pacific northwest college of art

Artists Who Fly Like Rocks

The Self-Taught Artist Fair opens Thursday at PNCA, expanding definitions and identities

September 7 is a big day in Portland arts and culture. Along with First Thursday festivities, which herald exhibition openings for many a gallery in the Pearl District, the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art kicks off the 15th annual Time-Based Arts Festival with multiple (yes, multiple) performances and parties jam-packed into one evening. What a time to be in Portland! As the floodgates prepare to open with a barrage of visual art and performative offerings on Thursday evening, keep in mind a unique exhibition afoot at Pacific Northwest College of Art’s Commons Gallery: the Self-Taught Artist Fair: Flying Like a Rock.

The title of the exhibition, produced by The Center for Contemporary Art & Culture at PNCA and Public Annex, begs plenty of questions—for starters, what qualifies someone as a self-taught artist?

“Britney Spears,” by Dawn Westover, colored pencil and pen on paper, in the Self-Taught Artist Fair.

While, on the surface, it seems safe to assume that a self-taught artist is someone without any formal training, Public Annex’s Lara Ohland, the lead organizer on this exhibition, explains: “There have been a lot of questions, and I am continually trying to re-clarify for myself what this does mean.” As an artist with a level of formal training, Ohland emphasizes that she does not wish to be the “keeper to the definition,” noting instead, “I want to leave lots of space for people to choose their own identity in that.”



I have been thinking about Costumes, Reverence, and Forms currently at the Center for Contemporary Art and Culture for the better part of a week. When I first saw the show, I was perplexed. Partially, the reaction can be chalked up to the gallery map provided at the entrance that identified the artist and title for each work. The map was based on a building blueprint with confounding layout features—a hidden staircase, an unseen office, a set of what look like four stove-top burners nowhere to be found. But beyond the map, I felt intimidated by the work, concerned that I just didn’t get it.

But once I made peace with my spatial inadequacies and considered the show further, my initial hesitation faded. So what I want to tell you is what I wish I had known going into gallery and what has helped me move beyond my initial “huh?” reaction.

Tabitha Nikolai’s “Sick Transex Gloria,” part of “Costumes, Reverence, and Forms” at the Center for Contemporary Art and Culture/Photo by Mario Gallucci

The exhibition is a curatorial exchange between CCAC in Portland and Vox Populi in Philadelphia. Vox Populi is an artist-run space and the curatorial group that participated in the exchange included Mark Stockton, Bree Pickering, Chad States, and Suzanne Seesman. CCAC is part of the Pacific Northwest College of Art. The Center’s director, Mack McFarland, and assistant director, Ashley Gibson, were the curators from Portland.

The Portland and Philadelphia curators each generated a list of about 100 artists in their respective cities to give to their counterparts in the other city. The curators then looked through the artists’ websites and culled the field to about 20 artists they wanted to do studio visits with on a visit to the other city. From the “semi-final” group of studio-visit artists, each set of curators selected four artists to be in the show. This all took the better part of a year and involved many conversations between the curators and artists. The “guiding principle” terms—costumes, reverence, and forms—were chosen after the roster of artists had been determined. There was an iteration of the show in Philadelphia in January of 2017 and the show opened in Portland in April.

The curators didn’t select individual works but instead selected the artists whose practices they were most struck by. Both sides were surprised by some of the other’s finalists. The selection of works for the shows was much more fluid and artist-directed. Some of the artists wanted to show newer work than the curators had seen in the studio visits, and others wanted to respond specifically to the exhibition space. While the shows in both locations included all of the same artists, the roster of works included is not identical.

The Vox Populi show had an entry archway that clearly identified which artists were from which city. The CCAC version didn’t indicate this except in the gallery brochure. Portland artists were identified with a small blue arch and Philadelphia artists with a small pink arch. There was no “key” for these symbols though (and I actually just figured it out now, leaving me again feeling a little slow). Marianne Dages, Beth Heinly, Anna Neighbor, and Kristen Neville Taylor are the artists from Philadelphia. Avantika Bawa, Tabitha Nikolai, Jess Perlitz and Ralph Pugay are the artists from Portland.


PNCA 2016 Edelman lecture: Life After Death

Portland author Sheila Hamilton speaks on destigmatizing mental illness


Editor’s note: On May 10, Emmy-award winning journalist Sheila Hamilton will deliver the 2016 Edelman Lecture at Pacific Northwest College of Art“Destigmatizing Mental Illness.” Hamilton, whose 2015 memoir All the Things We Never Knew recounts her being blindsided by her husband’s bipolar disorder and suicide, will speak about her personal experience with mental illness and advocate for a more holistic approach to mental health. 

After the talk, musician and activist Logan Lynn and Jennifer Pepin, whose J. Pepin Art Gallery works to reframe the perception of mental illness, join Hamilton in a discussion moderated by Benedict Carey, science reporter for The New York Times, followed by a question and answer session with the audience.

Hamilton hosts the KINK morning show in Portland and serves on the boards of Girls Inc. and The Flawless Foundation. This excerpt, from chapter 24 of her memoir, is used by permission of Seal Press/Perseus Books.

I took a big breath, steadied myself, and began, “Deepak Chopra joins us this morning on Speaking Freely; his newest book is called Life After Death: The Book of Answers.”

If I’d prepared myself the way I should have, the way I normally do, reading and rereading the publisher’s notes, the author’s bio, the prepared questions, I wouldn’t have been so jolted by the words “Life After Death.” Instead, the lump in my throat threatened to explode, and tears squeezed out the corners of my eyes. My voice halted, then broke, and I couldn’t continue speaking.

I hit the space bar on my computer to stop the recorder. Deepak leaned back in his chair.

“I’m so sorry,” I said. “This is my first day back to work—my husband just died.” The flesh in my nose swelled up, and my voice sounded weak. I could not continue with the interview until I got myself under control.

Deepak nodded. There was no change in his facial expression, none of the mournful, twisted expressions I’d seen on others’ faces when I told them of David’s death. Chopra was a spiritual leader revered by millions of people around the world, and he couldn’t even offer sympathy?

I prodded him. “Suicide. He shot himself.”

Sheila Hamilton delivers the 2016 Edelman lecture at Pacific Northwest College of Art Tuesday.

Sheila Hamilton delivers the 2016 Edelman lecture at Pacific Northwest College of Art Tuesday.

No change. His breathing pattern wasn’t altered. He opened his mouth to speak, deliberately and carefully. His lips formed complete o’s and e’s.

“He is exactly where he needs to be, and so are you.”

“Excuse me?” My blood pressure surged. I suppressed a rage building in me that had been buried for years, one in which my emotions, my emotions, had been ignored, sidelined, minimized by the people I cared most about. I loved Deepak Chopra; I’d read every one of his books, except for his latest. The least he could do was show compassion; Chopra owned the word compassion, for God’s sake.

He folded his long fingers carefully on the desk and scooted forward in his chair. “What we’re talking about is pertinent to the book. Would you like to continue?” he asked.


Wangechi Mutu and the revolt of the female form

The Pacific Northwest premiere of Mutu's work introduces a powerful post-colonial, feminist voice


 Wangechi Mutu: The Hybrid Human at PNCA’s 511 Gallery is a succinct presentation of Mutu’s works, borrowed from the collection of Jordan D. Schnitzer. Anchored by two series, Histology of Different Classes of Uterine Tumors and The Original Nine Daughters, the exhibition highlights Mutu’s continued exploration of a visual language associated with femaleness and blackness. Mutu’s first solo exhibition in the Pacific Northwest—she was born in Nairobi and has lived in New York since the 1990s—is also the inaugural exhibition of the annual Jordan D. Schnitzer Exhibition and Visiting Artist Series, and will feature her talk on March 10.

Twelve works from Histology of Different Classes of Uterine Tumors, a direct reference to a historical medical textbook of the same name, occupy one wall of the gallery. Mutu distorts the medical illustrations of ovarian cysts, tumors of the uterus, and ectopic pregnancy with a collage of grotesque and disproportioned faces. In Histology of Different Classes of Uterine Tumors: Cancer of the Uterus, wide set eyes and luscious red lips shape a face covered in black glitter, reminiscent of astronomic images of the sky speckled in stars and planets. Small tufts of white fur frame the face, creating a tactile collage that is at once visually alluring and malformed.


PNCA answers some questions about closing the craft museum

In a follow-up interview Pacific Northwest College of Art's Casey Mills and Mack McFarland talk about the museum and its next iteration

The news that Pacific Northwest College of Art is going to close the doors of the Museum of Contemporary Craft landed on Wednesday. We posted the news as quickly as possible on ArtsWatch, but lots of questions remained.

I interviewed interim president Casey Mills and PNCA exhibitions director Mack McFarland on Thursday to find out more about the absorption of the museum into a new Center for Contemporary Art & Culture, to be housed at PNCA, as well as the decision-making process and rationale behind this radical outcome.

Ai Weiwei: Dropping the Urn (Ceramic Works, 5000 BCE – 2010 CE), installation view, 2010, Museum of Contemporary Craft. Photo by: Jake Stangel

Ai Weiwei: Dropping the Urn (Ceramic Works, 5000 BCE – 2010 CE), installation view, 2010, Museum of Contemporary Craft. Photo by: Jake Stangel

The Museum of Contemporary Craft dates back to 1937, after all, and during its life it has been an important flagship for Portland’s large crafts community, especially those concerned with ceramics. More recently, it has helped make Portland part of the national and international conversation around craft and art, without losing sight of our local history. Its failure to make it on its own is a blow to the city in many ways, which I’ll be discussing in subsequent stories.

But first we need to understand what is happening and why PNCA took the path it did.


The Museum of Contemporary Craft will close its doors

PNCA shutters the craft museum to re-direct resources to the college

Pacific Northwest College of Art announced today that it will be closing the Museum of Contemporary Craft space on Northwest Davis Street and absorbing its programs into a new Center for Contemporary Art & Culture at PNCA.

UPDATE: Part Two of our ongoing coverage of the closing of the Museum of Contemporary Craft has been posted. Based on an interview with PNCA’s Casey Mills and Mack McFarland, it explains the college’s decision-making process and the plans for the center that is absorbing the museum’s collection and programs.

“Relieving the obligations of the Davis Street space will enable PNCA to refocus those resources on programs and assets that truly engage our students, alumni, and faculty and enhance students’ preparation for lives of creative practice,” said Casey Mills, PNCA’s interim president.

The Museum of Contemporary Craft is closing its doors for good.

The Museum of Contemporary Craft is closing its doors for good.

PNCA took over the Museum of Contemporary Craft in 2009 after the museum experienced serious financial difficulties after moving into the current space at 724 Northwest Davis from its old home on Southwest Corbett St. At the time, the combination looked promising, a way to keep the museum, a central player in Oregon’s active craft community, going. PNCA saw the museum as a potential training ground where its students could work with curators and faculty on staging exhibitions. It also fit into then-president Tom Manley’s ideas about making PNCA and the museum a meeting ground for Portland’s extensive “maker” community—designers, artists and craftpeople of all sorts.

“Despite the focused efforts of the Museum of Contemporary Craft staff, commitment of PNCA administration, and work of a Board of Governors-led task force, the original vision of transforming the museum into a dynamic, student-centric educational resource was not fully realized. In the meantime, the financial cost to the college has remained high,” according to PNCA’s press release announcing the change.

The Betty Feves retrospective at MoCC restored a beloved Oregon artist to the city. Betty Feves, "Six Figures," date unknown. Raku on wooden base. Collection of Feves Family. Photo: Dan Kvitka

The Betty Feves retrospective at MoCC restored a beloved Oregon artist to the city. Betty Feves, “Six Figures,” date unknown. Raku on wooden base. Collection of Feves Family. Photo: Dan Kvitka

The new Center for Contemporary Art & Culture will be led by Mack McFarland, who is the director or PNCA’s exhibitions program. “I look forward to building out the Center for Contemporary Art & Culture’s programming and community, together with my colleagues at PNCA, including the students, faculty, staff, and alumni,” McFarland said. “The Center offers us an opportunity to enter into dialog with committed partners, interested parties, and new audiences to reflect on our perpetually changing world and our role in that change.”

PNCA intends to sell the museum space on Davis Street, and the museum’s craft shop, which sold a substantial amount of work by Oregon craft artists, will be closing, too. PNCA will keep the museum’s substantial collection of craft work, especially ceramics.

We’ll be talking about the ramifications of the closing of the museum in coming days. Stay tuned.


I reviewed the history of Museum of Contemporary Craft when Namita Wiggers resigned as director and curator in 2014.

I have written about the merger between the museum and PNCA several times over the years, mostly when it was happening and I was writing for The Oregonian. I won’t list them all, but here’s a sampling.

Read more by Barry Johnson.

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The Museum of Contemporary Craft

Yesterday, we reported that Jeffrey Thomas, interim director at the Museum of Contemporary Craft, had resigned after a year on the job, and that the museum and partner institution Pacific Northwest College of Art were going to start a national search for a successor.

We had several questions about the departure, specifically about what it might mean to the future of the museum and its relationship to PNCA, which bailed it out of financial difficulties a few years ago and has been the senior partner in the relationship. And we wondered how PNCA president Tom Manley viewed the last year at the museum under Thomas.  So, we sent him a few questions via email, and then we talked on the phone.

Basically, Manley confirmed, elaborated on and added to Thomas’s own description of the past year.

1. Memberships at the museum almost doubled in the past year, according to Manley.
2. Grants from foundations in support of exhibitions hit an all-time high. Manley said that for the upcoming “Generations: Betty Feves” exhibition, the museum raised more than $200,000 in grants, including one $100,000 and two $50,000 grants, a size in unprecedented in the history of the museum.
3. Thomas helped to establish a Design Council at the museum, part of an attempt to expand its mission.
4. A three-year exhibition schedule was developed, which helps marketing and fund-raising efforts going forward.
5. Collecting activity was restored at the museum, with major acquisitions as part of the museum’s “75 Gifts for 75 Years” show, honoring its 75th anniversary.
6. Thomas brought his marketing expertise to bear on the sales gallery, helping to activate it with pop-up galleries.
7. And he brought “some real personality” and “greater energy” to the museum, Manley said of Thomas.

Basically, Manley described the museum as an institution that was doing great work (he called curator Namita Wiggers a world-class curator, for example) and moving forward on a number of fronts. So, why not hire Thomas full-time?

Thomas became interim director a year ago when the museum was still struggling to find its way after PNCA essentially rescued it in 2009 by paying off and re-negotiating the terms of the museum’s $1.5 million debt. Manley said that Thomas, whom he called an “outside the box choice,” had special attributes that helped the museum get through that period.”We wanted to bring greater energy to the building, and I think he did that.”

But Thomas had never run a museum before, and the opportunities and challenges that a deeper marriage of the museum and the college raises require a different set of skills and attributes. Manley said that as he and Thomas talked, it became clear to both of them that going forward, Thomas’s strengths and weaknesses wouldn’t be as good a fit at the museum. Having spent a year already with the interim tag, Thomas decided to resign.

Going forward, Manley said that the partnership between the museum and college was strong, and planning was under way to create academic programs at the college around the museum. The joint operating agreement between the college and museum expires in 2014, and the boards of each have begun talking about how they will evaluate their progress so far and decide to “opt fully in or opt fully out,” Manley said.

While the museum has done better financially in many ways, large individual donations have been more difficult to find during the recession, Manley said, and the “right-sizing” of the museum to match its revenue and expenses has been painful. Still, he was confident that the museum was “rebuilding the trust” with its larger donors and that its increasing stability, “the discipline the museum needs to thrive,” was building confidence among them.

The museum will need another interim director while a search is concluded for a permanent one. Manley said he hopes to have someone in place very quickly, during the next week or so, and that he hopes to have a permanent director working at the museum by July.

A good measure of how far the museum has come in the past couple of years is that the crisis days of 2008 and 2009, when the museum at first seemed likely to go out of business altogether and then was absorbed into PNCA, with a certain amount of anguish and worry, now seem like old history. But the institutions are still in a transitional period, really, and will be until their relationship becomes closer and permanent. And that means a certain amount of uncertainty is still part of the mix.


Why does the PNCA-MoCC partnership matter? I wrote about that in 2009 for The Oregonian.