WeMake Celebrates conference explores the creative process

The annual WeMake Celebrates creative conference invites illustrators and makers to disrupt their industry.

WeMake-Crop copyPortlander Tyesha Snow of Stream PDX presents at WeMake Celebrates 2017.
Courtesy of WeMakePDX

With a different theme each year, WeMake Celebrates is an annual conference that celebrates makers and examines the creative process.

The History of WeMake Celebrates

It was 2011, and the allure of Portlandia stars Fred and Carrie putting a bird on everything from teapots to toast was nearing a fever pitch. For artist and educator Yvonne Perez Emerson, however, the notion of simply putting a bird on an object and calling it “design” was, well, a fowl idea. She felt Portlandia was creating a false impression by oversimplifying the design style she associated with the City of Roses. Emerson, who at the time was already cultivating community around craft and design through her collective, WeMake, decided shortly thereafter to officially establish WeMake as a nonprofit. The organization’s goal is to foster art and design in Portland’s creative community through hands-on experiences, creative dialogue and design-in-action initiatives.

“Put A Bird In It” — “it” being a skillfully designed birdhouse — was WeMake’s first design-in-action initiative done under the banner of “WeMake Celebrates” during the inaugural Design Week Portland. Charmed by the idea of creating something unique with unusual materials, and inspired by a variety of featured makers, the response to “Put A Bird In It” was overwhelmingly positive. The workshop attracted hundreds of creative professionals and non-artists alike, and WeMake successfully repeated the annual event for the next several years. But eventually, Emerson was ready to throw her maker energy into the next endeavor. “You can only do birdhouses for so long,” she quipped. “Now, instead of the birdhouses we thought … let’s do something different.”

Attendees participate at a past WeMake Celebrates conference. Photo courtesy of WeMake.

WeMake Celebrates: A Design Conference

What followed was a new approach to WeMake Celebrates: an annual design conference that celebrates makers and examines the creative process. In its first year, 2015, the event focused on investigating the “the process of making.” The follow year, WeMake Celebrates: Process Is Golden reminded attendees to “keep it old school,” with an emphasis on the 1970s. And in 2017, WeMake Experiments explored the process of maker experimentation.

Brooklyn designer Adam J. Kurtz presents at WeMake Experiments in 2017. Photo courtesy of WeMake.

WeMake Celebrates 2018: Disrupt

In October 2018, WeMake Celebrates hosted its fourth design conference, Disrupt. It’s a theme that Emerson says connected the handful of presenters she selected — and, in terms of content, stood in contrast to the venue, the home of Portland’s fine art community, the Portland Art Museum.

In years past, WeMake Celebrates presentations and workshops took place over two full days. In 2018, however, Emerson disrupted (pun intended) the format by slimming down the schedule. Attendees saw the keynote addresses from Loveis Wise, a Philadelphia-based freelance illustrator whose work adorns national publications from the New York Times to On She Goes; Katie Ann Gilmore, a California-based visual artist bringing together the worlds of art and math through murals and installations; and Tommy Perez, a multidisciplinary maker who uses 3-D paper crafting to create intricate paper sculptures and animations.

Next, five makers and creative entrepreneurs had five minutes to share how they’re disrupting the status quo in their fields. The second day’s workshops included paper crafting and stop-motion with Tommy Perez, resistance poster art creation with illustrator/activist Lisa Congdon, sign painting with Travis Wheeler aka Borrowed Times, and risograph printing with Portland-based illustrator/educator Kate Bingaman-Burt.

Emerson says that the 2018 cohort of maker-presenters were intentionally chosen to represent a diversity of identity, experience and geography. “We focus on promoting so many makers here in Portland, but we also want to bring people from outside,” she explains. “And for me, people of color and people with diversity — it’s super important to bring that to our community because it’s needed.”


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