Elizabeth Rockwell Raphael (aka Betty Raphael) discovered and supported artists who were exploring unexpected directions in craft materials in order to share these groundbreaking works with the public. That commitment continues at Contemporary Craft today.
In honor of her mother and Contemporary Craft founder Betty Raphael’s birthday, Cathy Raphael encourages everyone to donate a gift to Contemporary Craft in honor of Betty. All gifts of $100 of more will receive a handmade card from Suzanne Weinberg, a Pittsburgh artist who has been making collage cards and fiber household items like potholders and oven mitts for The Store at Contemporary Craft from the ’70s to today. Donate today!
Betty founded Contemporary Craft in 1971. She was one of the most groundbreaking women in Pittsburgh’s arts scene and introduced a new vision of art to the city. Betty truly believed Pittsburgh could be on the forefront of modern art.
Betty was also a community advocate through her involvement in the civil rights movement, serving on the school board, and founding the Riverview Children’s Center in 1970. By combining social justice with the arts, Betty founded “The Sociable Workshop“, where professional craftsmen and designers trained students, hobbyists, retirees and people with disabilities to make high-quality handcrafted objects that were sold with the proceeds going back into community programs.
Contemporary Craft was founded by Betty with the original name, The Store for Arts and Crafts and People-Made Things, in Verona, PA.
The Store was first started by two college students in one summer to sell local crafts with seed money from a few local art patrons — including Betty. When the students closed up the Pop-Up shop and went back to school, Betty convinced Riverview Community Action to take it on as a project. The original concept was to continue selling local crafts, training unemployed people in sales, and have a clothing thrift store in the back room. That concept didn’t last long. Betty had to get rid of the clothing thrift store in the back and shifted to buy crafts from national craftspeople to sell in The Store.
The idea of sharing, helping, and bringing people together is central to the things Betty did. She had a lot of ways to promote contemporary craft — exceptional art, events, craft workshops, and most importantly, exhibitions.
Because Contemporary Craft was called The Store for Arts and Crafts and People-Made Things, no art critics would review the wonderful crafts it had. Betty organized the art objects she had in The Store into ‘exhibitions’, hoping for reviews just like a regular gallery. There were six exhibitions a year — Wall Art, Toys for Adults and Children, Crafts for Your Castle, Summer Art, Wearable Art, and Holiday Art. She invited local makers to do artists demos, hosted scarecrow making and face painting contests, and organized artist-led workshops for these exhibition openings.
The Store was open seven days a week, so the exhibition change over took place after store closing on Saturday and was ready for the ‘opening’ on Sunday afternoon. The staff and Betty pulled all-nighters to get the exhibition set up. Everyone would dash home after the exhibition installation, change into ‘gallery chic’ and be back in time for the opening.
Another fun story was that Betty and her daughter/assistant Cathy Raphael used to look around The Store and say to each other, “All of this would sell if it were in New York, instead of Verona.” This sparked the idea of placing ads in national magazines to encourage people to visit Pittsburgh and The Store in Verona. Betty even offered free rides for the visitors from the airport to The Store in the ads. However, no one ever took Betty up on the ‘free ride’, but there was one couple from out of town who come to The Store after seeing the ads.
To Betty, handmade meant the home touch and craft that was relatable for everyone. The idea of crafts is very folksy, but they become as important as any art form when they are well done and require as much skill as fine art. People today will always have things that are machine made, we need both kinds of products in our lives. However, handmade objects are quite different, and somehow more valuable to the heart and soul.
Betty didn’t believe in collecting artwork as an investment and then selling it to make money. She always bought artworks because she liked them and wanted to keep them, and also because she had an idea of where to place them or a way to use them.
In 2021, we will be celebrating Contemporary Craft’s 50th anniversary in our new, permanent home located in the Upper Lawrenceville neighborhood in Pittsburgh, PA. What would Betty think of Contemporary Craft today? Here is how her daughter, Cathy Raphael, thought what her mother would’ve responded.
What would Betty think of Contemporary Craft’s new, permanent home in Upper Lawrenceville?
Cathy Raphael: I know she would love the space, the makers’ neighborhood it is in, and how the organization has evolved. The social justice exhibition series are exactly the sort of concept she would treasure. She would LOVE the opportunities Contemporary Craft has for community connections and engagement.
What would Betty think about encouraging people to start a contemporary craft collection?
Cathy Raphael: Betty would encourage anyone and everyone to learn about, appreciate, and purchase crafts that they loved. She always told the story of a local visitor who wandered in The Store for the first time and ended up buying a ‘critter,’ which was a small ceramic animals sold for $1. Then this same visitor would keep on coming back — buying a mug, then a gift, then a teapot — moving up in their awareness and appreciation for crafts.
What would Betty think about today’s thriving craft market with online platforms like Etsy and Faire, as well as how easy it is for artists to set up their own online stores and social media to share their work?
Cathy Raphael: She would find the growing opportunities for craftspeople to sell, promote, and share their work through online platforms and social media as amazing progress. The Store‘s roots when it started in the ’70s were a part of the Riverview Community Action, which was a local anti-poverty program that promoted community involvement. Betty saw crafts as meaningful, sustaining skills and a viable career path for people, as well as an invaluable experience in everyone’s life, which both are the foundation of “The Sociable Workshop” and Contemporary Craft.
Lastly, let’s celebrate a birthday with a cake! Here is the Mayonnaise Cake recipe that Betty loved.
Mayonnaise Cake (9 – 12 servings)
- 1 cup water
- 1 cup mayonnaise (Reduced-fat or fat-free mayonnaise may not be substituted for regular mayonnaise in this recipe and is not recommended for this recipe).
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 cup sugar
- 3 tablespoons baking cocoa
- 2 teaspoons baking soda
- In a large bowl, combine the water, mayonnaise and vanilla until well blended. In another large bowl, combine the flour, sugar, cocoa and baking soda; then gradually beat the flour mixture into the mayonnaise mixture until blended. (If you don’t want to wash too many bowls after baking, you can also make the cake like Betty. Mix everything super well in the baking pan and put it in the oven).
- Pour the batter into a greased 9-in. square or 11×7-in. baking pan. Bake at 350° for 30-35 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool completely.
- Frost the cake with any frosting you liked! Brown sugar frosting or chocolate frosting both will work very well with this Chocolate Mayonnaise Cake.
Did you enjoy learning more about Contemporary Craft and our founder Betty Raphael? Be a part of the Contemporary Craft story when we open our doors in the next few months!
We hope you will visit our inspiring exhibitions, try your hands on art making in an artist-led workshop or at the Drop-In Studio, collect a handcrafted art objects from The Store or get an artful gift for your loved ones, and support Contemporary Craft through donations, volunteering, and engaging with us on social media (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube)!