Janet L. McCall

    Janet L. McCall

    Janet L. McCall, longtime director of the Society for Contemporary Craft, is convinced this privately funded high-quality exhibition and design space made the right choice in 1986.

    The SCC, now generally referred to as Contemporary Craft, relocated that year to 2100 Smallman Street at the eastern end of the former Pennsylvania Railroad produce terminal in the Strip District. The organization had operated a fine-crafts gallery in the Allegheny River town of Verona since 1971.

    McCall is hopeful the 31,533-foot-long red brick building where produce and fruit formerly entered Pittsburgh from elsewhere—it is now owned by the city’s Urban Renewal Authority—will eventually be converted into retail shops, office spaces, perhaps apartments, and also be the lynchpin for redevelopment of the historic district. She envisions a narrowed Smallman Street permitting a variety of shops and parks.

    McCall’s enthusiasm currently rests on the organization’s own growth as well as social and artistic advances. “We are very pleased,” she says, “to see visitors to the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, out-of-towners staying in close-by hotels, and families living in rehabbed industrial buildings in this area coming to see what we have here regularly.”

    Contemporary Craft exhibit 'Edward Eberle: In Retrospect.'

    Contemporary Craft exhibit “Edward Eberle: In Retrospect.”

    Although it has been three years since Pittsburgh Mayor William Peduto promised early in his first term to bring about the produce center’s conversion, the matter is currently locked in debate between several different factions.

    That has not deterred the craft organization, which, if all goes well, may eventually gain a reduced rent for its present space. It also maintains a window display at the NY Bank Mellon T stop, making subway riders aware of current craft trends. Its home space is part museum, studio, store, and idea hatchery.

    McCall, a former public-information officer at Carnegie Institute, says that she has overseen many changes at the craft organization. Although its visual impact has always centered on the outstanding quality and originality of the craft objects it presents to the public, the impact of how such quality can affect the world at large and ever-present social issues have made the center in recent years even more relative to the world in general.

    This movement began back in Verona with its founder, Elizabeth Raphael, daughter of Col. Willard F. Rockwell. He headed firms that became the early space-age corporation Rockwell International, later diversifying into other related businesses. Betty Raphael not only set the tone for her craft gallery but also encouraged and promoted Verona housewives into producing pillows for a national market. But as early as the 1940s, Raphael had owned a contemporary art gallery in Downtown Pittsburgh where she exhibited artists Paul Klee, Alexander Calder, and other masters.

    Later, after presenting an excellent contemporary craft exhibition at the Carnegie Museum of Art, Raphael fostered fine craft across Pennsylvania and elsewhere. The Society today is overseen by her two daughters’ Elizabeth Raphael Foundation, which largely funds the SCC as well as coordinates other foundations’ donations for its nonprofit exhibitions. Clearly, the organization has always been ahead of its time.

    Where other arts organizations serve to advance artistic techniques and exposure, Contemporary Craft honors those who have become craft masters while also delving into complex social matters not addressed elsewhere.

    Edward Eberle: Teapot Book: The Portfolio, 2016 (porcelain, ink).

    Edward Eberle: Teapot Book: The Portfolio, 2016 (porcelain, ink).

    Contemporary Craft recently highlighted the extraordinary talent of Pittsburgh porcelain master Edward Eberle in a major retrospective of his work. This brilliant survey consisted of his high-fire ceramics, often enriched with his fantastic drawings, as well as highly personal and unusual creations done over many years. The exhibition and its illustrated catalog are traveling to craft centers in Philadelphia and Houston. Several foundations contributed to this exhibition.

    The Society currently is saluting the talent of Sonya Clark, who leads viewers on an investigation of inherent histories that are embedded in familiar materials, from human hair to thread and gold. In this show, visitors discover how everyday objects act as both mirrors and sponges of our personal histories and imaginations.  The exhibition is on view through August 19.

    In a lighter vein, Contemporary Craft hosted “Out of Hand Hoedown,” a gala fund-raising event, on April 1. Edibles were furnished by the Strip’s food providers and creative attire was encouraged.

    Coming this fall and winter—September 8, 2017, through February 18, 2018—Contemporary Craft will present a multi-phased exhibition with the umbrella title: “Crafting a Safe Home.” As a socially engaging art exhibition, it will examine artists’ powerful creative responses to shelter— global and local, public and private—in relation to such issues as asylum for refugees and immigrants as well as relief from disasters.

    Contemporary Craft Building

    “Home,” for instance, will examine ideas based on such topics as dwelling, homelessness, ownership, and creative place-making.  “Sanctuary” will explore personal space and the human body as a refuge. Contemporary Craft will partner with seven community housing organizations and advocacy groups to display their resources and influences in regard to issues related to “shelter”—or the lack of it. Lectures, art demonstrations, classes, a catalog, and hands-on art-making are planned for what is expected to become a national tour.

    Recently in the Sunday New York Times Magazine, famed American portrait artist Chuck Close railed against what he sees as a current lack of a dominant style in American painting. He said everything was becoming “crafts,” implying a kind of amateurism known to some crafts in an earlier time.

    But there is no mistaking the high level of craft Janet McCall has promoted at Contemporary Craft in the spirit of Betty Raphael. “I have no doubt,” McCall says, “that people who are in the kind of original craft we represent see what is being done at this level in a very positive way.”

    Contemporary Craft is open Monday-Saturday, 10:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m. Call: 412-261-7003.


    Contemporary Craft had a great turnout on Saturday, April 1, 2017, for its “Out of Hand Hoedown!”—this year’s theme for their annual giving gala. Executive Director Janet McCall, along with co-chairs Jan Kerr, Clark Nicklas, Rebecca Ringham-Myerburg, and Michael Myerburg, welcomed guests to a lively event featuring creative activities, entertainment, and refreshments donated by many local establishments. Visitors were treated to live music by Lonesome Lost & Foggy, learned how to make art at a variety of artist demonstrations and hands-on art stations, and bid on donated art at a silent auction. Demonstrator Robert Villamagna’s artwork of a pig made from tin cans was featured in event publicity, while artist and puppeteer Tom Sarver donated his handmade puppet for the auction.

    Donald Miller was the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette art and architecture critic, 1966-1999. His seventh book is Lafayette: His Extraordinary Life and Legacy. He and his wife, artist Bette W. Miller, live in Naples, Florida.
    Out of Hand Hoedown photography by Denise S. Artmann