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Hilary Pfeifer applies her imagination to the natural world to create playful works

Photo Credit: PHOTOS COURTESY OF HILARY PFEIFER - Portland artist Hilary Pfeifer, who has done work for TriMet and others, produces some pretty unique art through her Bunny with a Toolbelt business, including a walking stick and playing cards and llama cake topper.In her cluttered backyard workshop in Northeast Portland, Hilary Pfeifer fashions fanciful creatures, writes children’s books and forges abstractions of natural beauty.

She just finished installing two modern totems as public art along TriMet’s Trolley Trail in north Clackamas County, and she’s stocking shelves with silly seasonal carvings of animals to sell at the Crafty Wonderland sale at the Oregon Convention Center, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 13 and 14.

“I’m a bit of a workaholic,” Pfeifer says, grinning and pointing out a redheaded Anna’s hummingbird fluttering outside her workshop window.

Pfeifer, 47, has been building her artistic repertoire for 25 years, showing work in galleries from Portland and San Francisco to Seattle and Norway, Spain, London, Philadelphia and many other venues. She’s been teaching at the New Urban High School in Oak Grove and lecturing from Tacoma, Wash., to Harlem, N.Y.

Pfeifer was one of six artists chosen to fashion art from trees removed to make room for TriMet’s Trolley Trail Park Avenue station for the Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail Project. She carved a totem of wild and domestic animals and settlers’ tools, and a giant stacked seed-pod sculpture for the project.

Pfeifer also has created a display of natural abstractions for the Head Start play area at Stephens Creek Crossing, low-income housing at the corner of Southwest 26th Avenue and Capitol Highway in Portland, and made 11 large sculptures for Randall Children’s Hospital at Legacy Emanuel.

She’s built quite a fan base.

“Hilary exemplifies the quintessential OCAC graduate,” says Denise Mullen, president of the Oregon College of Art and Craft, where Pfeifer graduated. “She is equally at home in the fine art gallery environment as she is in the small-scale, maker/entrepreneurial world. Her installation for the light-rail project beautifully juxtaposes these two mutually enhancing skill sets.”

“Hilary brings a wonderful playfulness to her work, which made her an ideal artist for TriMet’s Trolley Trail and Nature in Neighborhood sculpture projects,” says Mary Priester, TriMet’s public art manager.

“The commissions gave her an opportunity to carve on a much larger scale than she had before, and it was gratifying to see how well her work translated. In both sculptures she combined humor with a strong sense of place, drawing on the local flora and fauna to create imagery that is both funny and educational. We are delighted to be able to offer these works to the community and to have Hilary’s work represented in TriMet’s public art collection,” Priester says.

Pfeifer is a nonstop producer, developing two children’s books — “Elephabet” and “Arfabet” — featuring dogs and elephants based on wooden characters she carved and photographed.

She is a natural-born artist, growing up in Eugene where her parents were art gallery owners; her dad also was an engineer.

Photo Credit: PHOTOS COURTESY OF HILARY PFEIFER - Portland artist Hilary Pfeifer produces some pretty unique art through her Bunny with a Toolbelt business, including a llama cake topper.Pfeifer grew up making dollhouses with her parents and brother, including a haunted house with secret passageways. She learned she was related to the painter Mary Cassatt, and was always fascinated by artists from Pablo Picasso to Norman Rockwell to Sister Mary Corita.

Pfeifer found her way into Colby College in Maine, but didn’t feel she fit there and returned to Eugene, studied at the University of Oregon, got a job making ceramic jewelry, and started her first business, “Hilary’s Comfort Beads,” creating ceramic mood beads. (“You rub them, and they make you feel better, a real hippie thing,” she says.)

“I say that was my real undergraduate education because I learned to do art and business,” she says. “Then I realized I wasn’t being fed creatively enough, and they had just started the BFA program at Oregon College of Art and Craft, so I did that, and it was great. It felt like grad school.”

Pfeifer studied wood and metalsmithing, then launched “Bunny with a Toolbelt,” making her whimsical figures, which have appeared in many galleries and art shows around the country.

It’s been a slow process.

“I used ‘Bunny with a Toolbelt’ as a catch-all for the wood sculpture I was doing and still doing the clay beads,” she says. She made Christmas ornaments of found metal and kept carving.

“It just kept working. It’s good-natured. I used to dress up in a bunny suit and go around and pretend nothing was unusual. It was big and floppy and not your sexy bunny suit at all.”

It fit the motif. Pfeifer had a good time and made people laugh.

“I like the good nature of the work. The friendly part,” she said. “I love doing the animals.”

Now Pfeifer is working on Christmas commissions, making a big wooden bunny, a dog, an eagle, and pieces for the Crafty Wonderland sale. She’s fashioning a “naughty or nice” chair to sell. Sit in it and display a carved devil or an angel, Pfeifer explains.

Twelve years ago, she bought a 1910 Portland Foursquare house south of Northeast Alberta Street and is fixing it up. It’s filled with art trailing out into an art-cluttered yard and huge workshop.

“My mom always had these prints of Henri Rousseau jungles when I was little, and I just loved those and wanted to try the animals in them. I thought that would be good to do for the kids.”

So she made metal sculptures with animals blended in the work for the Stephens Creek Crossing.

“I want to do more. I’ve got ideas for a triptych that includes those figures,” Pfeifer says.

She loves the notion of doing work that explores human attempts to control nature, but nature, in turn, finds a way to reassert itself, as grass growing through cracks or mildew forming behind the couch.

Pfeifer has made works such as “Natural Selection” that includes a greenhouse of bonsai plants choosing their own mates, as humans do. And she loves to look at nature’s forms: body parts, plants and germs, and to fashion forms that include living things in her work.

Pfeifer said she is kind of an explorer in the world of whimsy, a traveler through nature’s quirky body.

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