Contemporary Crafts in Portland

Last weekend, Sarah and I embarked on a long-overdue reacquaintance with Portland’s organized art scene, taking in the Portland Art Museum, Art in the Pearl, and lastly, the Museum of Contemporary Crafts in its new home in Portland’s North Park Blocks.

Art in the Pearl's Poorly-crafted logo - perfect for a poor crafts festival.

Bridging the divide between Portland’s Old Town and swanky Pearl District, Labor Day Weekend found the park crawling with artists and not-so-art-snobs. Art in the Pearl is a typical urban arts fair, drawing regional photographers, Marriot-quality paintings, and more recycled and rusty bits remade in chair, bench and clock form than you can shake a whittled stick at. You have to appreciate these artisans’ dedication – it can’t be easy to truck your work around from week to week, living under a white folding tent in unpredictable weather. But I am often turned off by their same-ness. I’ve seen these kinds of travelling shows in several cities, and the goods don’t change with the geo-coordinates. If, by stroke of luck, you see an original idea being shown/sold, you can bet that you will see three tents containing that idea the next year, and nine more the year after. At times, you get the sense that the vendors could be selling paintings or pork pies (whatever those are). The work lacks passion, and finesse.

George Nakashima's Conoid Bench with Back. Photo by George Erml

So it was with extreme pleasure that Sarah and I found the “Craft in America” show at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts. The first thing I saw when I walked in the door was a beautiful Nakashima bench, all live-edge walnut with dovetail mending a naturally-occurring check in the end grain. Straight maple spindles reach up out of the slab forming a back that just looks comfortable and yielding. A design so pure, so simple, that it would be impossible to recreate or commodify.

Same Maloof's Double Rocker, 2006. Photo by Gene Sasse

Turning my head, a Sam Maloof rocker whose entire form contained not a single straight line, all bandsawn curves smoothed to a buttery sheen from hours of rubbed oil. Unlike the Nakashima bench, the rocker looks complicated, a form that you can sense has been perfected over endless iterations, and a lifetime of dedication. But it looks right. No gaps, no rough spots from too-quick sanding. Incredible.

And that was just the woodwork.

Lovers of jewelry, pottery, and textiles will be picking their jaws up, too. The show, organized by a non-profit called “Craft in America, LLC” also includes a book and DVD produced in concert, so if you aren’t located nearby, you can still experience this wonderful survey of the best in American craft. I purchased the DVD at the show, and I’d highly recommend it.

Craft in America ends its Portland run at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts on September 23. The Museum is FREE to the public and not so large that it couldn’t be seen over a long Friday lunch, or savored on a Saturday afternoon.

Museum of Contemporary Crafts
724 NW Davis Street
Portland, Oregon
(503) 223.2654
Open Tuesday–Sunday 11 AM to 6 PM, Thursday 11 AM to 8 PM



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