The Key to Innovation? Craft

The Key to Innovation? Craft

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Denise Mullen, new president of the Oregon College of Art and Craft

There's a lot of buzz these days about innovation and the benefits of creative, right-brain thinking-the kind artists do-for business: The Art of Innovation, by Tom Kelley of the design firm IDEO, is a best-seller; "The MFA is the new MBA," asserts author and cultural commentator Daniel Pink.

So where does craft fit into the conversation? Front and center, according to Denise Mullen, new president of the Oregon College of Art and Craft.

"It's a very interesting time for craft, on a lot of levels," says Mullen, whose resumé includes leadership roles at the Alberta College of Art + Design and the Corcoran College of Art + Design. "One of the things that attracted me to OCAC at this moment in time is the willingness we're seeing on the part of the larger community to really appreciate what we do in the visual art field."

Mullen sees tremendous public interest in the creative process, in such diverse examples as business-school courses in design strategy and popular TV shows such as Project Runway. "It has resonance. People understand it. It's accessible."

And craft, the most accessible, process-oriented visual art of all, is what OCAC has been about since its founding in 1907. (According to the school's website, craft is "who we are, who we've always been.... Without craft, there is no art.")

"Students who graduate with degrees in craft and in the visual arts are very well-suited for a wide variety of careers," says Mullen, who believes "making a living and expressing oneself creatively are not diametrically opposed." She's convinced that the skills used to craft a functional object-organizational ability, problem-solving, an understanding of material-are transferable to virtually any field, and highly marketable.

Large corporations and small businesses alike are talking about innovation, Mullen says, "and they're finding that students with this type of degree have the skill set they're looking for." That's an exciting message craft educators need to emphasize to prospective students, she notes.

It's an exciting time at OCAC, which just dedicated a handsome new building in the heart of its wooded campus in Portland. (Mullen describes the design, by Boston architect Charles Rose and Portland architecture firm COLAB, as "really thoughtful, with art- and craft-making in mind.") A master's degree program offered jointly with the Pacific Northwest College of Art is in its second year.

OCAC is intentionally small (about 150 undergraduate and 30 graduate students), with an emphasis on mentorship and real-world, collaborative work environments.

A native Georgian and longtime New Yorker, Mullen considers herself "very much a maker." For years she's made embossed leather-bound books of 19th-century photographic images, using old hand-processes such as photogravure and palladium printing. "I liked the idea of the personal nature of the book, the fact that someone has to want to make the effort to pick it up and turn the pages to look at it."

She went into education "kicking and screaming," she jokes, but quickly grew to love teaching. Later, as an administrator and a board member of advocacy groups such as the National Association of Schools of Art and Design, she developed a big-picture perspective on the importance of art in k-12 as well as higher education.

"It's part of the responsibility we have as artists, designers and craftspeople to do as much as we can to shape the educational environment," Mullen says. "It makes such a huge difference to the society in which we live."