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American Craft Magazine August/September 2011

Sweet Adelaide

The name may sound quaint, but a stroll in this vibrant South Australian mecca reveals a deep devotion to craft and design.

Photo: mickbradley.com
Nick Mount; Soft Bob #SB150910 (left) and Soft Bob #SB010910 (right), 2010; blown glass, mixed media; approx. 6 x 1 ft. dia. each. Photo: Pippy Mount
Photo gallery (9 images)

For travelers, there's great comfort in a grid. Adelaide, Australia, is a tight square mile, snugly bordered on all four sides by streets called "terraces": North Terrace, West Terrace, and so on. The old-fashioned architecture, like the city's old-fashioned name, soothes. Parks and gardens surround this lattice, concentrating growth in the urban core. Considerable suburban sprawl is invisible here. At the approximate center is a vast indoor food market, further balm for visitors. If you're not ogling fresh produce, you're likely on foot in the northern parts of town. Since crafts are your goal, you're on the way to JamFactory, near the northwest corner.

You might walk west on North Terrace, past government buildings and museums. You can see them later, particularly the outstanding rooms on art and culture of the Aboriginal Australian peoples in the South Australian Museum. But do stop at the InterContinental Hotel, where a Dale Chihuly installation from the early 1980s rests in a pool at the bottom of the grand staircase. Enjoy it with the knowledge that every six weeks, one of Australia's pioneering and prominent glass artists, Nick Mount, and his wife, Pauline, clean the sculpture by hand, in a generous bow to a colleague.

On Saturday mornings, you can watch Nick blow glass at JamFactory, a few blocks away. At other times, different hot shop crews are visible through floor- or balcony-level windows. The three-story facility also houses a store, gallery, and a multitude of workspaces for glass, metal, clay, and wood artists who are staff, associates, or independents renting space. Ask if you can wander around.

In April, I spent five nights in JamFactory's guest apartment as a visiting curator under the auspices of the national advocacy group Craft Australia, part of an intense three-week tour of the country's craft community. Anyone getting such a focused crash course in Australian crafts would think that the country was flooded with makers, and JamFactory reconfirms this impression.

The Jam, as it's commonly called, was established in 1973 by a beloved progressive premier of South Australia, Don Dunstan, and is currently one of 14 independent, state-supported Australian craft and design centers. First located in an old you-know-what factory, the organization is now housed in an impressive structure, built to its specifications. Its workday occupants include Brian Parkes, CEO; office, shop, and gallery staff; creative directors and supporting staff in the four medium-specific studios; and about 20 associates in two-year craft and design training programs. Another 20 or so makers rent space in the building. Graduates often stay in Adelaide, benefiting from the close-knit community it fosters, anchored by significant artists who live nearby - Jessica Loughlin and Giles Bettison in glass, Jeff Mincham in ceramics, and Julie Blyfield in metal among them.

Australians take the pairing of craft and design seriously. Since the country has a relatively small base of patrons, legislators and makers often see production work, or "creative microbusiness," in Parkes' words, as the path to economic growth and self-sufficiency. Associates in the Jam's glass workshop, for example, train through production and repetition, honing their skills by blowing the oil bottles that are marketed under the Jam's name. In the furniture workshop, associates spend half their time making their own pieces, and half working on products commissioned through the studio, for which they receive 50 percent of the profit. The new display cases in JamFactory's store, for example, were made by furniture workshop associates after designs by Khai Liew, whose showroom on Magill Road is a mecca for design enthusiasts.

When you leave the Jam, walk back east along Hindley Street, a half-block away. Ignore the adult bookshops on the next few blocks; you'll soon be crossing King William Street, where road names change unpredictably (possibly because of a colonial folly about not crossing the path of a monarch), and you're on Rundle Mall, the pedestrian shopping core. There you'll find the Jam's auxiliary store and the Adelaide Arcade, a lovely 19th-century building that contains Haigh's artisan chocolates, a button shop, a bespoke tailor, and Zu Design for fine jewelry. Zu partner Jane Bowden has her workbenches out in public, as well as a good sampling of Australian jewelry in cases. Continue east past the mall and you'll find small shops and cafes, a fine area for strolling.

Tandanya National Aborig­inal Cultural Institute is just off East Terrace. Keep it on your list, but return first to the museum row on North Terrace. Between the Art Gallery of South Australia and the adjacent South Australian Museum, you'll have an unmatched introduction to traditional and contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art and artifacts. In the museum store, look for pillow covers sold by Better World Arts. The organization has encouraged Aborig­inal artists to be designers; their abstract paintings are reproduced in thread by Kashmiri embroiderers on the border of India and Pakistan. You may not be off the grid, but you'll be in another world.

Vicki Halper is a Seattle curator, art historian, and co-editor with Diane Douglas of Choosing Craft: The Artist's Viewpoint. She is co-editing a book of letters of the painter Morris Graves and planning an Australian glass exhibition for the Museum of Glass in Tacoma, Washington.

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