Echoes of the Arroyo Guild


Fellow craftsmen in life’s work, we are seeking the high, the true, the noble, the beautiful. Stop not in your seeking; rest not in your climbing.

 Arroyo Craftsman, October, 1909

The wild Arroyo Seco separates Pasadena from Los Angeles. Coyotes, raccoons, and possums travel its oak-lined, boulder-strewn channel from the San Gabriel Mountains into the heart of the city. The lower stretches of the creek bed were paved to create the nation’s first freeway, but its upper reaches retain the right to flash flood at will. The Arroyo has a strong spirit. I suspect it’s immune to the concrete insults we’ve hurled at it over the past hundred years.

The beauty and spirit of the Arroyo Seco drew artists and writers to its banks in the early 1900’s. My grandfather and great-grandfather fell under its influence. They both worked for Tiffany Studios in New York as stained glass artists before following their vocation to the West Coast as part of the Arts and Crafts Movement. Along the Arroyo, they found a blossoming artist colony that encouraged them to take their art form to its highest level. They painted with glass and light.

On one of my trips back to Pasadena to explore our family’s past, I found a copy of a journal, Arroyo Craftsman, originally published in 1909. The little quarterly gave me a glimpse into the cultural and spiritual atmosphere surrounding the Arroyo Seco. The artists and craftspeople, both men and women, had formed a creative team they christened “The Arroyo Guild.” They believed in gender equality, democratic self-government, rigorous standards of quality, and the value and creative synergy of working together. It was, and still is, a beautiful vision.

The Arroyo Guild, as an organization, was short-lived but its energy flowed into dozens of receptive channels. Like the roots of an ancient California oak, the guild’s ideas kept spreading and fueling new life. For instance, every October, Pasadena Heritage sponsors Craftsman Weekend to celebrate the indigenous architecture that, in some instances, literally grew out of the Arroyo. Home and neighborhood tours give us a chance to see the context of the work created by the Arroyo Guild members and their contemporaries. But to experience the current flowering of the tradition, you have to visit the exhibit hall at the Pasadena Convention Center.

Welcome to a world without plastic, where everything is made by hand. Your senses slow down to analog speed and your first impulse is to reach out and touch things. There’s an underlying language in this creative work that addresses something deep in our human nature. As it says in that 1909 edition of the Arroyo Craftsman, “… the more true, perfect, beautiful the work you set before your patrons, the more are you helping them to glimpse the world of spirit …” That’s what draws me in, the chance to explore this timeless world together. I can forget the freeways and the cell phone towers. When I immerse myself in this gathering of woodworkers, glass artists, letter-press printers, painters, blacksmiths, fabric designers, and potters, I feel my elders walking with me, savoring the survival of the Arroyo spirit.