MYS Oregon to Iberia

Oregon craft artists on the national stage

Three Oregon artists were selected for the 2024 Annual Smithsonian Craft Show, the country’s most prestigious juried show and sale of contemporary American craft.

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Artists' booths arranged under the massive Corinthian columns of the historic National Building Museum in Washington, DC. Photo: courtesy of the Smithsonian Craft Show.
Artists’ booths arranged under the massive Corinthian columns of the historic National Building Museum in Washington, DC. Photo: courtesy of the Smithsonian Craft Show.

Within the world of American craft, the annual Smithsonian Craft Show is particularly valued by artists, not only for the level of its standards and its reputation, but also for the encouragement and support it offers for the field of contemporary craft. The show attracts the very best of artists in several mediums, but only 120 artists, chosen from more than 1,000 applications, are invited to participate. This year, three artists from Oregon made the cut.

Ceramic sculptor Wataru Sugiyama surrounded by his work at the Smithsonian Craft Show. Photo: Beth Sorensen.
Ceramic sculptor Wataru Sugiyama surrounded by his work at the Smithsonian Craft Show, where he was selected to participate for the first time. Photo: Beth Sorensen

Jeweler Jane Pellicciotto and metalsmith Sara Thompson of Portland joined ceramic artist Wataru Sugiyama of Ashland in participating in the 42nd annual show, held May 1-5 in the historic National Building Museum in Washington, D.C.

The theme for the 2024 show was “Creating Joy,” which artists interpreted in a myriad of ways through their work. Artists are chosen for the show from applicants in twelve craft disciplines: basketry, ceramics, decorative fiber, furniture, glass, jewelry, leather, metal, mixed media, paper, wearable art, and wood. Three jurors, experts in the field of craft art who are newly chosen each year, are instructed to select “the most accomplished craft artists whose work reflects excellence, is well conceived and expertly executed without technical faults and reflects the unique design, skill and vision of the American craftsperson.”

Portland jewelry artist Jane Pellicciotto was also a first-time participant at the 2024 Smithsonian Craft Show. Photo: courtesy of Jane Pellicciotto.
Portland jewelry artist Jane Pellicciotto was also a first-time participant at the 2024 Smithsonian Craft Show. Photo courtesy of Jane Pellicciotto.

In addition to the distinction of being selected for the show, the Smithsonian offers artists a unique opportunity for reaching new buyers, including major collectors, and to have their work seen by galleries for potential representation. 

A one-of-a-kind disc choker by jeweler Jane Pellicciotto. Photo: courtesy of Jane Pellicciotto.
A one-of-a-kind disc choker by jeweler Jane Pellicciotto. Photo courtesy of Jane Pellicciotto.

One show veteran and two first-timers

This year marks Thompson’s sixth appearance in the Smithsonian show since 2018. But for Pellicciotto and Sugiyama, this is their first year being selected for the show. Pellicciotto estimates she has applied five or six years before being accepted this year, while Sugiyama says he has applied for the past 15 years. “I’m 67 and I thought I’d never get in,” he told Ashland.news reporter Holly Dillemuth for Oregon ArtsWatch in December, “but I just really decided I’d continue to apply till the age of 70.”

“It’s considered the best, or one of the best, craft shows in the country,” said Pellicciotto, “so there is obviously a certain amount of prestige in participating.”

MetalsmithSara Thompson, a graduate of the Oregon College of Art and Craft, divides her year between her Northeast Portland studio and summers on Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts. Photo: courtesy of Sara Thompson.
Metalsmith Sara Thompson, a graduate of the Oregon College of Art and Craft, has been selected six times since 2018 to participate in the Smithsonian show. Photo courtesy of Sara Thompson.

For Thompson, a 2017 graduate of the now shuttered Oregon College of Art and Craft, the show is an opportunity to reconnect with artists from around the country who are masters in their crafts and learn from what others are doing. “Every time I’m juried and invited to be at the Smithsonian Craft Show, it’s an honor,” she noted. “I’m deeply humbled to be a young artist exhibiting alongside master craft artists. Sometimes, shows feel like the first day of school (when) you’re excited to see your artist friends and hear about their summer or see their newest work. Other times, it’s awe-inspiring to see the range of technical skills and use of materials.”

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A silver creamer with ripped edges by Sara Thompson. Photo: courtesy of Sara Thompson.
A silver creamer with ripped edges by Sara Thompson. Photo courtesy of Sara Thompson.

That the show is held in the National Building Museum, with its intimate red brick facade and towering 75-foot-tall Corinthian columns, was part of the experience. “It’s an awe-inspiring place,” said Pellicciotto. “This helps keep the spirits up during a five-day show.” Sugiyama added that the interior of the massive building has incredible atmosphere, which makes both artists and visitors excited.

Visitors to the show peruse the booths of 120 craft artists from around the country. Photo: Beth Sorensen.
“It’s an awe-inspiring place,” said artist Jane Pellicciotto of the National Building Museum, where the Smithsonian Craft Fair is held each year. Photo: Beth Sorensen

Having the opportunity to meet other craft artists was a highlight for Sugiyama, as the participants came from every corner of the country, from Alaska to Florida and Maine to California. The artists selected were diverse not only in their craft forms, but in gender and ethnicity. In addition, this year the organizers proactively extended invitations to Native American artists for the first time. 

From Ashland to D.C.

For Jane Pellicciotto and Sara Thompson, attending a show on the East Coast is routine. Thompson works part of the year on Martha’s Vineyard and Pellicciotto, a native of D.C., said that, since her work sells better on the East Coast, she typically needs to travel for art shows.

Visitors to the show browsing the works at Sugiyama's booth. Photo: Beth Sorensen.
Visitors to the show browsing the works at Sugiyama’s booth. Photo: Beth Sorensen

But for Wataru Sugiyama, being accepted to the Smithsonian Craft Show was just the first step of a major endeavor. His ceramic work is too fragile and, in some cases, too large to ship back to the venue, so he accepted the fact that he would need to drive back to Washington, D.C. himself with 29 ceramic sculptures in his car. To his surprise, Ashland friends and acquaintances quietly fundraised among themselves and presented Sugiyama with $4,000 to fund his travel expenses, from gas to food and lodging. 

Sugiyama carried his carefully packed ceramic sculptures in his car from Ashland, Oregon to Washington, DC, to ensure their safe arrival. Photo: Beth Sorensen.
Sugiyama carried his carefully packed ceramic sculptures in his car from Ashland, Oregon to Washington, D.C., to ensure their safe arrival. Photo: Beth Sorensen

The journey wasn’t over for Sugiyama when the show closed. Because he sold several very large pieces to people on the East Coast, he volunteered to deliver them personally, including one to Connecticut and three pieces to South Carolina. Those three pieces were sold to longtime collectors and benefactors of his who use to live in Stinson Beach, California, where they had met Sugiyama at the annual American Craft Show at Fort Mason in San Francisco, but had since relocated to Aiken, South Carolina. 

The towering "Owls Pole" was sold to a longtime San Francisco collector of Sugiyama's work who now lives in South Carolina. Photo: Beth Sorensen.
The towering “Owls Pole” was sold to a longtime San Francisco collector of Sugiyama’s work who now lives in South Carolina. He delivered this and two other works to them personally after the show. Photo: Beth Sorensen

The entire trip took Sugiyama more than 7,000 miles round trip over nearly four weeks, including the show itself. While he made a number of sales and received six commissions, he didn’t have a chance to connect with gallery representatives from the East Coast. But he still considers the experience well worth the effort.

When asked what was most memorable about his journey, Sugiyama said that seeing the effect of his work on people, some of whom were moved to tears, was the most meaningful experience for him. “The theme of the Smithsonian show this year was ‘Creating Joy.’ The approach to my sculptures is creating joy, so it fits the theme,” he noted.

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It was powerful to see the effect his work had on some visitors to the show. “One of my works, “Eternal Joy”, was sold to a mother and her daughter,” he said. “The mother held the sculpture to her chest and both of them cried.”

Another work, “Sun Goddess,” had the same effect on a woman and her girlfriend. “I cannot make them cry, but my sculptures did have them going through some kind of catharsis experience,” noted Sugiyama. “I feel this is my mission from our universe as a sculptor. When I see those emotional responses, I feel I don’t need anything, but am most blissful with my life.”

A piece representing the bond between a mother and child, was purchased by a woman who, Sugiyama noted, was brought to tears by the feelings the work evoked for her. Photo: Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini.
A piece representing the bond between a mother and child was purchased by a woman who, Sugiyama noted, was brought to tears by the feelings the work evoked for her. Photo: Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini.

What’s next?

Sugiyama affirmed that the Smithsonian Craft Show was the best show he has ever participated in. “I feel very honored they invited me. This high-quality show encouraged me to create and produce much higher quality of my works of art.”

An archer in the Japanese "Haniwa" tradition was among the pieces sold at the show. Photo: Beth Sorensen.
An archer in the Japanese “Haniwa” tradition was among the pieces Sugiyama sold at the show. Photo: Beth Sorensen

In the meantime, his next show will be at the Portland Japanese Garden’s annual Behind the Shoji Summer Marketplace, June 29 to September 2. He does not have plans to do any other shows this year, as he needs to catch up on commissions, including those from the Smithsonian show.

Then he has another calling: “I want to carve a stone for this winter.” For 10 years he has had a stone that used to belong to J. Ellen Allen [a noted Ashland sculptor]. “It is going to be a big challenge. I have been working on the clay sculptures for the Smithsonian show for more than half year, so I need a break to change the media for a while. I am very looking forward to carving the stone, which has been waiting for me for many years!”

Jane Pellicciotto will be participating in the BAM Arts Fair, July 26-28, at the Bellevue (Wash.) Arts Museum. She can also be found at Art in the Pearl in Portland’s North Park Blocks over Labor Day weekend, Aug. 31-Sept. 2. 

Sara Thompson spends part of her summers on Martha’s Vineyard, where her next show will be the Vineyard Artisans Festivals in West Tisbury. Her metalwork can also be found in local galleries in Portland and Cannon Beach.   

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Beth Sorensen has worked in communications in the arts and higher education since 1990 and has, as a generalist, written about a wide range of creative forms. Having lived throughout the state of Oregon over the years, she is particularly interested in sharing the stories of the artists who live and work around our region, discovering what inspires them and how they make their creative process a part of their daily lives. She currently lives in Southeast Portland with her husband and three rescue terriers.

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One Response

  1. Great writing. You captured the higher emotional elements in Wataru’s sculptures. He deserves all the recognition as he is truly dedicated to his art. Well done. Great photos.

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