We Can Make It 

Handmade Nation, A Documentary Chronicling the Development of the DIY Craft Generation, Makes a Timely Splash in Portland

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"Craft" is one of those words that conjures a mixed bag of associations. For some it induces flashbacks to bad summer-camp art, and for others the conceptual masterpieces of people who've spent years honing a specialized skill set. It's a vast and sociologically intricate world that has threaded its way through post-industrial subcultures as well as museums and academic institutions, butting up against the designations of fine art as often as the mundane budgetary necessities of homemaking. We have been living, in recent years, in the midst of a craft renaissance, in which a new generation of DIY enthusiasts has created a network around the world. Locally, it's visible in the popularity of hip craft fairs like Crafty Wonderland, and the internet has made sites like Etsy.com global hubs of craft culture and part of what has been described as the "new economy."

Faythe Levine has encapsulated this particular chapter in craft history with the documentary Handmade Nation, and an accompanying book of the same name ["Craft's New Wave," Books, Jan 8]. This weekend marks the Northwest premiere of the film, with three days of screenings and a roster of related activities, including the symbiotic three-year anniversary of Crafty Wonderland. It's little wonder that as of this writing, tickets to the screenings are close to selling out—craft culture is huge in Portland, and its practices are closely aligned with the values at play in other locally prevalent hobbies, from gardening to home canning to urban chicken coops.

Levine's timing is also pretty aces. The economic apocalypse and the shrieking harbingers that surround us as a result are leading ever more people to seek out ways of doing things themselves to save money and resources. And when they do choose to spend their money, progressive communities that exist in areas like Portland aspire to support their local economy of independent makers. One could argue, then, that although this era feels tumultuous and bleak, it has been a boon to, and an opportunity for, the culture of craft.

Susan Beal is one major presence in Portland's DIY scene, as both a maker and an author who has published two collections of craft projects within the past year. She also points out that, "a very natural and cool progression to me is that people seem drawn to working with vintage, found, or stash materials. There's a really thoughtful waste-not-want-not feeling lately, like the World War II culture of darning socks and saving old things for reuse or recycling, getting the last bit of use out of something before discarding it. It's a very creative time, and I think a lot of it is sparked by the current political and economic climate. It doesn't hurt that the president and his family are planting an organic garden."

The screenings of Handmade Nation are being hosted by the Museum of Contemporary Craft, the direction of which is helmed by curator Namita Gupta Wiggers, who says she has been watching the DIY craft culture for quite some time, and recalls her own early days of making the miniskirts her dad wouldn't let her buy. Her choices as curator tend to raise questions about the interplay of craft and fine art (Mandy Greer's breathtakingly lush forested crochet setting currently on display ["Revisiting the Craft Museum," Visual Art, Feb 26] is a perfect example). Although she says she struggles with the appropriateness of including many DIY handicrafts in a museum setting, her embracing of the culture is not universal among higher institutions. "Some are, some aren't," Wiggers says of the acceptance of the Handmade Nation crowd by other craft museums in the country. That may be in part due to longstanding anxieties over a lack of quality control and over-acceptance on the craft fair circuit, something that came to a head, according to Wiggers, during the 1970s back-to-the-earth hippie zenith, when there was an over-saturation of handicraft that tarnished the very term "craft." In other words, the part of your brain that associates craft with burnouts peddling janky wind chimes on the street corner has been cause for the hesitation of some craft museums to so much as include the word in their names.

Even a cursory browse through Etsy will turn up wild variations of skill and taste, and were it not for the site's blogs and highlights, an unguided venture into the oft-maligned search engine could only be recommended for those blessed with plenty of time and patience. Indeed, many new-generation craft enthusiasts emphasize the importance of the activity of making things for their own sake, as a form of personal therapy in an increasingly digitized world. As Levine describes it, "Our generation is just embracing the fact that you can do whatever you want with a medium. Some people are focusing more on the quality and some people are focusing more on the process, and there's going to be different levels of skill and quality in that." Beal echoes the sentiment, noting that, "crafting has been a very meaningful way for me to relax and recharge from work and money stresses."

"I think there's a democratic approach to making that's a very fascinating social element," Wiggers says of the DIY scene. "When you start asserting hierarchy, it changes what it is."

Luckily for the prospective consumer, the increasing prevalence of craft has also made it nearly impossible to avoid being selective in the planning of most craft fairs. Torie Nguyen, who founded Crafty Wonderland along with Cathy Pitters, says that they jury each month's fair for both quality and assortment, especially as more and more crafters apply to be involved. It's also worth noting that many of the hippies who were at one point part of the problem have since gone on to develop staggering levels of skill, and are now creating the very pieces that curators like Wiggers are placing under glass.

The question of what will come out in the wash of history is just one element of the richness of the current craft culture, one that is rapidly evolving. Nguyen mentions that there has been an up-tick in male applicants to Crafty Wonderland, pointing out that there has historically been a gender divide between "higher craft" that requires some form of education and the more traditionally feminine world of handicrafted baby clothes and aprons. Wiggers also finds fascination in the class issues at play in the new generation, the development of which has depended heavily on access to the internet. "It's a very middle-class movement," she points out, remembering in the same breath that at her peak, "Martha Stewart made it really high class to put art into domestic chores."

Wiggers also has a favorite example she uses to distill some of the generational differences that are tremendous in a culture where so many craft testimonials originate with the teaching of a grandparent: "Are you making a toilet paper cover because it's ironic, or because you actually think toilet paper should be covered up?"

As with any cultural phenomenon on the rise, the examination of DIY and craft culture raises more questions than it answers. But as it becomes clear that the old paradigms of using high turnover and over-processing of goods to denote status are failing in our society, and we grope toward what's next, it looks increasingly likely that craftiness will have something to do with it.

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