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10 Things To Know About San Diego’s Craft History

Above: Jackson Woolley, Bonus, 1967, polyester resin and paint on wood, 19 ½ x 40 x 4 in. Collection of Courtney Cutter and Marc Sagal. Photograph by Steve Oliver.

"San Diego's Craft Revolution: From Post-War Modern To California Design" opens October 16th at the Mingei International Museum in Balboa Park. Since the show includes almost 70 artists and spans roughly 30 years of little-documented local art history, it's a lot to process. To give you a head start, we've put together a list of 10 things to keep in mind before you head out to see this groundbreaking exhibit.

  1. By focusing on a group called the Allied Craftsmen from the late 1940s to the late 1970s, the exhibition explores how contemporary craft developed and radically changed in San Diego, from the essential forms of the mid-century modern years through Abstract Expressionism, to late 1960s psychedelia and beyond.
  2. In addition to a booming education system, San Diego's post-war modern art community was uniquely connected to the defense industry and the U.S. Navy. Early members of the Allied Craftsmen were often employed by aeronautic giants such as Convair and Ryan, or, as in the case of the acclaimed designer and sculptor Harry Bertoia, worked as illustrators and graphic designers at the Navy Electronics Laboratory in Point Loma.
  3. One specific area where San Diego craft artists proved exceptional was enameling. After husband and wife team Ellamarie and Jackson Woolley helped revive interest in the ancient technique as a means of contemporary expression on the West Coast, they were joined in San Diego by major enamel art talents such as Kay Whitcomb, and, for a short time, June Schwarcz.
  4. The Woolleys also produced large architectural murals, and, along with artists such as James Hubbell, Rhoda Lopez, Svetozar Radakovich and Malcolm Leland, made architectural elements - lanterns, doors, windows, fountains, gates and fireplaces - another category where San Diego artists were unique.
  5. Jewelry and larger-scale body ornament became associated with San Diego in the 1960s via the bold, sensual work of Arline Fisch and her scores of students at San Diego State University. The SDSU Metalworking and Jewelry program begun by Fisch and later led by Helen Shirk has won international acclaim. The catalogue for San Diego's Craft Revolution features a 1971 body ornament by Mona Trunkfield on the cover, which combines dramatic scale with contemporary industrial materials and more traditional forged silver.
  6. Furniture design is another particularly dynamic local discipline that is linked, but not limited, to San Diego State University. From the late 1940s Bauhaus-influenced classes taught by quintessential San Diego modernist John Dirks and the sculpturally expressive 1960s-70s furniture of his successor, Larry Hunter, and faculty member Jack Rogers Hopkins, to conceptual art furniture in non-traditional materials under Hunter's former student, Wendy Maruyama, the furniture design program at State has been a vital force in the San Diego art and design community.
  7. Surfing and the craft of shaping surfboards began to exert an influence on San Diego's design culture in the 1960s, when local surfers like Douglas Deeds and Carl Ekstrom started using polyurethane foam, fiberglass and resin to create smooth, seamless chairs, tables and doors as well as a variety of products for water sports and the beach lifestyle. Deeds' inventive designs for furniture made of recycled Budweiser cans were exhibited in prestigious museums in New York and Los Angeles. Windansea surfboard shaper Carl Ekstrom (who patented the first asymmetrical board) also personally sold two boards to Andy Warhol, who visited his La Jolla Shores shop in 1968.
  8. From 1962 to 1976 a series of triennial California Design exhibitions held at the former Pasadena Art Museum (now the Norton Simon Museum) and in Los Angeles, documented the work of numerous top San Diego craftspeople while placing their work within the broader context of California art and design. The California Design catalogues remain a lasting legacy by which people from all over the world can encounter San Diego contemporary craft artists. An oak and leather rocking chair by Tim Crowder, one of Larry Hunter's furniture design students at San Diego State, was selected for the cover of the final CD catalogue, California Design '76.
  9. In the years after World War II, the Allied Craftsmen was an elite but inclusive group that made room for some contemporary painters, sculptors and photographers. Photographer Lynn Fayman was a major local arts patron as well as a key member of the Allied Craftsmen and was dedicated to helping people appreciate abstract art. Some of Fayman's slides and experimental films (including one screened at Cannes in 1955) manipulate light and color to create abstract environments that anticipate the psychedelic light shows of the 1960s.
  10. Members of the Allied Craftsmen have made significant contributions to San Diego's cultural landscape, including Martha Longenecker, who founded the Mingei International Museum in 1978 after years as head of the San Diego State Ceramics program. From this perspective, the Museum can also be seen as part of the legacy of San Diego's contemporary craft community and, more broadly, as an outgrowth of the American studio craft movement - a "generation" of artists who often traveled the globe after World War II synthesizing influences from Modernism to folk traditions in their work and teaching, as well as their personal and community lives.

Dave Hampton is a frequent contributor to Culture Lust. He is the curator of "San Diego's Craft Revolution: From Post-War Modern To California Design" at the Mingei Museum in Balboa Park.

For context:

Check out our recent post, The Blossoming of San Diego Craft, for more on San Diego's craft revolution.

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