Story & photos by BOB DORAN
THE MOVEMENT IS GROWING. ALL OVER CALIFORNIA, all over the United States, artists are banding together to organize open
studio tours: days or weekends when the artists throw open their doors and invite the public in -- to look at new work and old, to observe the creative process in its natural environment and (the artists hope) to take some art home.
In urban areas the tours can be overwhelming. In San Francisco, where the tours have been happening for over 25 years, some 750 artists open their studios every weekend in October.
Artist Sasha Pepper participated in the San Francisco tour in its early days. After relocating to Humboldt County, she joined forces with a small group of area artists four years ago to organize a tour. Pepper, who paints and does monotypes, lives in Arcata and works in a space above the Art Center in Old Town Eureka. She's helping coordinate this year's tour, set for June 8 and 9.
"It just keeps growing," said Pepper in a conversation in the art-filled living room of her Arcata bungalow. "We have 80 artists this time, up from 65 last year."
The ad-hoc group of artists that puts on the North Coast Open Studios tour gets free practical assistance from the Humboldt Arts Council and the Ink People Center. But the artists arrange the tour themselves and publish the essential tool, a map. What was once a one-page newsprint fold-up has grown into a 12-page booklet, all financed by artist's fees and ads.
A show of the participating artists' work is going up at the Morris Graves Museum of Art on May 31 and will be on display through June 30. The opening is this Saturday and is a featured destination in the monthly Arts Alive!
While most tour participants are painters of one sort or another, a number work in a growing field known as fine crafts. Among them:
"ART UNDER FOOT"
The path to Nancy Kennedy's High Fiber Designs leads around an old Eureka Victorian with an overgrown garden to a detached room. Her large floor loom almost fills the studio space. Strips of cloth hang on one wall for use in rag rugs; shelves hold skeins of yarn for her fine wool weavings.
On an afternoon in early May, Kennedy works at the loom, tromping on treadles to shift the warp, throwing a shuttle trailing a long strip of cloth down the channel of threads called the shed, then whacking the strip into place with a heavy beater. A shift of the treadles raises a new set of threads and the process begins anew. A black and white rug with a complex geometric pattern is taking shape.
Kennedy moved from Southern California to Humboldt County in 1982 with her husband, Ron, a former metallurgic engineer who had switched careers to become a woodcarver. Ron crafted birds and ducks that Nancy painted.
"We came up to visit friends who were having a show of decoy carvings," Kennedy recalled, taking a break from the loom. "They said, `You're nice people, why are you still living in Southern California?' We were working for ourselves doing these birds, so we figured, why not move up here?"
When did you start weaving?
It was fall of 1989; it was kind of on a whim. My friend said, "How'd you like to take weaving class with me?" The class was at the Camel, a yarn shop that used to be in Arcata. I came home the first night and told my husband, "I need a loom." He said first I needed to finish the class. I said, "No, I need a loom." So I bought one. I didn't start out focusing on this particular weave structure, but my work evolved.
Can you describe the work you're doing now?
All of my rugs have a summer and winter weave structure. That means they have a light and dark side. I think it's based on old coverlets that were woven in the Appalachians, in Tennessee and Kentucky. My loom has a specific device for shaft switching, which means I can arrange the patterns any way I want by flipping the levers.
Do you earn a living with your weaving?
(She chuckles.) I'm trying. That's my aim. I can't say that I'm there yet.
How do you get there?
You get your face out there, and you keep producing better things. You have to find the right market. That means doing more shows. I did an American Craft Council show in St. Paul last month. It's a juried show, and it's expensive to get into; the fees are $900 and up. And I'm doing the Craft Council show in San Francisco in August. I did that one last year and did OK.
These are competitions?
Right. And it's really an honor to be accepted. And the more you do them, the more people seek you out. I'm in my third year of the Arts Furnishing Show in Pasadena. It's a very nice show, all high-end art furnishings.
What exactly are "art furnishings"?
Handcrafted furniture, accessories, ceramics, anything except wearable art or jewelry. It's all home or office furnishings.
What else do you do for marketing?
You do local shows and things like this open studios tour, and pretty soon your name gets known. I have a webpage (www.woodguild.com) and I've gotten invitations through that.
Are you taking your work to all of these shows because there is not a market for it here?
Not enough of a market. There are great places to show our work here, but it's hard to sell. I had a big show this winter at Hurricane Kate's -- filled all the walls -- and that was nice. It was a great place to show -- I got great feedback -- but no sales.
Do people buy the rugs to hang on the wall?
Some do. I call them "art under foot," that's my slogan. They're made for a floor, but people can do what they want with them.
When you think about hanging one on the wall it brings up the question: is there a line between art and craft?
I think it's a very fine line. And the American Craft Council, a national organization, is involved in promoting the fact that fine craft is art.
The term distinguishes fine craft from traditional craft, things like making crocheted doilies and the kind of things you see at craft bazaars.
Do you think of yourself as an artist?
What does that mean to you?
I create original things, pieces that I put a lot of my own spirit into. That's it basically. That's what art is all about.
THROWING FORMS WITH INTEGRITY
Peggy Loudon's studio is in the garage of a suburban home on Fickle Hill. The space is open, allowing the sunshine to glint off numerous pieces, mostly vases arrayed on a table and filling a shelf on one side of the room. They range in size and shape; several have Loudon's trademark blue glaze with metallic rims. A few recent pieces show a new direction in her work.
"I'm using a new clay body, a translucent porcelain called babu," says Loudon. "You can see through it, and it's light as a feather. It's difficult to throw, but it's worth it. I love the idea that when the sun shines, I can see the light coming through these pots. I've been doing this white scaly glaze on them so they have these rough scales on the outside and celadon glaze, a pale, pale green, on the inside."
When she's not throwing, glazing, trimming or firing pottery, Loudon teaches ceramics at an after school program for "at risk teens" and at Fire Arts in Arcata. Her website is www.peggyloudon.com.
How did you become a potter?
After high school I took a class at College of the Redwoods, where I learned throwing from Reg Mintey. I fell in love with it, but I felt like I needed a real job. So I went to (the University of California at) Santa Cruz and got a kind of alternative degree as an art therapist.
That got me a job working at Napa State Hospital with adolescents who were mentally ill and had constant pressing needs. I decided my heart just wasn't in it. I was frustrated. It seemed like an exercise in futility; so many of them were medicated.
I had an opportunity to go to Europe and travel for six months. That gave me perspective and helped me solidify what I really wanted to do: I wanted to be a potter. So I came back to Humboldt County, enrolled at Humboldt State and worked there for four years with Jim Crawford (a professor of fine arts) honing my skills.
Jim was excellent. He was critical and helped me develop an eye and be critical of my own work. He really was instrumental in helping me find direction. He hired me to fire kilns so I wouldn't be intimidated by flames and gas. That gave me a lot more confidence, and eventually I shared a studio with other people until I was able to buy my own kiln.
What does it take to be a potter? It seems to be much more than just throwing pots.
It takes a lot of hard work. You have to be a jack-of-all-trades, because it's not only throwing, trimming, firing, mixing glazes; you're marketing your work too. It takes a lot of tenacity and it takes a spirit of adventure because you're self-employed.
I look at a lot of other artwork, look at magazines and try to stay on top of colors that are contemporary. At the same time I have to have continuity in my identity as a potter -- continuing the same forms and throwing forms with integrity, creating objects that can last beyond my lifetime.
I have a list of things I need to make. I sit down and, with discipline, I crank them out. You know how it is that the more you do the better you get? I love that, the sense of getting in the zone and just throwing and throwing. I love it. I love transforming this -- (she holds up a lump of clay) -- into a vase.
Are most of your sales person-to-person?
I sell through my shop at events like Open Studios, and people just come by, then there are the fairs. And I sell through stores like Plaza Design and at a gallery in Mendocino. I'm in the process of exploring other galleries.
I'm at a point where I'm not sure if galleries are a good venue. They typically take 50 percent -- when I do fairs I take all the money. It's more lucrative to set up your booth and do it yourself, but it's a hassle. I'm trying to find the balance point. Open Studios is great; I don't have to go anywhere and I can do demos. People can watch me make pots and get educated about the process. I think it enhances the experience of buying and owning a pot when you know how it came into being.
On a Wednesday evening the Fire Arts Center buzzes with activity. Peggy Dickinson, one of the center's founders, holds an unfinished drinking vessel, one of many that she has embellished using a scraping tool and a set of ornamental stamps laid out on a large work table.
Dickinson is part of a crew of volunteers cranking out tall cylinders that will be fired, glazed, then sold as lemonade glasses at fairs to raise money for Fire Arts. She explains that they are made from recycled clay. Trimmings from over a dozen wheels at the studio are gathered in a slurry bucket (essentially a garbage can full of loose clay mud), dried, then run through a food-processor-for-clay called a pug mill.
Rob Davis, another Fire Arts Member, works at a table wedging the clay, a process akin to kneading bread that removes air bubbles. He forces large lumps through a device mounted on the wall that extrudes gray tubes. Then he slices them to appropriate lengths with a wire.
Another Fire Arts' founder, Peter Brant, sits at a potter's wheel truing the tube sections. A young potter, Parker Habron, helps Dickinson smooth the pieces and add decorative touches.
They set the unfinished glasses on a rack, one of many in the Arcata studio. Some hold greenware -- teapots, cups, plates, bowls, vases and who-knows-what -- air-dried and awaiting bisque firing. Other shelves hold fired work ready to be glazed. Tables, including one out front, are covered with finished pieces, ready for sale.
Dickinson is one of several Fire Arts potters listed on the open studios tour. She took a break from what seemed to be a whirlwind schedule for someone who recently turned 70, to talk.
How long have you been in Humboldt County?
I came here for graduate school in the '60s and studied with Reese Bullen, (a renowned potter who taught art at Humboldt for 30 years). When I was finished with school I went up to Olympia, Wash., to teach at Evergreen College for six years. Then I started my own studio. I was getting along in years and thought I wouldn't have the energy to do what I wanted to do if I kept teaching.
Where did the idea for Fire Arts come from?
I was working as a studio potter, and I kept getting students who wanted to do apprenticeships. I didn't have the space or the time. I thought, "What these people need is a place to work."
I had blown glass one summer and wanted to blow glass again, so I had this idea to start something like what we have at Fire Arts, a place where you could do ceramics and glass and possibly blacksmithing. It seems like every university town needs a place where students who start with ceramics can continue after they're done with school -- a place where they can hone their skills, or maybe discover that it's so much work they don't want to do it. They need a place where they can develop their own style and designs and head towards some kind of marketing thing, so they can earn a living as fine craftspeople. I didn't follow through with the idea up in Washington; instead I did it here.
How did you end up back here?
I really wanted to move back to the Humboldt Bay area; I love it here. So in 1979 I moved back and set up a ceramics studio. I still wanted to blow glass, so I resurrected this idea of a ceramics and glass studio. The Arcata City Council and the planning department were very receptive. We spent two or three years searching for an appropriate location, one that was properly zoned. Then Peter Brant invited Fire Arts to set up in one of his buildings on South G Street.
Peter had a shop for his electric business there?
He wanted a foundry (to do metal casting) so he set up the Fire Arts Foundry. That's in one building, then he lets us use another building for ceramics and kiln-fired fused glass. We don't have glass blowing yet, but Fire Arts is still evolving.
The whole thing took a long time to get going. You can see the amount of equipment it takes and the set-up it takes, including an industrial-size gas line. It's incredibly capital intensive.
Where did the money come from?
Originally we did a feasibility study funded by a $25,000 grant from the Telesis Foundation. We were going to form a non-profit. Unfortunately just about the time the study was completed (1994) all kinds of arts funding dried up. There was no money for arts grants, which was what we had intended to go for. The California Arts Council budget was cut by (Gov.) Pete Wilson. NEA (National Endowment for the Arts) was hurting. Everything was slashed. So Fire Arts is actually a private corporation. Board members became shareholders. We're supported by money from classes, by open studio memberships and the rental of individual studios.
What is an open studio membership?
You pay a monthly fee and you can use all of the equipment, once you're checked out on it. Anyone with a membership can come in any time day or night and work.
What's the focus of your own work now?
I make my living from my pottery, but my focus is turning increasingly to sculptural work. I'm interested in form more than in surface. Right now almost everything in ceramics is focused on surface decoration. The kind of thing I'm interested in is not really the focus of what's happening in modern ceramics; I don't do what's "au currant." But you know what? I'm 70-years-old, I'm not interested in promoting myself. I want peace and quiet and a chance to work undisturbed. I have a button I wear when I go to meetings, which I rarely do any more. It says, `I'm 70-years old. Don't waste my time.' I don't want to waste time talking about myself. I'd rather talk about Fire Arts.
Fire Arts Center is located at 320 So. G St. in Arcata. For information about classes and memberships call (707) 826-1445.
The Fourth Annual North Coast Open Studios Tour takes place Saturday, June 8, and Sunday, June 9, from 11 a.m. 5 p.m. at 80 studios from Trinidad to Fortuna. The Open Studios Preview Exhibition runs May 31 through June 30, at the Morris Graves Museum of Art, 636 F St., Eureka. An opening reception for the artists will be held Saturday June 1 from 6 - 9 p.m., during Arts Alive! Tour maps will be available at the Graves. See below for a list of participating artists.
Pamela Becker, monoprints, mixed-media altars, 24 Esther Lane,
Blue Lake, 822-1080.
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