Portland, Oregon: Collaboration Central

Portland, Oregon: Collaboration Central

Portland, Oregon: Collaboration Central

December/January 2014 issue of American Craft magazine
Portland, Hand-Eye Supply

Portland, Hand-Eye Supply. Photo: Christine Taylor, courtesy of Hand-Eye Supply

Portland, Oregon, has such a wealth of creative talent and energy that the benchmark for art, craft, and design is a high one indeed. With an established and connected craft community, the city is full of exciting, inventive work. Boutiques and galleries are often run by artists and designers, each with a distinct critical eye, and this diversity of aesthetic vision is cultivated by the uniquely collaborative ethos of the city.

“Portland has an inherent collaborative spirit,” says Jocelyn Rahm, co-owner of retail/workspace Beam & Anchor. “There seem to be fewer egos and a greater inclination to leverage the collective energy. The city just seems to draw folks who are curious, industrious, and excited to work together.” Five distinct regions make up the creative landscape of the city.

North Portland

Beam & Anchor captures the Portland aesthetic at its best: vintage Eames rockers exquisitely reupholstered in patterned Pendleton wool, supple leather goods, understated porcelain tableware, scarves and linens stitched from repurposed Japanese kimonos, fragrant oils scented with pine and moss – all displayed in a raw, industrial environment. The best part? Upstairs is the shared workspace where most of the items are produced.

On Interstate Avenue, one of the neighborhood’s main thoroughfares, the shop serves as headquarters for Maak Soap Lab, Wood & Faulk, Phloem Studio, Revive Upholstery & Design, and Earthbound Industries. Rahm points out the value of this proximity: “We love that our customers can spend time with our handcrafted goods and then go upstairs to see where many of the products are actually made. It re­inforces the significance of what it takes to create well-made goods.”

Close quarters have also led to frequent collaboration among the designers, which could account for why the wares at Beam & Anchor work so well together.

Further north, see up-and-coming independent artists at Land Gallery, and avant-garde visual and performance art at Disjecta.

Northeast Portland

Eutectic Gallery opened in February 2013 as a space dedicated to contemporary ceramics. It’s located in a 17,000-square-foot building alongside two local ceramic wholesalers, Mudshark Studios and Portland Growler Company. Shows thus far have included the work of Kelly Garrett Rathbone, Brad Mildrexler, and Baba Wagué Diakité. The gallery also includes a shop featuring an eclectic mix of ceramics from local artists.

Nearby, 23 Sandy focuses on contemporary book and paper arts. Owner Laura Russell has a passion for the medium that is present in her own artwork and in the thoughtful exhibitions she arranges, such as “Eco­Editions,” a juried show of artist books inspired by environmental sustainability (through December 28), and last year’s “Infinite Possibilities,” a show highlighting the connections between art, math, and science.

Guardino Gallery shows some of the best Northwest artists working in encaustic, collage, clay, metal, or, in the case of sculptor Christopher Wagner, driftwood and sometimes stretched pig intestine. Openings take place on Last Thursday, a monthly art walk on bustling Alberta Street, and are often packed.

“Creating art is a solo act, but a person can only take so much rain, and then an overwhelming need to make contact with their fellow artists takes over,” says co-owner Donna Guardino. “Ideas and the exchange of techniques happen here all the time.”

While on Alberta Street, be sure to stop by Ampersand for exhibits pairing contemporary artists with vintage found photography and found print goods. Collect ephemera such as Monopoly money, plastic buttons, and Scrabble tiles, paper, and art supplies at Collage (which also offers classes in various mediums and techniques), and then head to Bolt Fabric Boutique and Close Knit for textiles and yarn, respectively.

Northwest Portland

Hand-Eye Supply is a standout among several shops in the Portland area that cater to the needs of makers. At the self-titled “workstyle store,” you can find drawing materials and studio tools, safety goggles and hand-forged hatchets from Portland’s Bridgetown Forge, aprons and coveralls, and handcrafted tool bags. Twice a month, the Curiosity Club gathers to hear speakers on topics ranging from hand-forging and kinetic sculpture to making your own Eames chair to beekeeping and whole-hog butchery.

Northwest Portland’s Pearl District is host to First Thurs­day, the longest-running art walk in the city. Galleries abound, and Froelick, Elizabeth Leach, Waterstone, Bullseye, and Augen are must-sees for exceptional high-end craft. The Museum of Contemporary Craft is a cornerstone of the craft scene in Portland. Founded as the Oregon Ceramic Studio in 1937, today it shows pieces from its extensive permanent collection, which is particularly rich in midcentury ceramics, and mounts thought-provoking exhibitions under the leadership of executive director and chief curator Namita Gupta Wiggers, who also serves on the board of the American Craft Council.

Southwest Portland

In recent years, the Portland Art Museum has made it a priority to connect with a more diverse audience. In the installation Object Stories, visitors can film a personal narrative about an object or artwork of individual significance. The collected segments can be viewed through a grid of touchscreens; they provide a fascinating, funny, and often touching glimpse of how individuals find meaning in physical objects, whether rarefied or mundane.

At Woonwinkel, Erica Essink and Kristin Van Buskirk blend modern European design with work by local and regional designer-makers, such as tableware by Pigeon Toe Ceramics  and jewelry by Takara. “This is a town that appreciates well-crafted anything: bikes, doughnuts, and luckily for us, home décor,” says Essink. “So we knew Portlanders were ready for a shop like Woonwinkel.”

Southwest Portland also is home to two craft markets. The Portland Saturday Market, straddling the border between northwest and southwest, is entering its fourth decade. It runs from March through December, and features hundreds of artisans in all kinds of mediums selling their wares; food vendors, live music, and other entertainment add to the festive ambiance. Upstart market Crafty Wonderland began in 2006 as a monthly show at a local indie music venue, but by 2009 had transitioned to two large shows each year, including a holiday sale, to accommodate the 200-some artisans. The retail shop had a similarly humble beginning as a pop-up shop, but customer response has led to a more permanent location near the Central Library, with about 90 artists and artisans on view.

Southeast Portland

Stephanie Sheldon’s shop bears the cleverly nerdy title of “Noun: a person’s place for things.” Jewelry by Tiro Tiro (formerly Stone + Honey) and Demimonde is displayed alongside a thoughtful selection of locally made ceramics, print arts, and vintage furniture. Sheldon explains, “Portlanders are so creative and crafty that I realized right away that no matter how inexpensive an item is, if a customer thinks they can replicate it at home, they will pass it up. We stock work from artists who use difficult-to-source materials and who create pieces that require special skill.”

Elsewhere in Southeast Portland, Tilde offers colorful, midcentury-inspired art and design, including art prints by Shira Sela and Lisa Kaser, ceramic vessels from Vitrifiedstudio, and fashion-forward garments from the Pendleton Portland Collection by Portland designers John Blasioli, Nathaniel Crissman, and Rachel Turk.

Portland’s enthusiasm for craft has not always translated into a lucrative or stable economic environment for makers. Efforts to change this might have arisen from need, but they  have led in part to the culture of cross-pollination and innovation that keeps Portland, well, weird.

Take ADX, a 10,000-square-foot membership-based workspace near the heart of the city, with full wood and metal shops, as well as a laser-cutting studio, CNC router, and 3D  printer. ADX has classes, events, and in-house fabricators who tackle collaborative projects such as building a 10-foot wooden globe for the World Domination Summit (a creative startup conference) and laser-engraved coffins for Wieden + Kennedy’s marketing campaign for the animated film Paranorman.

Larger institutions also forge important connections, such as Oregon College of Art and Craft, and Pacific Northwest College of Art, which recently launched a joint MFA program in applied craft and design.

By sharing ideas, expertise, and labor, individuals and organizations foster an environment that lures some of the best and brightest to Portland, and, ideally, will sustain and invigorate the existing community of makers. 

Carolyn Hazel Drake is a ceramic sculptor and art teacher in Portland.

Portland Mini-Tour (see map in Photo Gallery for locations)

1. Collage
1639 NE Alberta St.

2. Bolt Fabric Boutique
2136 NE Alberta St.

3. Close Knit
2140 NE Alberta St.

4. Ampersand
2916 NE Alberta St.

5. Guardino Gallery
2939 NE Alberta St.

6. Disjecta
8371 N. Interstate Ave.

7. Land Gallery
3925 N. Mississippi Ave.

8. Beam & Anchor
2710 N. Interstate Ave.

9. Eutectic Gallery
1930 NE Oregon St.

10. 23 Sandy Gallery
623 NE 23rd Ave.

11. ADX
417 SE 11th Ave.

12. Noun: a person’s place for things
3300 SE Belmont St.

13. Tilde
7919 SE 13th Ave.

14. Saturday Market
2 SW Naito Pkwy.

15. Hand-Eye Supply
23 NW 4th Ave.

16. Museum of Contemporary Craft
724 NW Davis St.

17. Augen Gallery
716 NW Davis St.

18. Froelick Gallery
714 NW Davis St.

19. Elizabeth Leach Gallery
417 NW 9th Ave.

20. Waterstone Gallery
424 NW 12th Ave.

21. Bullseye Gallery
300 NW 13th Ave.

22. Woonwinkel
935 SW Washington St.

23. Crafty Wonderland
808 SW 10th Ave.

24. Portland Art Museum
1219 SW Park Ave.