An Interview with Nicole Nathan
Daniel Casto interviews Curator of Collections and Registrar Collections Nicole Nathan about curating Quality is Contagious, now at Museum of Contemporary Craft
“Quality is contagious. Nothing is more important to a woodworker than his tools. If you owned a tool chest full of well-crafted tools, how could you possibly justify doing shabby work? You dishonor your tools. You dishonor yourself.” —John Economaki
Museum of Contemporary Craft Curator of Collections and Registrar Nicole Nathan curated Quality is Contagious: John Economaki and Bridge City Tool Works in collaboration with fine-furniture-maker turned-entrepreneur-and-tool-maker John Economaki. Her challenge was to convey the interconnectedness of Economaki’s approach to work and life by exhibiting his furniture, tools, sketches, prototypes, and videos side by side. There is no separation between craft, design, and art for Economaki. All intersect and overlap — and all are crucial to his practice. Editorial intern Daniel Casto spoke with Nathan about how she approaches crafting an exhibition of this breadth of material and theme, and what makes the role of a curator both challenging and thrilling.
— Killeen Hanson
UNTITLED Magazine: Hi Nicole. So you’re the Curator of Collections and Registrar here at Contemporary Craft. Can you tell us a little bit about that means exactly?
Nicole Nathan: I oversee our physical object collection here at the museum—I monitor when things are going in and out of the collection, when they are being lent to other institutions, when they’re coming back, when we need to pull things from our collection for display. I also curate exhibitions based on people and pieces within the collection, or that have some sort of historical context that relates to it.
UNTITLED: Did Quality is Contagious come about because of a piece that we had in our collection?
NN: John has a piece, the [Vaughan Street] Dessert Trolley, that has been in our collection since the mid-80s. It was included in our book, Unpacking the Collection, it was featured in Craft in America in 2007, so that’s kind of the centerpiece around which this exhibition is — well, not necessarily based, but we wanted to tell his story, and having that piece gave us the means to do that. The exhibition is about John as a maker, as an artist, a designer, businessman — [as] a person who continues to make; but in different ways. He started out as a furniture-maker in the mid ‘70s, made some really amazing pieces which are part of the exhibition, and was hugely successful. He had a piece in the Smithsonian, he had all sorts of commissions, and then woke up one night unable to breathe because he had developed an allergy to wood dust.
UNTITLED: That’s a problem.
NN: Right. I can only imagine what kind of a crisis this would have been. But as a furniture maker, John had always made his own tools, and he then thought, “Well, maybe this is what I can do.” So he’s still a maker, he’s still an artist; but he had to refocus what he’s an artist with.
UNTITLED:So when you’re in the role of a curator, and you’re presented with a strong personal narrative in that fashion, is that an asset, or is it difficult to juggle with what you want to present in your show?
NN: I think that’s a question that you come up against constantly, because if you’re dealing with someone who’s really well known, chances are those stories and that narrative are out there. So it’s hard, because you still have to give room to that. But I think you can say, “Yes, that is one aspect of this, but here are some other things you might not know about…” You can use it as a tool, for lack of a better word, that leads people into other aspects of the show.
UNTITLED: Is the primary focus of the show “the tools as art objects”? Do you think that’s contrary how most people perceive them?
NN: I think it’s a different way of perceiving them than people might normally be used to. There are plenty of people who have visited the exhibition who are customers, and who have said, “Well these are the same tools I have in my shop, and they’re under glass now.” John has also always been a proponent of new technology and new ways of making, and that’s an aspect of the story that you wouldn’t see if you were simply a consumer of the tools.
UNTITLED: At what point do you think an object, then, becomes worthy of that museum-level recognition? Where does it stop being a thing that my Dad buys on clearance at Sears, and become a thing that we can put in the museum here?
NN: I think that comes down to a couple different things. One of them is the story — What is it about these pieces as tools? As beautifully designed pieces made to be handled, made for the hand, made for a connoisseur? What about that story is really compelling? The tools are also the physical manifestation of this idea that we’re trying to talk about, which is to think about making in a more expansive way. You can be an artist in many different kinds of ways, and it might not end up being the way you thought, but you can still be a maker.
UNTITLED: One of the things I think is especially great about the show is the presentation of the models and sketches along with the tools, and the way there’s a style evident through the sketches to the models to the tools themselves that’s all obviously John’s…
NN: Definitely, I think having that story is illuminative in many different ways for viewers. It’s not just “Here’s the first tool, here’s the last tool, here are all the tools in between.” I think having this rich contextual experience — what goes into each piece, how John has made use of 3D printing, the careful thought and myriad skills that go into making the final product — creates a context for a truly interesting narrative. I think we’re shining a light into a behind-the-scenes type thing. Maybe you even know the piece; but here’s what happens to get to that; here’s what the piece means.
UNTITLED: How do you think the show interacts with the community of small business and craft and local production that Portland is so enthusiastic about?
NN: Well, it’s the story of someone who built a worldwide business, but one that’s very small, one that’s based in Portland. So I think we want to ask, “What was it about Portland in the 1980’s — Which was dismal, which was not at all a place that people were trying to start businesses — [that] made John stay here? There was a community, there was an appreciation for contemporary crafts. John could sell his pieces, he could do research, he could look at other wood-turners, go to different galleries, become familiar with different artists. There were people to know. I think it was particular to Portland, and I think John embodied this idea of figuring out how you want to do a thing, and then really doing it, that’s really prevalent now.
UNTITLED: So should we even talk about the question of what it means to be a “curator” with the way that word gets tossed around these days? Are there any ways that your personal curatorial methods can be seen in this show in particular?
NN: Well first of all, I think the word is becoming really problematic — like “entrepreneurial,” like “DIY.” It’s being applied to any kind of thing that we see as being “selected.” Selecting something is not curating. While you can be selective, and thoughtful about that selectivity, curating is different because it has an idea behind it which is rigorous, which is tested, which stands up to different questions it’s met with. You can talk about it in a way that is not necessarily personal. While it’s my voice, I’m not saying it’s the be-all-end-all. I think especially at Museum of Contemporary Craft, we’re really open to saying “I don’t necessarily have all the answers, but I have these questions. Let’s explore this together.”
UNTITLED: Are there any questions we should be looking for in this show that might tie into The Tool at Hand, coming up?
NN: Absolutely. The Tool at Hand poses the question to all different kinds of makers and artists: “If you could only use one tool, and that was it, what would it be?” And then to make a piece using only that. We also put out a challenge, and John did as well, to his subscribers, to make a piece using primarily one of John’s tools, and we juried them and put one in the show, and it’s beautiful. So I think having that aspect of using one tool, trying new things, and learning through that experience, is all about progress. And so much of Quality is Contagious is about that same process.
UNTITLED: And making your life of creative practice adapt to those circumstances.
NN: Yeah. What are the restrictions that have been placed upon you, and how do you respond to them while staying true to your creative self? Because if you’re creative, and that’s something that you need, then you’ll have to find some way to make that happen. You’re restricted, but so much is still open to you.
Quality is Contagious: John Economaki and Bridge City Tool Works will be up through February 8, 2014. The Tool at Hand opens at Museum of Contemporary Craft October 3, 2013.