Crafting Sustainability:
The Activist Art of Terry OĠDay

Julie Alderson


Plastic Impact [FIGURE] appeared on the grounds of Pacific University on the morning of November 14, 2007. A guerrilla art action installed by a student group, the work incorporated 1,347 plastic shopping bags tied together to form a chain that was then strung through the trees across Pacific’s bucolic campus. A text was posted with the piece, informing viewers that the display was a visual demonstration of the refuse that would be generated should each student in the school’s undergraduate college use a single shopping bag.

The work was both beautiful and horrid. The bags fluttered like prayer flags across the campus, hung high above the walkways and lawns.  As with the most effective installation art, the piece was intimately connected to its site, calling attention to the beauty of the tree-studded campus.  However, the work also reminded its viewers of the carelessness we often have for that environment.  Our cavalier use of everyday items, such as plastic shopping bags, directly impacts the natural world.  As we are often thoughtless of the beauty of nature, we are also generally thoughtless of the ugliness of trash.  Plastic Impact brought that reality to the fore.
Plastic Impact followed on the heels of the Leaf Labyrinth [FIGURE], which had appeared on campus the month before. That work similarly used the trees on campus, here with their leaf “waste” sculpted into a large labyrinth form which spread throughout the trees and meandered across walkways. Both projects were orchestrated in conjunction with Terry O’Day’s Eco Art course. Students from a wide variety of disciplines came together for the course, to study and discuss ecological art practices, and to create artistic expressions related to concerns for sustainability and environmentalism. With O’Day’s guidance, the students created a variety of installation projects and artworks that called attention to such issues and helped to generate discussion across campus, both about sustainability, but also about art.

O’Day’s development of the Eco Art class is the most recent expression of the artist’s emerging methodology.  For O’Day, the class itself was a work of art.  For an artist whose career has mainly focused on craftworking, using a range of media such as ceramics, glass and small metals, this is a radical departure indeed. While in the past, O’Day produced a wide variety of traditional, functional craft objects, in recent years, she has begun to question her role as a craftsperson and artist, as well as her role more generally in contemporary society. As O’Day has become more conscious of ecological issues in particular, her sense of the world, and her work, has evolved dramatically. Her current thinking has led her away from traditional art production and into her most recent activities, including the art interventions at Pacific University, as well as her development and ongoing involvement with the B-Street Permaculture Project, a demonstration site for sustainable agricultural and living practices, and theForest Grove Community School, a place-based, environmental-themed charter school. 

The B-Street Permaculture Project is sited on a plot of land near to downtown Forest Grove and the Pacific University campus. Pacific became involved in the site primarily through O’Day’s recognition that the land could be used as a demonstration site for permaculture and organic farming activities.  The fundamental desire underlying her interest in developing the B-Street project was that O’Day recognized a significant need to generate awareness of food production and consumption in contemporary society. For O’Day, the issues of food – what we eat, where we get it, what the broader impacts of our actions might be – are central to an understanding of how we relate to the earth. To affect this basic human need is to affect all humanity. As she states, ‘If you want to make change, you can jump up and down all you want without having much effect. But if you jump up and down on a big lever, you can have a real impact.’[1] Food is central to our existence, and so O’Day sees it as a major lever in society. To teach others about this issue is to fill what the artist sees as a critical social need.
O’Day’s interest in developing a new charter school for the Forest Grove School District similarly came out of what she perceived as a critical need within her community. Dissatisfied with the programs offered by her local school district, O’Day helped develop the Forest Grove Community School as a place-based program emphasizing experiential learning and environmental themes.  For O’Day, education presents another of the major levers for effecting change – children. The educational system is an excellent venue for evolving social change, not merely in the lives and minds of the children who are shaped by it, but more importantly to O’Day, in the perceptions of the parents whose children participate in that educational system. It is they who have the greatest stake, and potential power, in the system. 

What is perhaps most interesting about all of O’Day’s current projects, beyond their efforts to help generate and sustain positive societal impacts, is O’Day’s perception of her role within them. For O’Day, the methodology and goals she brings to her current work are fully aligned with her role as a craftsperson. All such work involves careful attention to need and function, as well as the thoughtful use of materials at hand. When O’Day works as an educator, farmer, and social activist, she works as a craftsperson in a very expanded sense.

To understand the way that O’Day’s sees her work with Pacific University students, and with her local community in the creation of the B-Street Farm and Forest Grove Community School as craftworking, understanding her working definition of craft is helpful:

Historically, a craftworker was a person who used materials and processes to create items associated with basic survival needs such as food, shelter, and clothing. The skills associated with modern-day fine craft disciplines such as ceramics, woodworking, and weaving were developed to help ensure the survival of communities before the time of factories and industrial production. Since the advent of the industrial revolution however, there has been a marked change in the expected outcome of the learning and application of these skills. Fine craft no longer refers to objects made for everyday use by ordinary, local people but rather are almost exclusively the expensive luxury alternative to factory produced items.[2]
For O’Day, the craftperson is a toolmaker, who, using natural materials at hand from his or her specific place, functions primarily to make objects with a particular purpose, not only to generally make life more pleasant or easier or better in some way, but also to fulfill a very specific need for a very specific person or activity.

For O’Day it is not about individual expression, but rather about fulfilling a need in an aesthetic manner. To O’Day, ‘a good craft object is aesthetically pleasing, nice to use, and works well to perform its particular function.’[3]

O’Day’s current projects are indeed all strongly tied to her understanding of traditional craft. Where historically a craftsperson might see the need for a hammer to build shelter or clothing to provide warmth, O’Day has looked around her and seen the need for greater awareness about the ecological impacts of consumerism, for more sustainable ways of feeding her community, and for better modes of educating its children. Where a craftsperson of the past would collect local wood, metal and fibers to make the functional hammer or item of clothing, O’Day identifies stakeholders who share her ideas and concerns and who have the necessary skills and connections to follow through with them, and engages them in her own activities. And while the traditional worker makes hammers and clothing pieces for the specific scale and need of their ultimate users, O’Day crafts her activities to the very specific needs and interests of the community around her. O’Day’s method of working is much broader and less object-based than that of the traditional worker, but the skills, concepts and methodologies are intimately connected.

Terry O’Day serves as an example of the ways in which artists can work to aid in developing sustainable practices, even in seemingly non-art environments. Working outside the studio and using her highly developed craft skills, she is able to model ways that craft can be applied more broadly and meaningfully in our world today.  Indeed, O’Day’s work can be seen as the latest craft response to industrialism. Unlike earlier manifestations, such as the Arts & Crafts movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, this version is not just about the materials and aesthetics of objects in response to the quality of those produced mechanically under industrialism. Rather, this response is a direct indictment of the ways in which industrialism is ruining the earth, and a demonstration of a practical way to effect social change in response to that destruction.   As she continues to make work that is outside of the commercial fine arts system, that is highly collaborative in nature, and more focused on social concerns than individual artistic expression, O’Day models an artmaking practice which provides a measure of hope as we move into an uncertain future.


[1] Authors’ conversation, 6 June 2007.
[2] O’Day, What’s It Worth To You? essay on display in the Cawein Gallery’s What’s It Worth To You? exhibit. For the full text of the essay, see
[3] Authors’ conversation 4 May 2007.


Julie Alderson serves as an Assistant Professor of Art History, as well as the Director of the Kathrin Cawein Gallery of Art at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon.


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