Portland is undeniably an epicenter for creative minds, and those seeking the space and community of a build-your-own-adventure lifestyle. As a fellow explorer of the hands-on, makers way, it was no surprise that Tiandra Cummins of Parts Per Million and I would share a creative kinship. A morning bicycle ride along the Williamette River into the Southeast Region of town, a neighborhood famous for galleries, restaurants, and the historical Ladd's Addition; I rolled up to the open-plan workshop that Tiandra shares with a team of like-minded makers. Our talk delves into the benefits of an unconventional lifestyle and the freedom of endless creative exploration. Get inspired by Tiandra's work, adventures and her builders beginnings
Nativen: Where are you from?
Tiandra: I'm from Southwest Colorado, a little town called Cortez that nobody's ever heard of. It’s in the most southwestern corner of the state, near the four corners. Like the juniper lowlands, desert divide, but then you drive an hour and a half and you're in Telluride surrounded by 14,000-foot peaks.
Nativen: Do you think that growing up there affected your choices to become a creative?
Tiandra: Definitely. I grew up in a wood-shop; my dad's a cabinetmaker. I have been working for him, unknowingly, since I was nine. We'd run around and play on these crazy rock formations all around the shop all day while they worked until we were old enough for them to put a sander in our hands. Dad's like, "sand this," or "come over here and stand on this while I nail it." Regionally, too, there’re a lot of Indian reservations around there. Like the Navajos and the Pueblo Indians, they have amazing silver-smithing skills.
Nativen: When did you realize that you wanted to pursue jewelry and woodworking?
Tiandra: I took some years off after high school, moved to California, was a beach bum, and spent all my money on beer. I knew that I didn't want to be in school because I was like screw this. I was reckless and restless. But I've always wanted to teach. So when I moved back to Colorado I started going to school for early childhood education and was taking random art classes as electives there, but I was really frustrated with the school system. I was doing my TA hours in art classes at the middle school that I went to with one of my old teachers, and was suddenly like: what am I doing? I want to make things! So I switched over to fine art. I took a silversmithing class, I had never done anything in metal before and I was like, “this is awesome.” After that, I found Oregon College of Arts and Crafts out here in Oregon. They have an insane metalsmithing program, super intensive. We moved out here and that's all she wrote.
Nativen: You were sold.
Tiandra: I dove in headfirst and really struggled with the conceptual side of things in the beginning because I was so used to the utilitarian side of woodworking as a job. I just wanted to make things; I'm definitely more of a crafts person than an artist. At the same time, it's really nice to be able to find within yourself the ability to tap into that so you can access it as a fuel to make something different.
Nativen: What do you love most about living in Portland now? Do you think that's integral to your work in any way?
Tiandra: I love the area, and maybe it is because it gives me the freedom to continue doing all this outdoor stuff I love so much. There are all these local hardwoods, access to fir and maple and walnut and all these things that grow in Oregon. I also love my space and my shop mates; I could never really do a solo space. There are a lot of people making things here, but a lot is supersaturated. I've experienced the super creative community, and I've also experienced people that are really shut off to it because they want to be doing something that somebody else isn't doing. It's a love, hate I guess.
Nativen: Just a couple of rapid-fire Portland questions. Favorite restaurant?
Tiandra: I have to say Pok Pok.
Nativen: Favorite home goods store here?
Tiandra: I'm marketing's worst enemy. I hardly ever buy anything retail, there's a Goodwill up over here on Seventh and Grand-ish and it's gigantic. That said, if I want something really special, Beam and Anchor. Those guys are badass.
Nativen: Favorite park or outdoor space?
Tiandra: Forest Park. I saw you there yesterday! They have Wildwood Trail, that's a good one. All the way up to Pittock Mansion. You feel like you're in a jungle but you can still hear the highway sometimes.
Nativen: I know it's wild. As soon as we got to the edge you sort of feel like you're falling off the edge of the city because you know it's up, up, up.
Tiandra: Also Rocky Butte, though I don't go there often. It's like this bald, grassy thing on top of this weird rock cropping that they built for a radio tower off towards the airport with this really beautiful view of Portland. You can watch the planes landing and taking off.
Nativen: How about a hidden gem?
Tiandra: Bar-wise, I would say the Happy House. It's a Chinese Restaurant on the Interstate that's got this awesome dive-y bar attached to it. It's super close to my house, too. They have $1.25 Rolling Rocks on draft. It's a lot of regulars. I like those places where the bartender just yells "Frank!" And Frank’s like, "yep," and she brings him another beer. That's how stuff happens there.
Nativen: What do you think is the greatest resource to your work here in Portland?
Tiandra: My friends. The people that I've met along the way in Oregon that encourage me and offer nothing but support, but also, just aren't afraid to be like, “what the hell are you thinking?
Get off your ass and do this.”
Nativen: Is there a piece that you've made that was a huge accomplishment that you didn't think you could do?
Tiandra: I think one of my “biggest accomplishment pieces” was a teapot from sheet metal that I made in school. It was definitely the thing where I was like, "I made this. I can make anything." We spent like almost two grand on material for my sterling silver teapot.
Nativen: What part of your process brings you the most joy?
Tiandra: Procrastination. It’s when you're stuck on something that really fun things happen. I love wasting my time on these stupid little things. Sometimes it ends up in the trash but there's something about that, even, where you're like, now I know that doesn't work. Deviation from the path brings me so much joy.
Nativen: Is there a part of the process that's the greatest struggle for you?
Tiandra: Procrastination! I do goof off a lot. I have a million things going on all the time in my brain and, unfortunately, I don't have enough time to execute all of those things. So I do five percent of this and five percent of that and it makes it really hard to feel fulfilled in actually getting one thing done.
Nativen: What's one thing you've always wanted to do but haven't done yet?
Tiandra: Knife-making because it's this awesome marriage of my metalworking skills and my woodworking skills (for things like the handles). I 've always loved a sharp edge, and I have all these files kicking around. I love blacksmithing and have dabbled in it quite a bit, and I've done quite a bit of forging and stuff like that. I really would like to build a small forge for my shop. I also have this idea to do a line of lockets. I love the challenge of really small-scale mechanisms. Those are two things out of a million.
Nativen: If you weren't doing woodworking and jewelry, do you think there's something else you might have gravitated towards?
Tiandra: Try as I might, I just always end up in a job where I'm using my hands and my body. Right now I'm a florist. I work for this awesome flower shop downtown. I can't imagine every doing something that isn't with my hands.
Nativen: What destination do you want to travel to next? Do you think that might inspire or alter your work in any way?
Tiandra: Actually, it's not even that far of a destination. My friend Greg just bought a hotel in Joseph, which is in way, way Northeastern Oregon in Wallowa County. It's like the town is at the end of the road, it literally just stops there. He's trying to get a folk school started up there. I would love to go out there for a month take a couple of really simple tools like my anvil and hammers and just kind of pare it back down. There's a lot you can do with very little. And no distractions! No phone, no computer. I hate computers anyways. Just make things and play music.
Nativen: Speaking of music, is there a song that you have on heavy rotation when you work right now?
Tiandra: Black Sabbath’s self-titled album is my shop CD. I blast it in here. I also listen to a lot of 90's like old 90's country and I'm not ashamed to say it! I just went to Garth Brooks, he's like rebel country. I love George Jones and Hank Williams and Johnny Cash and all of that. But I also like shitty 90's country, Alan Jackson and Randy Travis. It reminds me of my childhood.
Nativen: Is there anything you do with your work that connects specifically with the community here?
Tiandra: Not at the moment, but I mentored a foster kid a while back, which was such a frustrating experience, actually. It was really hard to be able to get the time with my mentee that I wanted. Unfortunately, the program lost funding and was shut down and I haven't pursued more mentorships since that all fell apart. But I would love to teach because while I wasn't the worst kid, I definitely didn't love school. It sucks for those kids that aren't book learners. I'm not a book learner, I need somebody to show me something and then I can do it. I just need to use my hands and I'm sure there are a lot of kids that need that too. I suggested to Greg that we do scholarship programs for at-risk kids and hold workshop weekends for at-risk and troubled youth. Just to help them recognize “oh my god, I can do something.”
Nativen: That's really cool.
Tiandra: It's funny because, especially now, we're glorifying this resurgence of the “crafts person.” I'm not saying that that's not awesome, because it is. I'm glad that people are being self-sustainable and really enthusiastic about making things for themselves and buying things from people that are making things. But we're also not doing anything beyond that to support our crafts people. It hasn't trickled down in to the education system. We're not building a generation of people to do that.
Nativen: Absolutely. Giving kids skills like that is priceless. How about your own teachers, influencers and heroes?
Tiandra: Larry Sharp—my dad. He's a bad ass. He can make anything. And my mom, too, she also busts her ass. They've worked together in the cabinet shop for over thirty years now. They still have it, and they're still trucking away. It blows my mind that they’ve never seen themselves as artists or crafts people, it’s just how they made their money and fed their family. It's like the true grit of it, and that’s the truth.
Interview and Photos By: Lily Hetzler
Edited by: Kristin Knox (This interview has been condensed & edited)
all images copyright of Nativen