Godmother of Art
By Bridgette M. Redman
December 10, 2020
PBS segment remembers a Pasadena gem—Eudorah Moore
By Bridgette M. Redman
In 1972, a landmark exhibition opened in Pasadena at the then-new Pasadena Art Museum (now the Norton Simon Museum). It would cover 13,000 square feet, have 1,300 objects and put together almost entirely with volunteer effort in 10 days.
That exhibit, “Islands in the Land,” curated by a woman known as the Godmother of Pasadena Art, Eudorah Moore, is the subject of a segment in a new PBS Craft in America episode called “Democracy.” It premieres at 10 p.m. Friday, December 11, or can be streamed on the PBS video app and craftinamerica.org.
Moore, who died in 2013, was filmed in 2004 when Craft in America was just beginning its work.
“Eudorah was such an important person in the craft and in the art world, we said let’s interview her just to have it,” said Carol Sauvion, executive director of Craft in America.
“All these years later, I was finally able to tell the story of ‘Islands in the Land.’ We were fortunate to have that footage so we could have her voice.”
The segment also contains interviews with her son, Ren Moore, who has gathered a wealth of information about and photos of the exhibit and published it on a website called islandsintheland.com, and Gere Kavanaugh, a prominent designer who was responsible for the design of the museum exhibition.
Craft as an artform
Both stressed the exhibition’s importance and the work that Eudorah did for craft, for Pasadena, Southern California and craftspeople around the country. She eventually worked with the National Endowment for the Arts to promote craft and contribute to the lobbying effort to Congress for funding.
“I grew up with a mom who started her career as a volunteer and grew into her role at the museum and in Pasadena,” Ren said. “One of the important takeaways of who she was is that she was a populist. What I mean by that is that she viewed the arts as something that should be accessible to everybody. Also, her view of what is art was very expansive. She had a very refined eye, but it was never limited to what art ‘should’ be according to the ‘experts.’ That was the real beauty of what she brought to the community of Pasadena.”
What she advocated and achieved with her seminal exhibitions—both “Islands in the Land” and several “California Design” exhibitions—was to broaden the value of craft and design. The museum had been primarily focused on modern art that was very contemporary and primarily paintings.
“Most of the people who were in the (museum) leadership roles were collectors as well as trying to run a museum,” Ren Moore said. “They had very strong views about what art is and should be.”
Kavanaugh said Eudorah rejected a bias that limited art to fine art paintings and selected things in a very democratic way.
“She had a very keen eye of what was happening from fine art through crafts,” Kavanaugh said.
“She did not have a narrow vision. She had a very big vision and was not what I call a niche viewer.”
Honoring convergence of cultures
“Islands in the Land” featured the work of crafters from two regions of the United States—Appalachia and the Valley of the Rio Grande. It focused on living craftsmen and craftswomen who worked in traditional forms from their geographic area. In each place, there was a convergence of cultures which Eudorah made sure was represented in the exhibition, whether it was from traditions that were Anglo, Black, European, Chicano or Pueblo Indian.
It was the first-time crafts from those regions had a major exhibition outside of their geographical origins. It was also, according to Sauvion, one of the first times that objects like that were put into a fine art museum.
“Eudorah believed we all have the ability to create art, of course at different levels,” Sauvion said. “Self-expression is important to our culture.”
While Ren remembered people 50 years ago calling the objects “dreck,” he also said every item in the exhibition was juried by academic professionals. And at a time when most exhibitions were juried from a picture, the artisans had to send in the actual physical object to be viewed by the jurists.
“To call these things anything other than what they were, which was really delicious pieces of craft or art or design, was just unfounded,” Ren said.
“That’s really the way my mom felt about it and that is a really expansive view of what art is and that it should be available and accessible to everyone. That was her vision.”
The project wouldn’t have come to fruition if it weren’t for the passion and energy of volunteers. Kavanaugh was chief among them. When she saw the objects in the storage, she made it very clear that she “desperately wanted” to design this exhibition.
She had grown up with folk art and wanted to be a part of what she could tell would be groundbreaking. It would be the first time she turned her formidable design talents to such a task and her work was memorable.
“I stayed at Eudorah Moore’s house in Pasadena,” the Los Angeles resident said. “She wouldn’t let me go home because I lived on the west side. I stayed at her house for ten days. We all arrived at the museum at 9 in the morning and worked usually until 9 at night.”
There were a group of women known as “Eudie’s Army” and they brought lunch and dinner to the museum every day to feed those who were volunteering. Even her son who was only 11 or 12 at the time, rode his unicycle around the museum delivering messages, something he remembers fondly.
“Everyone got a free meal, lunch and dinner,” Ren said. “That’s a huge part of what makes this thing so fun is that everyone was involved in any way they could and everything was very appreciated.”
Kavanaugh made expansive use of corrugated cardboard and inexpensive pine wood boxes. She wasn’t allowed to paint the wall, so she wrapped them in cardboard. On the Appalachia side, the cardboard was cut into the shapes of mountains while on the Valley of the Rio Grande side, it was cut to look like adobe walls.
“The cases for all of these things were made out of the cheapest kind of plywood that made a connection to the objects and where they came from,” Kavanaugh said.
Another major aspect of the design were the photos by Richard Gross who traveled to both the Appalachia and the Valley of the Rio Grand to take pictures of the artisans. He created huge photo murals that were 10 feet by 10 feet square.
“(Eudorah Moore) had a sense of scale,” Sauvion said.
“She made the photographs larger than life size, so you were dealing with humble objects and gigantic photos of the person sitting on his porch working. She brought Appalachia and the Rio Grande to Pasadena.”
The emphasis on the creators is part of what Ren Moore feels is deeply tied to the theme of democracy in the new PBS Crafts in America episode.
“One of the things was this idea of the nobility of the creator and the importance of creativity of any type that was really important to my mom,” Ren said, after pointing out in the episode that his mother’s work was art for the people, by the people and of the people.
“We all have the ability to be creative. People from Appalachia and the Valley of the Rio Grande—these are people who came from nothing and were able to create these extraordinary objects from the earth. They were so deeply connected to the art of that particular place.”
Despite the reservations some had at first, the exhibition was a success in many different ways, Kavanaugh said.
They were written about in major newspapers from New York to Los Angeles and the exhibition was highly attended. More importantly, she said, it truly touched those who saw it and they responded emotionally.
“There was a sense of joy and of discovery,” Kavanaugh said.
“You don’t go into many exhibitions where you see people nicely laughing, but you did with this exhibition. It touched people, it really touched them on many levels. Walking in one wing of the museum, you saw objects from the Appalachian Mountains. You walked across the lobby to the other wing and you saw all these fabulous objects from the pueblos of the Rio Grande. Think of what that feeling is like. It’s pretty great. I consider that a success.”