WildCraft Studio School: Traditional Northwest Crafting

written by Gina Williams | featured photo by Micah Fischer

Every time Portland clothing designer Rachel Ancliffe takes a class at WildCraft Studio School, she said she has the same delightful realization.

“I always leave feeling like I’ve had a vacation.”

Founded by owner and director Chelsea Heffner, the school, with locations in Portland and the Columbia River Gorge, offers hands-on workshops in areas of craft, textiles, Native art, herbal medicine and expeditions.

The extensive spring 2017 catalog offers a trove of courses on everything from tapestry weaving to women’s rockhounding and marbled textiles, to Columbia Plateau plant fiber basketry and chicken butchering.

Students learn Coast Salish weaving techniques using looms.
photo by Micah Fischer

A multi-disciplinary artist and former adjunct professor at Pacific Northwest College of Art (PNCA) Heffner founded the school in 2013 at her personal studio in the hills above White Salmon. It was a personal project, stemming from her own curiosity about “alternative education models, especially those that got people outside for hands-on learning,” she said.

As repeat students like Ancliffe testify, the model is hugely successful.

“The more classes I take, the more I’m interested in things I wouldn’t expected to be interested in,” said Ancliffe who took a rockhounding class and loved it, despite initial reservation.

She added that the learning environment at WildCraft is sincere in terms of authentic teaching—collaborative and welcoming.

A woman learns to weave her own basket at the WildCraft Studio School.
photo by Micah Fischer

“I am energized by doing something with my hands—something we forget to do a lot,” Ancliffe said. “We’re so busy on our devices and our schedules that we forget to sit still and work with our hands, whether it’s carving a spoon or going on a hike or learning to weave. Yet it’s part of human history and to tap into that really human experience even in a brief day awakens something.”

Heffner said she’s chosen to focus on preservation and promotion of traditional knowledge and craft skills “because these things provide people a way to make connections to bigger ideas, legacies, traditions. Every object has the potential to tell a story, and that story can offer lessons on living in harmony with nature, resilience and ingenuity. The need for this kind of knowledge was clear and palpable from the very beginning.”

Gathering sweetgrass on a foraging expedition.
photo by Micah Fischer

Rose Holdorf, a WildCraft intern, said her biggest take-away from working at the school is that “by cultivating community through craft, we can have hope for a more united and empathetic future.”

Holdorf said she assisted in a November 2016 Kalapuya basket weaving course taught by Stephanie Wood, a member of the Confederated Tribe of Grand Ronde. During the course, she said Wood shared knowledge of weaving materials harvested for hundreds of years in the region and showed the class a 170-year-old basket woven by her great-great-great grandmother.

“It was such a special day,” Holdorf said. “So many clases at WildCraft exercise that same value of holding the craft skills and cultural understanding with equal importance.”

Environmental factors are also considered for classes that take students into specific places to harvest plants for workshops such as herbal medicine or wild foods forage.

A group of students searches for flowers to make natural dye.
photo by Cheryl Juetten

“It’s critical that our students understand the bigger picture and the larger ecosystem that a particular plant operates within,” Heffner said.

Crafters experiment with indigo dye in a textiles class.
photo by Micah Fischer

For Ancliffe, one of the most rewarding aspects of taking workshops at WildCraft is that the knowledge she gains is an entryway to something that she can continue on her own and reproduce on a larger scale.

“I find it very enjoyable and a great process,” she said. “And it’s something I can do in my own backyard.”

Following a Japanese shibori textile dyeing course last year, Ancliffe said she went on to “shibori” an entire room at a design event in Portland.

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