patterns and fussy notions of the Daisy Kingdom fabric store.

Gutting the doily-ed interior of its former inhabitant, the clean white walls and wide, uncluttered windows of the museum have literally and symbolically cleared the cobwebs from the common citizen's experience of craft. A true museum, it is the caretaker of a 1,000-plus-object collection that maps the history of contemporary craft at large through acquisitions of regional work, tying it to a local legacy that today finds manifestation not only in official guilds for metal work or ceramics, but in widely imitated youth culture institutions such as Crafty Wonderland or Etsy.com. Further extracted, the strong tradition of craft in the region is reflected in its position as a capital of artisanal food, in its emphasis on small businesses and locally produced products and fashion—all philosophies that are making sense again as the world dips in perilously unsustainable directions.

"People have a desire to get back in touch with doing things manually," notes Wiggers, pointing to a modern culture that has revived everything from knitting to farming in an urban context, with the hipster sewing circles and backyard chicken coops of the city surrounding us seeming to nod their assent. "It's a moment when handicrafts (knitting, sewing, the domestic crafts) and art- and craft-school technical craft and mastery are coming together. Something is bubbling, the energy and dynamism around the world is going to create something new."

HANDS ON

The Craft PDX event is a laidback introduction to the museum's wide scope of objectives, and will most likely change your perspective on craft's definition and relevance, as well as its applicability in your own life. If you are a maker but unconnected to the community at large, it's an opportunity to introduce yourself to the network of guilds and potential mentors who can expand your capabilities and guide you to better exposure. If you consider yourself more of a patron, there's no excuse not to have explored the museum's shop, which boasts, among other impressive items, probably the greatest selection of jewelry in the city. For a more intellectually engaged experience, hit up one of three lectures: Wiggers is giving a talk that complements the subject matter of Unpacking, Dyne will explicate her edgy installation, and members of a glass-blowing guild will discuss the concerns of craft and material considerations in times of economic and environmental crisis.

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