At a university known for grand origins in science and technology, something like a Craft Center may seem a bit out of place. Compared to nuclear physics or computer science, slippery hands on a potter’s wheel or stringing beads on a wire might seem if not antithetical, then at least unexpected. But UC San Diego is well known for defying expectations, and lives up to its reputation in this instance with not one, but two Craft Centers having been an integral part of its history—and its future.
When announced in 2012 that the original and much-beloved Craft Center was closing after nearly 40 years of operation, many patrons and supporters felt like a cornerstone of the community was being demolished along with its patchwork cottage of a building. Though assurances were made that a new Craft Center would be realized in the future, many of the center’s devotees were doubtful. Yet the promise has been fulfilled with the recent opening of an 11,000-square-foot Craft Center, a dynamic, multipurpose space situated at the heart of the new North Torrey Pines Living and Learning Neighborhood.
The new Center follows in the footsteps of the original, and its manager, Annika Nelson, is committed to restoring and amplifying its fervent sense of community. An award-winning visual artist, book illustrator and art instructor, Nelson has fond memories of teaching a block printing class at the original center some 20 years ago and speaks in reverential tones about Ron Carlson, who served as the director of the original Craft Center for some 35 years.
“Ron and his staff not only provided a broad variety of crafts classes, exhibitions and even a beloved café—the Grove—for over three decades, but he was also able to build a very cohesive, engaged and loyal community—both on and off campus,” says Nelson. “I feel that I am building this new community of craft lovers on Ron’s shoulders. It was the success and dedication of the original Craft Center that fueled the momentum and interest in what I like to call the Craft Center 2.0. Without that enthusiasm and commitment, the new center might not have ever materialized.”
Nestled between Bonner Hall and the large, grassy knoll known as “the Hump,” the original Craft Center opened in 1971, working out of a paltry 1500-square-foot room set under a canopy of eucalyptus trees. In those early days, classes like ceramics and jewelry making would be held in empty classrooms or lecture halls. This was before the campus architect assembled four nearby storage sheds into one building, even integrating living trees into the resulting structure. Over the years, the Craft Center continued this organic evolution, with a donated potter’s wheel and kiln, and its staff partitioned the space into a photography darkroom and dedicated ceramics, jewelry making and glassblowing studios. As student interest climbed for arts and crafts on campus, a variety of classes were offered, from neon sign making to homebrewing with future master brewer Yuseff Cherney ’92.
Andre Watson, MS ’09, counts himself as one of the students personally impacted by the Craft Center. While working on his master’s degree in computer science, Watson decided to give glassblowing a try, drawing inspiration from his ancestry.
“My grandfather was an industrial artistic glassblower in Germany for most of his career,” explains Watson. “He spoke a rare German dialect so I was never able to communicate directly with him in his life, but the classes were a way to connect to him and his lifelong passion. It was an interesting way to experience something that meant so much to him.”
Watson went on to take welding, jewelry making and lamp working classes at the Craft Center, all of which he sees as part and parcel of his UC San Diego education. “The Craft Center not only gave me a break from the rigors of computer science,” he says, “but presented me with a different type of challenge.”
As student involvement grew, the center expanded to include the Grove Gallery, funded by a grant from the Chancellor’s Associates donor group in 1982. The gallery held countless exhibitions over the years, exposing students to local, regional and even national and international artists. Wendy Kwok ’99 recalls often taking a break from her studies to visit the many art exhibits.
“While I did not take classes at the Craft Center, the Grove Gallery was a magnet, drawing me in to appreciate and be inspired by the variety of art forms. Seeking to understand the artists’ perspective and meaning of their art was provocative, tranquil, and transformative.
Based on her fondness for the Craft Center as a student, as an alumna, Kwok has been instrumental in helping the new Craft Center come to life and sees parallels between the iterations—as well as many opportunities on the horizon.
“UC San Diego has always been cutting edge, and so was the Craft Center. It was part of our campus DNA and continues to be today. The modern term may be ‘maker space,’ but the spirit is the same, and the Craft Center 2.0 is just a level up—both literally and metaphorically. When it comes to opportunities and potential for impact, it’s taking things to the next level,” says Kwok.
Crafting at the Edge
In terms of space and budget, the new Craft Center does represent a dramatic improvement over its funky predecessor. In its expansive and well-equipped facility—as well as its prominence in a new campus neighborhood—the center is part of the model for the future of university development and is truly integrated into the fabric of UC San Diego.
A substantial commitment has been made in the space, with more than 3,000 square feet dedicated to ceramics and pottery, as well as studio spaces and equipment for woodworking, mixed media, glass flamework, jewelry making, metal working and fiber arts. Culinary arts are accommodated in “Annabel’s Kitchen,” named by alumnus Jamie Montgomery ’81 in honor of his wife, and given La Jolla’s cred as a surfing mecca, a dedicated studio for surfboard shaping has also become part of the offerings.
The spectrum of classes is intended to offer something for every creative interest, such that anyone at any skill level might explore their creativity while learning a new and personally fulfilling way of expressing themselves.
“Engaging in artistic activities is like learning a secret language,” says Nelson. “This kind of tactile creative work allows your fingers to do the thinking, so you can lose and rediscover yourself in the process. It’s like an unspoken conversation unfurls between you and the work, putting you in a flow state. What you finally end up producing is merely icing on the cake.”
Given the legacy of craft at UC San Diego, it’s no surprise that a number of instructors have returned to teach the new generation of students as well as those returning. And like its predecessor, the Craft Center is now offering a robust exhibitions program with regular sales of work made during the academic year. There are also plans to harness unique partnerships to be made only at UC San Diego: For instance, Nelson is talking with biologist Stephen Mayfield, director of the California Center for Algae Biotechnology, about providing hands-on demonstrations of many things his lab is making out of algae—surfboards and flip-flops being the first wave of such innovations.
Between classes and collaborations, Nelson has no doubt that the Craft Center offerings will greatly benefit students, faculty and staff as well as alumni, retirees and members of the San Diego community, all of whom are welcome. Nelson does seem to have a soft spot for the uninitiated, however—the scores of people who question their creativity or may be daunted by a blank canvas or lump of clay.
“I hope students, faculty and others who spend long hours in labs, lecture halls and offices will break away to engage in all that we’re offering,” says Nelson. “There is really nothing like the enrichment of hands-on crafts. It can be extremely meditative and calming, giving your brain a refreshing reset after studying or working nonstop. I think crafts can enhance the lives of everyone; we expect it will play an important role in student success and once again build a thriving community of participants.”
Whether made at the original or new sites, share your Craft Center creations, memories and thoughts with us at: firstname.lastname@example.org