“Let's just lie those down for now,” Hampton says, gently grasping Dirks' wooden “Ibex” and “Teak” sculptures, a pair of animals with horns jutting up in long, elegantly curved lines. “I'm not sure if that glass case will fit over these.”
It's a few weeks before the Oct. 16 opening of San Diego's Craft Revolution: From Post-War modern to California Design at Balboa Park's Mingei international Museum and, after years of relentless field research, documentation and late-night conversations with those friends, Hampton, the curator of the exhibition who penned the accompanying eponymous book, is helping put the last few pieces into place.
Hampton whisks through the show with an encyclopedic knowledge of every object, pointing out vases and bowls by Martha Longenecker (who went on to found the Mingei), a monotype by Harry Bertoia, a mobile by barney Reid, a huge sculptural door by Svetozar Radakovich, chairs by Carl Ekstrom, Lawrence Hunter and Douglas Deeds, an enamel by Kay Whitcomb—the show is so dense that it's spilled into Mingei's theater and lobby. Hanging near a staircase in the lobby, in fact, is one of the show's biggest surprises: "Reflective Sun," a large crumpled copper wall piece by Ellamarie and Jackson Woolley, originally designed for the San Diego Civic Theater but removed and stored for decades in a storage closet.
“At the time I wrote about that piece in the book, we had no idea we'd be exhibiting it,” Hampton says.
*Recently, though, the theater contacted the city of San Diego's public-art program manager, Dana Springs, and asked her if she wanted to move the piece out of storage. According to Springs, the art has always been part of the city's collection, but it was unbeknownst to the Commission for Arts and Culture staff for at least the last 20 years. The moment Springs got the news, she called Hampton.
“Forty-eight hours later, Dana and I—with the aid of some Civic Theater attendants—are literally pulling huge boxes of crumpled copper stuff out of these dark, concrete store rooms,” Hampton says. “So, now it will be on display for the first time since it was taken down.”
The removal and poor treatment of such an important piece of work, in Hampton's mind, is one example of why the craft movement in San Diego never got the attention and recognition it deserved.
Top-notch artists from around the world were attracted to San Diego from the 1940s through the '70s, first because of a thriving defense industry that provided them with good day jobs doing graphic design, and second because of the city's colleges and universities, where teaching gigs provided another steady income source. When the artists teamed up and started the Allied Craftsmen group, they showed their work annually at what was then called the Fine Arts Gallery (now the San Diego Museum of Art). But even then, the crafts-versus-fine-art debate kept them from surpassing a certain level of importance.
“The Allied Craftsmen shows were always some of the most well-attended,” Hampton said. “But, of course, that only fired the whole ‘Craft is too populous to be art' argument.”
Jim Sundell has a few pieces of jewelry and a spider sculpture in the Craft Revolution show. A self-described “failed mathematician who ended up as a painting major in college,” Sundell still considers himself more of a painter than a craftsman.
“These are my paintings here,” Sundell says, giving a tour of his Point Loma home, which is filled with rows of knickknacks and objects waiting to be packed into boxes for his family's upcoming move to Ohio.
“This is Martha Longenecker's,” the 81-year-old continues, picking a vase. “These are—.”
His wife helps him remember the name Amy Donaldson before he moves to the next room to show off a bowl by Marg Lorings. Then he makes his way over to a beautifully carved, wooden Chestnut heart. “I made this one for my wife.”
Like several of his friends in the Allied Craftsmen, Sundell worked as a graphics man at a defense company in San Diego for most of his career. He describes the Allied Craftsmen shows and gatherings more as parties than meetings and says the best thing about being a part of the group was trading crafts and trying to keep up with peers.
“I actually felt like I walked with giants in those days,” Sundell says. “There were world-renowned people—not all of them—but many of them…. I always felt, Why don't they notice us down here? Because, there were a lot of remarkable people in San Diego—just remarkable. And good old Dave is extremely unique for being interested in us.”
Hampton's longtime fascination and obsession with Sundell and other craftspeople in San Diego has positioned him as one of the only people capable of mounting a show like Craft Revolution. He has notes and recordings from a decade ago and has worked for years interviewing aging artists and relatives of artists who've died.
“Dave has corralled more than anyone thought possible,” says Keith York, Hampton's friend and the proprietor of Mod ernSanDiego.com. “The show proves there was a revolution that quietly happened that was counter to the climate here.”
Craft Revolution is a small part of the puzzle that is Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945-1980, The Getty's project, which initially set out to piece together, document, exhibit and preserve Los Angeles' diverse postwar art history, but eventually expanded to include all of southern California. Hampton knows he's saddled with a huge responsibility in representing a big part of the art and objects made in San Diego.
“Often, artists, they're just giving me their stuff, because, who else?” Hampton says. “Who else can connect the dots? Who else knows that this goes with that? The preservation, the conservation the acknowledgement that prompted The Getty's PST beginnings—those are exactly what's at the heart of this show. This may be the only shot for some of these people. This really may be the only chance to show some of this work.”
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