In 2004 I was 22, living up life in Adelaide, South Australia. I was one semester away from my Bachelor’s Degree, was settling in after living down under for over 3 years, and had it all planned out. Get the degree, apply for residency, build my life and family in Australia. In August of that year, I received word that there wasn’t enough money left to finish my degree—there was barely enough to fly me home. I had one month to pack up my life and fly back to Oregon. I cried the entire trip home that September, and was in shock at the upheaval of my life for months after.
I barely remember applying to the Oregon College of Art and Craft—I know I did, because I visited the campus and was stunned at the metals studio at OCAC. I distinctly remember thinking, after seeing the glorious hammer cabinets in the Metals’ raising room, “This is the place for me.” I was working two jobs, floundering in Hood River, but I was determined to finish the degree I had started in Australia.
In April of 2005, my father passed away unexpectedly. In one moment, I lost my rock, my confidant, and my best friend. It wasn’t long after that I received an acceptance letter from OCAC, and one year after returning to Oregon, I had moved back to Portland to attend that little college on the hill.
I was raw with grief on so many levels at this time. Every morning I drove through downtown and saw my father’s office building. I would “talk” to him in my mind—tell him about my day, ask him questions, laugh and cry at memories. One of the first projects I had that semester was for a Time and Sequence class led by Barb Tetenbaum (Book Arts Department Head). It was a time-based project, and I chose to photograph whatever it was I was looking at when I had those “conversations” with my dad, and write down the thought….every day for at least 30 days. I recall that first photograph…It was of my steering wheel outside of Starbuck’s, and the thought went something like, “Well, I’m here. I guess we’re doing this.” Being faced with my loss and my grief every single day was heart-wrenching, but also healing. From these photographs and writing, I created a stack of paired up “moments”—each photograph matched with its thought, transcribed through ink transfer onto my father’s monogrammed notepads.
It wasn’t simply that project that changed my life—it was all of them. It was the incredible technical education I received that far outpaced my former degree. It was the community and freedom to explore—I was able to bring my own experiences into my work and transform them into art, as seen above—a large locket with each layer representing part of a path to a secret hiding place I had as a child. I was taught to not only build an idea, but to investigate it, lifting its layers and analyzing it…to push the boundaries of technique, material, and myself.
I finished that year, “graduated” from my Australian degree, and was generously allowed to walk with the class of 2006. In 2011, I returned to OCAC for a second Bachelor’s degree, after applying to Masters’ programs and finding out that my Australian degree was next to worthless in the U.S. (that is a whole other story.)
My second degree at OCAC was ever more life-changing than the first experience. While initially I scoffed at having to re-take classes like drawing, writing and art history, I am glad they pushed me to do so because the difference in caliber of education was like night and day. During that second degree, my writing skills were honed, I learned far more about history and art history than I imagined, I explored hair jewelry and discovered a love for Victorian jewelry that has found its way into my working aesthetic, and pushed myself to try multiple other materials—book arts, woodworking, and incorporating fibers and alternative materials into my jewelry. I became far more capable not only as an artist, but as a person—the education received at OCAC is far more than just learning to make art. It’s about giving and receiving critique, understanding the history of ideas and how we got to where we are today as a culture; it’s about being able to speak about yourself and your work in a professional manner; how to present yourself to gallerists and professionals; and of course, the rigorous technical expertise demanded by world-class professors who are themselves working artists.
That little college on the hill is set to close at the end of Spring semester this year. Over the past few months, OCAC has been exploring mergers with a couple of local universities, but neither of them were feasible. So, while there is some shock at the closure, there’s also not a lot of surprise. I still am not entirely sure how I feel about it all. Sadness, for the loss of such a great institution. Frustration at that institutions’ lack of communication with its alumni over the years. Some equal parts wanting to fight it and wanting to give up. It is the last independent accredited college institution centered around Craft in the United States, and has just celebrated 112 years.
I don’t know what will happen, but for now I am heartbroken. I don’t want to live in the past and fully accept that things change (such is life), but it is very difficult to imagine Portland, let alone the Craft community as a whole, without the Oregon College of Art and Craft.