Organization Spotlight | Visual Arts

Pioneer Craft House: A Jewel in the Cultural Crown

In a fast-paced technological world where almost everything is mass-produced, there is an intense and simple joy to be found in creating something entirely with one’s own hands. There is room to revel in the potential of raw materials being transformed by an energetic imagination and skillful manipulation — and one can rejoice in the antithesis of today’s faster bigger stronger mantra because making something by hand is delectably slow.
Pioneer Craft House, located in South Salt Lake City, is undergoing a renaissance and is poised again to become a premier community resource for those interested in high standards of art and craft education, programs and events. Founded in 1947, residents first came to the replica pioneer cabin to learn skills like spinning and weaving that were brought west by early pioneers. In its heyday, Pioneer Craft House boasted an average of 200 students on campus Monday through Saturday learning drawing, sculpture, weaving and other crafts.

Pioneer Craft House suffered a period of decline as the world became busier and people were less interested in making items that could be bought cheaply in stores, but an energetic group of volunteer artists is slowly refurbishing the organization’s buildings and vying to become a “jewel in Salt Lake’s cultural crown” by offering classes in traditional and contemporary arts and crafts. With the aid of ZAP funding, the infrastructure is being upgraded to meet ADA requirements, repairs are being made, and a room is being created to accommodate “wet” arts such as dying, printing and felting. The weaving, pottery and jewelry studios are already among the state’s best equipped, and there is plenty of room for community groups to rent space.

Jane Grau, a painter and writer, is one of the enthusiastic core volunteers orchestrating the renaissance of Pioneer Craft House.|5| “The walls are dripping with nostalgia and sentiment,” she says in her poetically Southern voice, “but we have exciting plans for moving forward. We don’t churn butter out here, we’re not a reproduction farm, but we do want people to get engaged in a new craft or take a master class if their skills are more advanced.” Grau jokes that the Pioneer Craft House was established in 1947 BC – “Before Cable, when people actually made things” – and she is utterly convinced that people’s lives will be richer if they ward off their intimidation and spend time learning bookbinding, spinning, tatting, Pysanky or any other craft.

Bill Hughes, a master flute maker, is also one of the core volunteer artists.|6| He has crafted over 9,000 wooden flutes and is still reverent about each one. He says he has a conversation with each plank of wood as he contemplates what it can offer him, and how he can cut and plane it correctly to bring out the flute’s tones. “Sometimes I get frustrated,” he says. “One time I held a piece of wood over the dumpster and said, ‘We have to make a deal or you’re going to end up right here in the garbage!’” Grau chimes in to say, “That conversation is like the call and response of a gospel song, and if you do it right, you get heaven.” Which is quickly evident when Hughes offers to play one of his flutes for me and photographer Gerry Johnson. Both of us are transfixed as hauntingly pure notes float from the flute and fill the studio with grace and tranquility.

Mark Bennion, a skilled potter, also evokes the paradise theme when talking about the Craft House.|7| “This is a little bit of heaven out here,” he says, “and it’s going to get even better. We’re past the part where we talk about why the lights or kilns don’t work. We get together now to dream and to figure out how to get the community to recognize what this place can be for them.” As Bennion throws a pot on the wheel, he recounts a recent experience he had watching a master potter throw some clay. “I’ve been doing this for 40 years,” he says with awe in his voice, “and it was a stellar moment just to sit and watch her hands.”

Pioneer Craft House has also reached out to the refugee community. A group of mixed-age women from Myanmar (formerly Burma) meet each week to practice the craft of backstrap weaving, a method of weaving wherein warp yarn is anchored on one end to a low rail attached to a wall and, on the other end, around the weavers’ backs. The women have the opportunity to pass their skills from one generation to the next while producing bags, rugs, and other goods to sell.

As I concluded my tour and interviews, unbridled passion sped after me and the bravado phrase from Field of Dreams came to mind: If you build it, they will come. As Bennion says enthusiastically, “This place has had some serious glory through the years, and we’re ready to get back to that.”

photos by Gerry Johnson

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